On the 30th October, the Privy Council of the United Kingdom granted a new cross-party Royal Charter on press regulation -- the first rules on state regulation of the press for more than 300 years.
The Royal Charter followed ministers' rejection of a proposal for a new self-regulatory body put forward by the newspaper industry, which itself has been described as the "toughest regulatory regime in the free world."
In a joint statement, a number of newspaper associations declared that, "Nothing could be more controversial than a Royal Charter imposed by politicians on an industry which is wholly opposed to it and which would fatally undermine freedom of expression."
While the media and politicians battle, however, a number of ideologues have grasped that this attack on the free press provides an opportunity to impose their own ideas.
In October, during the BBC's popular political television show, Question Time, the audience applauded an impassioned speech by the journalist Mehdi Hasan, as he criticized the Daily Mail for its controversial attack on Ralph Miliband, a Marxist academic who was described by the paper as "The Man Who Hated Britain," and the late father of Britain's Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband.
Hasan described the newspaper as "the immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting Daily Mail." In response to the attack, Daily Mail journalists noted that Hasan's tune has changed since three years ago, when he wrote an imploring letter to Mail editors requesting a column in the paper.
Despite his remonstrations with the Mail, in 2009, Hasan told a small audience at the Al Khoei Islamic Centre that, "Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire."
Controversies about the behavior of the free press have allowed particular individuals and organizations to play the victim and, using the cover of press reform, to promote extremist agendas. This practice first became apparent during the Leveson Inquiry, an investigation into the "culture, practises and ethics of the Press," established by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the revelations that a small number of newspapers were responsible for hacking the phones of celebrities and the families of missing persons.
Actor and "Hacked Off" promoter Hugh Grant discusses phone hacking with Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg MP at the party's Autumn Conference 2011. (Image Source: Liberal Democrat Party/Dave Radcliffe)
A number of groups contributed evidence during the course of the inquiry; they presented themselves as moderate representatives of the Muslim Community. One such contributor was Engage, an Islamist group that has consistently defended fundamentalist, anti-Semitic organizations such as the Islamic Forum of Europe, a branch of the Bangladeshi terror group Jamaat-e-Islami.
Engage has demanded a cessation of the "Islamophobia" ostensibly promoted by the media's coverage of the Muslim community. It says it believes that possible changes in the law will countenance the use of a new regulatory body to silence critics of Islamism; including anti-Islamist Muslims, who, Engage claims, have vilified Islamist preachers. Lord Leveson afforded these designs to muzzle free speech greater credence when he argued that these "representative bodies are likely to be far better placed to monitor, and complain about, inaccuracies" in the media's reporting.
The campaign group, named Hacked Off, behind the proposal for a controlled press has enjoyed unparalleled access to the government. It was Hacked Off, for instance, which helped to draft the proposed press charter during a late night meeting with government ministers and the leader of the opposition. According to the journalist Andrew Gilligan, Hacked Off also is working "to claim the country for the authoritarian Left. " It wants, he said, "to stop newspapers victimising individuals. But it also wants to force the press to serve defined social and political objectives – at the expense, if necessary, of the right to free expression."
Gilligan, noting the involvement of Islamist groups such as Engage, has further warned that: "The charter gives 'third parties' – that is, anyone – the right to complain about any story, whether or not they are personally affected by it, opening the sluices to a Niagara of complaints by pedants, commercial lobbyists, pressure groups, angry people on Twitter, or anyone with an axe to grind, particularly since they have nothing to lose by doing so."
David Hass, a spokesperson for the Hacked Off campaign, denies that the Royal Charter affords "any third party with an axe to grind to make complaints." Speaking to this author, Hass affirmed that, "a complaint must be serious and well-founded and not a frivolous or time-wasting lobbying exercise."
Hass added: "There are reasons why third parties should have the right to make complaints and request corrections. For example, if a minority group (gypsies, say) is routinely and falsely maligned by a newspaper, it is fair for a representative organisation to make a complaint on their behalf. If not, there would be no single voice addressing such a democratic deficit."
It would seem to many, however, that the Hacked Off campaign group does have an axe to grind. Speakers at Hacked Off events have demanded that a media regulator should encourage the press to "support" public institutions such as the National Health Service, effectually turning Britain's free press into cheerleaders for the government.
The person who established the Hacked Off campaign, Martin Moore, recently shared a platform on "media engagement" with Qudues Zafar, an official from the extremist Engage campaign group, which, in turn, is also a "partner" of the Hacked Off campaign. Zafar has circulated music videos in support of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, has claimed that the "New World Order" is run by a "Zionist Antichrist" and has expressed hatred for homosexuals.
Other contributors to the Leveson Inquiry have included the East London Mosque, whose members expressed its backing for Engage's proposal to tackle alleged "Islamophobia" in the free press. The East London Mosque also provides a platform for preachers such as Assim al-Hakeem, who, in July, gave the Friday sermon at the Mosque. Al-Hakeem teaches that apostates must be killed, and advocates the killing of Christians and Jews who are found to be "talking against Mohammed." In May, the Mosque also hosted Abu Abdissalam, a preacher who discourages Muslims from working with the police, who he claims are engaged in a "war against Islam." Abdissalam is also a significant supporter of the jihadist, Ali al Timimi, who advocates the decapitation of Shia Muslims.
The East London Mosque's submission to the Leveson Inquiry was penned by its chairman, Muhammad Abdul Bari, a former president of the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe. In 2005, Bari extended an invitation to speak at the Mosque to the Saudi Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais, who has said: "Read history and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels, distorters of words, calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers... the scum of the human race 'whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs...' These are the Jews, an ongoing continuum of deceit, obstinacy, licentiousness, evil, and corruption."
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, another contributor to the Leveson Inquiry, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development as well as the Chief Research Officer for Unitas Communications, a "reputation management" and "strategic consultancy." Ahmed claims that the U.S. government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and that the British Government is responsible for a cover-up over the London tube bombings. He further claims that Israeli operations to stop Hamas rocket fire are predicated on Israel's desire to obtain natural gas that, he claims, belongs to Gaza's Hamas government.
Despite these statements, Ahmed claims to be an advisor to the British Foreign Office, the Royal Military Academy and the Metropolitan Police Service, the UK government's "Preventing Violent Extremism" program as well as to the U.S. Department of State.
Ahmed's contribution to the Leveson Inquiry warned about the dangers of unfettered free speech being "used to justify the promulgation of false, inaccurate and racist narratives on British Muslims." Ahmed further demands that, "Journalists and editors reporting on issues relating to minorities such as Muslims require appropriate training and education to ensure they have a grounded and valid understanding of these issues in all their complexity and diversity."
One of the most serious threats to free speech derives from the bureaucrat with the pen, who applies rules unwaveringly and without regard to circumstance. Such rigidity, sanctioned by the current public scorn for the press, is now at risk of being exploited by extremists whose designs have often only been exposed and obstructed because of a free press. Regulatory control does not just threaten free expression; it risks assisting people whose views threaten us all.