Richard Watson’s comment on the Policy Exchange row
- 14 Dec 07, 06:07 PM
Our recent film about Policy Exchange’s report “The Hijacking of British Islam” certainly has provoked an angry response from this influential think-tank. Policy Exchange is accusing us of bad faith and of concentrating on what they seem to be suggesting is the trifling matter of some of the documentary evidence used to underpin their findings. They say we’ve missed the main point, that extremist books were recovered in any case.
A quick reminder: In what Policy Exchange billed as the most comprehensive academic study of its kind, four teams of two researchers, not on Policy Exchange’s staff but working on their behalf, had visited 100 mosques and found that in a quarter of the locations they were able to buy or acquire extremist literature. Their report can be read here.
Researchers were asked to obtain receipts to prove the books had been acquired in the relevant locations. Newsnight was going to run a story based on these shocking findings, which made front-page news. I asked to see the original receipts as part of our due diligence process and shortly after this the problems began to surface.
Before we broadcast a story based on their report, we wanted to give the institutions named and shamed in the report the right to reply – something which was not done by Policy Exchange. When we approached the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in west London they said they did not sell the books named in the report and they do not support the promotion of such literature. Most worryingly, they told us that the receipt provided by researchers working for Policy Exchange was not genuine and had basic errors such as Road was spelt Raod and Centre was spelt Center.
As we carried out other checks, further inconsistencies emerged and we took the entirely sensible decision not to broadcast our film while we investigated further.
Our investigation, which is set out in our film, led us to conclude that in five cases there were major conflicts and inconsistencies in the evidence: in three of these cases we even found evidence suggesting that receipts had been forged.
This is what Policy Exchange is saying about our case studies. And you can read my response to their points underneath.
Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, West London
Policy Exchange says: “Newsnight’s own reporter, Richard Watson, has told Policy Exchange that the management at Al-Manaar admits it has a problem with so-called ‘rogue traders’ operating within their institution. This is entirely consistent with our report which clearly states, “...the presence of this hidden literature may not always have been known to the mosque elders, who, at a minimum, are clearly in need of official support in the task of eliminating such material from their places of worship.”
The director of the Centre acknowledged as a general principle that it is possible that a rogue trader could have entered the mosque without his permission and sold books. The Centre occasionally holds book fairs. However on the date written on the receipt he categorically states that there were no book fairs because it was Ramadan and the mosque was extremely busy on that day.
Then there is the worrying fact, not addressed by Policy Exchange, that the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical - to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.
Policy Exchange complains that they were not given the forensic scientist’s reports until shortly before transmission. But they had known about the conclusions for five days and failed to address the issues. On 7th December we sent them an email saying: “You should be aware that our research has revealed further doubts about the authenticity of some of the receipts. Professional analysis of two of the receipts has concluded that there is strong evidence that they were written by the same hand. This analysis also has concluded that another two receipts were together in the same location when one of them was filled in.” They made no attempt to answer these points in the days before transmission.
Masjid as-Tawhid, East London
“The Policy Exchange researcher who visited this mosque, when he requested Islamic literature that was in accordance with the mosque’s beliefs, was led to the bookshop and given a receipt in the name of the mosque, not the bookshop. Two of the three books identified in the report as obtained from Tawhid were written by the founding sponsor of the mosque. Newsnight’s reporter Richard Watson admits that he saw the duplicate of the receipt provided to our researchers in the bookshop’s receipt book bearing the name of the mosque, not the bookshop. The suggestion that the mosque and the bookshop are entirely separate entities does not bear scrutiny. The fact that extremist literature was available at the bookshop is not denied.”
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.
Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away. A registered forensic document examiner, as I have said, wrote us a report concluding there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person. Policy Exchange told us researchers did not write out their own receipts - something of a mystery then.
UK Islamic Mission, North London
“Our report focuses on the UKIM institution at 202 North Gower Street, not the institution next door which featured in Newsnight’s film. The book obtained there was produced by the Saudi government with which UKIM is linked. Several of the extremist books found at other UKIM-run institutions are available on UKIM’s own website. Extremist literature is not just available ‘under the counter’ at UKIM missions: it is propagated by them.”
The Policy Exchange report names “Euston Mosque” as the source of its books in the report, therefore any reputational damage is done to that institution. A quick Google on “Euston Mosque” reveals its address as 204a North Gower Street, not 202 North Gower Street, which is the address given in the report and on the receipt. Extensive searches have failed to reveal evidence that the organisation based at 202 North Gower Street being known as “Euston mosque” the 202 North Gower Street. Why the researchers might have failed to undertake such a simple check is a mystery to me.
The elders at the Euston mosque (204a North Gower Street), who say they have never sold any books and certainly not the ones named in the report, are now worried about getting bricks through their windows because “Euston Mosque” has been named in the Policy Exchange report. This is a serious issue and one that we argue Policy Exchange cannot dismiss so lightly.
North Central London Mosque, ‘Finsbury Park Mosque’
“One of the mosque’s imams has not publicly denied the (possible) existence of extremist literature on the premises. The mosque has issued no previous public denial of Policy Exchange’s report’s findings. Three of the five books obtained there can be connected to the Muslim Brotherhood with which the Muslim Association of Britain, which effectively controls the mosque, is aligned. The mosque’s most prominent trustee, Azzam Tamimi, has praised suicide bombers thus undermining the mosque’s claim that it has no connection with extremism.”
In this case we are simply stating that the mosque denies selling the books and the receipt has, like the other disputed cases, been printed on a PC, home computer type printer. This amounts to a straight conflict of accounts, between the mosque management and the researchers working for Policy Exchange.
Al-Muntada, West London
“Al-Muntada has not denied the availability of extremist literature on its premises. That is to be expected: all of the five books found at Al-Muntada and mentioned in Policy Exchange’s report are available from Al-Muntada’s online bookshop.”
This receipt was again printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.
High Wycombe Muslim Education Centre, Buckinghamshire
“Newsnight’s own programme contained film showing the existence of extremist literature on the shelves of the bookshop within the centre.”
The ESDA test carried out by the registered document examiner concluded with absolute certainty that this receipt was written out while resting on the receipt from Al Muntada mosque, which is 40 miles away in West London. The professional analysis we carried out was the last stage of our investigation. We first raised the fact that a receipt had been written out while lying on top of another receipt a full five days before our broadcast date. This point was not addressed by Policy Exchange and we are yet to receive an explanation from Policy Exchange why this was the case if, as they have insisted, researchers working for them did not fill out their own receipts.
True, Policy Exchange did not know this receipt was said to have come from High Wycombe, but neither did they ask us which mosque was involved after we raised the issue with them five days before transmission.
In conclusion, we have never sought to argue that the issue of the dissemination of intolerant and extremist material is unimportant in Britain. The kind of material presented in Policy Exchange’s report is damaging to social cohesion in my view. Any suggestion we have an agenda, beyond trying to establish what actually happened is nonsense; Newsnight has been at the forefront of reporting matters of public interest concerning Islamist extremism in the UK.
Policy Exchange seems to be arguing that their report does not depend on the receipts but on the evidence of the researchers and the fact that, we are told, books were recovered from the relevant mosques. The think tank’s website states:
“The receipts are not, however, mentioned in the report and the report’s findings do not rely upon their existence. The report relies instead on the testimony of our Muslim research team.”
But the fact remains that gathering receipts was a crucial element of the research methodology, otherwise why go to all the trouble? And if some researchers have fabricated even a minority of receipts then what reliance should the public place on the testimony of the research team? What is to be trusted and what is not to be trusted if this is the case? And what about any mosques which could have been named unfairly?
It should be pointed out that we have been trying speaking to Policy Exchange for weeks to try to resolve these various issues. We have repeatedly asked to speak independently and directly to the researchers who carried out the work.
Policy Exchange states that it “has facilitated interviews between our Muslim researchers and the Newsnight team, including one with the programme’s editor.” But this creates an impression which is very far from the truth. My editor, Peter Barron, was permitted to speak to one out of the 8 researchers, once, in a conference call, when the researcher at the other end of the line was with Policy Exchange. But that was at the time when we were still trying to broadcast the original story based on the report, before it was published. After that, when we made it clear we were unhappy about some of the evidence, we were not put in contact with any other researcher, despite repeated requests. One has to wonder why.
Policy Exchange states that “as a respected evidence-based think-tank, Policy Exchange takes the integrity and authority of our research very seriously. Accordingly, we shall investigate any outstanding allegations very carefully.”
We look forward to the outcome of Policy Exchange’s investigation and the answer to this most straightforward question, which the think-tank still has not provided: are some of the receipts faked? If they were faked then why couldn’t researchers get genuine receipts, if they did obtain the books from where they said they did in the report.