The free press and the fight against terrorism

December 10, 2019


Neil Basu, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, head of counter-terror policing, is a man on a mission. It is in many ways a noble mission. As he spelled out in a lecture he gave last month to the Society of  Editors, he wants to “maximise well-being and minimise harm,”  “promote positive values and undermine evil ideologies that attack our way of life,”  and “minimise the suffering of victims and survivors of crime and terrorism.” And at the heart of his pitch to the country’s leading journalists was a seductive message. We are all defenders of our way of life, he told them; you too are a pillar of our democracy. Shouldn’t we work hand in hand to protect the values that we hold in common?

But when Mr Basu speaks about role of the media it is worth noting his past forays into this area. It has not been a happy hunting ground for him. He was a senior officer in Operations Weeting, Tuleta and Elveden – Metropolitan police investigations into phone hacking,  computer hacking  and alleged payments to police officers by newspapers – which were  strongly criticised for wasting a great deal of public money, producing few convictions, and wrecking the lives of many innocent journalists.

Secondly, it is worth considering the present context. The London Bridge stabbings came just two and half weeks after his speech, on 29th November. Two young people were killed  after a dangerous man jailed for a London-based terrorist plot was allowed to travel into the heart of the capital unsupervised, while released on licence. (He had, it seems, been influenced by the likes of Anjem Choudary, not by reading a newspaper.) After the attack, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confirmed that there were 74 terrorist offenders who had been released early.  We already know that the Security Service has 3,000 subjects of interest on its watch list and a further 20,000 have been considered subjects of interest previously. With all that in mind it could be said that Mr Basu, the lead for Counter-Terrorism Policing in the UK, should reconsider his priorities.

In my view, anyone who cares about the independence of the media, which ought to mean pretty much all of us, should be putting out the “Look out, danger ahead” signs when they read his speech. Because any experienced investigator can scent an invitation to self-censorship at a hundred yards; at Index on Censorship we hear versions of this story from all over the globe:  “Honestly, we wouldn’t dream of telling a journalist what to write or say; and of course, if you really do want to encourage terrorism and promote carnage in our cities, just go right ahead, feel free. But we really believe you’ll make much better judgements after a chat down at the station with Captain Thumbscrew and his friend Mr Rack. We’re sure you’ll see things in the right perspective once you’ve heard what they have to say.”

Mr Basu, of course, doesn’t have any of this in his mind; he just wants to help. Unfortunately, as the Metropolitan Police famously discovered, even an institution staffed entirely by a choir of angels can find itself unwittingly exercising its powers in a fashion that undermines the freedoms that we pay it to preserve. Mr Basu’s ends may be admirable, but his proposed means are alarming. Were editors tempted to accept his invitation, they would do well to remember the fate of the young woman who went for a ride on a tiger.

Mr Basu’s speech dwelt heavily on the idea of a shared mission of newspapers and state agencies, including the police, where security is concerned. In my view, these missions don’t even overlap. It’s true that both coppers and hacks have to address all the evidence presented to them; we all sift truth from fiction, we all try to create a faithful account of events, almost always from a partial record. But after that we part company. Journalists have no responsibility other than to tell as much of the truth as they can divine, employing, in Nick Tomalin’s famous words, “a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability”. We have no privileged access to information, we are not protected by royal warrant; and we are therefore beholden to no-one other than our employers.

Everyone knows the quote about journalists having power without responsibility – “the prerogative of the harlot”. It is true that we bear little responsibility, but thankfully, we are granted  no special powers; our influence comes purely from the willingness of  our viewers, listeners and readers to support us. Police officers, on the other hand, hold powers that should never be granted to journalists; and unlike the media they are therefore democratically accountable to the citizenry. They should carry their responsibilities heavily unlike journalists who, in spite of the pretensions of some, know that their authority is entirely illusory. We play very different roles in a liberal democracy, and our professional interests are rarely aligned; where they appear to be the same, we usually find one of two ugly spectres  lurking in the shadows: either bullying of the media by police or the bribery of cops by journalists.

It would be naïve to suggest that there are never any trade-offs between the respectable and the rat-like. When it comes, for example, to the fate of a kidnapped child, no-one responsible or compassionate would refuse to talk about an understanding between us. But such examples should be rare, and certainly not a matter of policy. We know that for the most part, the trading of favours between journalists eager for a scoop and policemen keen to avoid scrutiny of their methods has never ended well. Mr Basu suggests that the deal he is offering is different to the grubby history of press manipulation by law enforcement. But it isn’t.

In essence, he proposes that journalists should be encouraged to select data according to a pre-existing narrative they share with the police. One such narrative, for example, is that terrorism in countries like our own arises from social and economic deprivation and psychological fragility. He has been commissioning research into his theory that if suicide can be motivated by reports of a celebrity suicide, then perhaps “a person vulnerable to radicalisation be triggered to act by the content of media reports describing terrorism”. The results have rather disappointed him so far, but they haven’t dented his convictions. “We have seen just how vulnerable, confused and disenfranchised some of our successful and would-be terrorists are,” he said.

Unfortunately, this flies in the face of much emerging thinking about Islamist terrorism. Indeed, according to The Times’ Matthew Syed, the CIA has recently acknowledged that it simply failed to grasp the sophistication and malevolence of Osama bin Laden’s leadership, because it never understood  that his attacks on the West were driven by conviction rather than deprivation – an odd failure given that he and many of his cohorts came from wealthy Saudi backgrounds. Similarly, many of our own young jihadists learnt their lessons at university; by and large these are not poor, struggling taxi drivers. Terror is born of a violent ideology promoted throughout the world by zealots; and in our country, there’s little evidence that it is provoked by poverty, and none at all that pins it on the British press.

In any event, the likelihood of the Faustian pact Mr Basu is proposing having the slightest impact on the kind of young person who might be drawn into violence is almost zero. Most people get their view of the world from television, particularly news. The last time we analysed viewing habits, in 2017, even amongst older minority viewers of TV, the most commonly watched news bulletin – the BBC’s Six O’Clock News – was 40% less likely to be watched by minority Brits as the average; and amongst the young people that most concern the police, that figure is likely to be vanishingly small, as they turn to YouTube and other media which reinforce extremist ideology.

So the proposed pact would be unlikely to do much for crime-fighting. But it almost certainly would damage the public’s trust in the media. No media organisation should ever factor into its calculations what, when and how the police tell it to report, or what will support the state’s security efforts. As journalists, we may want to protect our sources, ourselves, and the communities in which we operate, but even that should be secondary to our principal function of informing, educating and offering greater insight to our readers, listeners and viewers. We don’t have to guess at the effect of “cooperation”;  we’ve already seen its disastrous impact in recent years. To allow police to lead journalists to the data, is a huge encouragement to the sort of bad journalism that led first to the BBC’s pillorying of Cliff Richard and then to the ghastly “Nick” saga that has been so catastrophic for both police and journalists. Partly in response to political pressure, some newspapers and broadcasters decided in advance of assembling their evidence and observations what they were supposed to achieve. “Justice” was part of the calculation, as was the police mantra about “believing the victim” – both of which led them inexorably to a dreadfully, wildly, wrong narrative.

Closer to home, it was a desire to avoid being thought racist that made  newspapers, along with police and social workers, ignore the horrifying grooming and raping of young women by mainly Pakistani men in many English cities. And it was a newspaper doing its job that broke the story and brought hundreds to justice.

In July, following the publication of confidential emails from Sir Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the United States, Mr Basu demanded that publishers and editors hand back any leaked government documents. This, responded the Society of Editors, showed a worrying lack of understanding of how a free press works in a liberal democracy. “I cannot think of a worse example of a heavy-handed approach by the police to attempt to curtail the role of the media as a defence against the powerful and those in authority,” said its Executive Director Ian Murray. “The implied threat is that the media would be acting against the law in publishing leaked documents, even if they were in the public interest.”

Mr Basu came out fighting in his speech. He didn’t apologise. “Knowing what I know now, would I have done it all again? Yes.  Would I have done it differently? Yes.”

That’s a mistake. I am pretty sure that Mr Basu is highly regarded amongst his fellows. And Heaven knows, I will be the last person to say that we don’t need more minority officers in top jobs. But here, he is straying into areas that cops really don’t get and which, frankly, are none of their business. Rather than telling the press how to do their job, he should concentrate on doing his.

Trevor Phillips is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and the Chair of Index on Censorship, the international campaign group for freedom of expression

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