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20 December 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:01am

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.

By Sunder Katwala

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.

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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?

 

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