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Right-wing Think-tank Busted for Dodgy "Islamic Extremism" Report

Critics say a British conservative group's revelations about home-grown Islamic extremism contained fabricated evidence.
 
 
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There's a bit of a scandal going down in the UK after questions were raised about a report on homegrown Islamic extremism by the British think-tank Policy Exchange. The report made waves when it was first released. The video to your right is a heated moment between Dean Godsend, Policy Exchange's Director of Research, and Jeremy Paxman, presenter of the BBC program Newsnight, which first broke the story.

Here's what people are saying ...

A Question of Receipts
By Brian Whitaker
Comment is Free

Last night's shouting match between Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and Dean Godson of the Policy Exchange thinktank may have been fascinating television but I'm not sure it was very illuminating.

Back in October, Policy Exchange issued a much-publicised report on extremist literature sold at mosques and other Islamic institutions in Britain.

On visits to almost 100 of these places across the country, the thinktank's researchers found extremist material available - either openly or "under the table" - in around 25. Some of this material was certainly alarming, as I wrote at the time. More reassuringly, though, Policy Exchange has also pointed out that three-quarters of the places it surveyed were "nothing other than perfectly reputable centres of Muslim worship and learning".

Shortly before the report was published, Newsnight and Policy Exchange agreed a deal giving the BBC programme exclusive access to the findings. Newsnight's editor, Peter Barron, takes up the story on his blog:

Policy Exchange had given us the receipts to corroborate their claim that a quarter of the 100 mosques their researchers had visited were selling hate literature.

On the planned day of broadcast our reporter Richard Watson came to me and said he had a problem. He had put the claim and shown a receipt to one of the mosques mentioned in the report - The Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in London. They had immediately denied selling the book and said the receipt was not theirs.

We decided to look at the rest of the receipts and quickly identified five of the 25 which looked suspicious. They appeared to have been created on a home computer, rather than printed professionally as you would expect. The printed names and addresses of some of the mosques contained simple errors and two of the receipts purportedly from different mosques appeared to have been written by the same hand.

I spoke to Policy Exchange to try to clear up these discrepancies but in the end I decided not to run the report.

Instead, Newsnight continued to investigate the suspicious receipts with the aid of a forensic scientist - and the result was last night's programme casting doubt on their authenticity. A Guardian report has more details here.

If substantiated, Newsnight's allegations will knock some of the shine off Policy Exchange, a thinktank closely associated with the Conservative party, which boasts that it is "committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development."

Poisonous and Dangerous
By Seumas Milne
Comment is Free

Throughout this year, a steady stream of hostile and sensationalised stories about the Muslim community in both press and television - often based on research by apparently reliable think tanks - has helped feed anti-Muslim prejudice to the point where Britons were found this summer by a Harris opinion poll to be more suspicious of Muslims than Americans or citizens of any other major west European country.

It might be assumed from this that the other 20 receipts were found to be authentic and that Policy Exchange's basic case was solid. It has now become clear that is not the case. Newsnight insiders make clear that they didn't have the time or resources to check the other receipts - and in at least one of those that they didn't look into, supposedly issued by Edinburgh central mosque, the mosque authorities have said that leaflets claimed to have been found there calling for the killing of the apostates were in fact dumped in the mosque grounds after the report was published.[...]

The constant regurgitation by the media of Muslim-baiting "research" by hard right think tanks (the Centre of Social Cohesion is another offender) not only misleads the public about one of the most sensitive issues of our time - it is also clearly driven by a neoconservative political agenda, which seeks to convince people that jihadist terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere are driven not by outrage at western violence in the Muslim world but by opposition to western freedom.

A quick glance at the profiles of those involved in Policy Exchange underlines the point. Its policy director, Dean Godson, who blustered at Jeremy Paxman on Wednesday, worked for the Reagan administration in the US as special assistant to the secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, was a signatory to the The Project for a New American Century and was special assistant to the jailed former Telegraph owner Conrad Black. Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph and Spectator editor who has made the case for public debate about whether the prophet Muhammad was a paedophile, is the Policy Exchange chairman. And who did he replace? Policy Exchange's co-founder, Michael Gove - author of that rallying text for British neocons Celsius 7/7 - and now David Cameron's education spokesman.

NewsNight Told a Small Story Over a Big One
By Charles Moore
The Independent

Charles Moore is Chairman of Policy Exchange

Over the summer, Policy Exchange produced the most comprehensive report so far on the extent to which extremist literature is available in British mosques and Islamic institutions. It is called The Hijacking of British Islam.

Muslim undercover researchers visited nearly 100 mosques. In 26 of them, they found extremist material - titles such as Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell (for answering their husbands back), virulent insults of Jews and homosexuals, puritanical attacks on moderate Muslims, calls for the complete rejection of Western society etc.

It was a big story, and as I shall make clear, none of Newsnight's claims this week has diminished its dimensions.

The report made the front page of many newspapers, including this one. It was extensively covered everywhere - everywhere except for the entire national output of the BBC.

This was because of Newsnight. Thinking that such a report was a serious public issue that could advance well under the "flagship's" full mast and sail, Policy Exchange had originally offered it to Newsnight exclusively.

Newsnight's people were enthusiastic, but on the late afternoon of the intended broadcast, they suddenly changed their tune.

Policy Exchange had offered them many of the receipts it had collected from mosques as evidence of purchase; now they said that they had shown the receipts to mosques and that there were doubts about the authenticity of one or two of them.

Given that the report was being published that night, the obvious thing for Newsnight to do was to broadcast Policy Exchange's findings at once, allowing the mosques to have their say about the receipts.

There was no need for Newsnight to claim "ownership" of the report. Instead, the editor, Peter Barron, decided to run nothing. His decision meant the Policy Exchange report was not touched by the BBC at all.

Mr Barron had already been in trouble for his editorial judgment.

In the summer, the BBC apologised for a Newsnight programme in which a reporter's encounters with Gordon Brown's press officer had been presented in reverse sequence, in order to make Mr Brown's team look intolerant.

Mr Barron's judgment of the Policy Exchange report came under attack from colleagues: his flawed methodology - the original decision not to broadcast - had lost the entire corporation an important story.

Mr Barron decided to try to prove himself right. In the private sector, there is something called "vanity publishing", where people pay for their own works to be published.

Mr Barron's vanity broadcasting was, of course, at the expense of the licence-fee payer. He put the crew of the flagship on to investigating Policy Exchange's receipts. For six weeks, they turned on the staff of Policy Exchange, who had come to them in good faith in the first place, and treated them like criminals. […]

Newsnight was very excited about the results of a study of receipts by a forensic document analyst that seemed to suggest forgery.

It did not tell viewers that its expert wrote: "The relatively limited amount of writing available for comparison has prevented me from expressing any definite opinion." She did not study any of the writing in Arabic, though it appeared on two of the three receipts she investigated.[…]

But the real oddity of all this is that the actual contents of the report have been validated.

Extremist literature was available in the mosques, and in some cases still is. The mosques could not dissociate themselves from the literature and, in most cases, did not even try to: they jumped on the receipts instead. […]

I don't blame Newsnight for reporting questions about receipts, though I deplore their methods. I do blame them for trying to kill the much, much bigger story about the hate that is being preached in our country.

Newsnight's Peter Barron's entire response can be read on the BBC blog.