This was not the morning for the Today programme to give Anjem Choudary a platform

The day after the Woolwich killers were convicted, an apologist for the murder, and an associate of the murderer, was handed the most prestigious slot on British radio.

Something very unusual happened last night: Anjem Choudary turned down a media interview. The BBC Panorama investigation into the Woolwich murder of soldier Lee Rigby had shown that Choudary  lied about how close his personal links with Michael Adebolajo were.

"The last time I saw him was two or years ago', he had told Newsnight last summer. Yet Panorama had video footage of Adebolajo at an event organised by Choudary on Christmas Eve last year. Choudary told the programme that he had not organised the event, which is surprising, since they could show that his was mobile number was on the flyer as the contact number. Panorama also understood that Choudary had overseen Adebolajo's marriage, and put this to him. Choudary, having agreed to an interview with the programme, cancelled by email. He chose to ignore the question about overseeing Adebolajo's marriage.

Normal service was resumed this morning - as Choudary was given the prestige 8:10am slot on the Today programme. Choudary refused, as usual, to condemn a murder that he has previously been willing to condone and justify. But he was not asked the questions that he pulled out of the Panorama interview to avoid, or about whether his links with Adebolajo went deeper than he claims. Nor was any other British Muslim voice offered the opportunity to counter him, though the government's anti-terror coordinator Alex Carlile was invited to offer context afterwards.

The Choudary-less Panorama had to instead use extensive clips of an interview with Omar Bakri, another figure who played a key role in the radicalisation of the killers, and who could also be seen declaring his pride in them on Channel 4 News yesterday evening.

These are tricky editorial decisions. The idea of a ban is a red herring: extremism needs to be reported and scrutinised. That sometimes will involve interviewing extreme voices. Clearly, Bakri and Choudary have an important role in the backstory of the making of the Woolwich killers. The core issue is around making editorial decisions about how to scrutinise and report on that - in the form that the coverage should take, and the questions that need to be asked.

No broadcast organisation has offered a clear account of how they make these choices - or whether they accept that there is any tension between the journalistic job of scrutinising extremism, the shock entertainment value of platforming the most outlandish and least representative views, and the role of contextualising those views too. Instead, they too often speak with forked tongues. Take Daybreak's Jonathan Swain's tweet last summer after Choudary popped up on the sofa to make the case for murder. "Just interviewed Anjem Choudary on @Daybreak who claimed the murder of Lee Rigby was justified. What a Disgusting and offensive view". As Claude Rains might have said in Casablanca, how shocking it must have been for the programme to discover that they had booked such an extremist voice to express his well known and frequently repeated views.

It is difficult for the media to resist the temptation of platforming a man who often thinks like a newsdesk, and is willing to provide a cartoonish story, as with his recent protests against alcohol. But, as Hope Not Hate's investigation into the Al Maharajoun hate group shows, there is a strong accumulation of evidence to support the view that Choudary is considerably more dangerous than his clownish media persona may imply. As Nick Lowles and Joe Mulhall write: "Behind his media-grabbing and provocative stunts lies a group that is a gateway to terrorism, at home and abroad. While Choudary might not have been directly involved in terror plots, he helped shape the mindset of many of those behind them".

The important question again arising out of the Woolwich murder for Anjem Choudary is whether he may deserve somewhat more of the moral responsibility for the killing of Lee Rigby than he has sought to claim publicly. It is, as Hope Not Hate set out clearly, a recurring question across several attempts at violence and terrorism. That was probably a question to be scrutinised in a reported package, rather than letting Choudary tap-dance around John Humphrey's questions in the style of a cabinet minister.

Lee Rigby's family have displayed enormous forebearance and dignity at this terrible time. Their statement yesterday offered yet another example of the striking sense of civic responsibility they have demonstrated in their grief. The Daily Star front page today therefore focuses on their observation that the horrific murder of their son had turned out to "unite the country", rather than divide it as his killers had hoped.                                                                                                                                              

But was this really the morning to offer an apologist for murder, and an associate of the murderer, the most prestigious broadcast slot on British radio?


Anjem Choudary leads a protest against the killing of Osama bin Laden outside the US embassy in Mayfair on May 6, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.