Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: Evening Standard
Dr Haitham al Haddad complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Mosque near Olympics site in â€˜terror link' investigation", published in the Evening Standard on 8 June 2012, was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i), but had offered sufficient action to remedy the initial breach.
The article reported that the Charity Commission had opened an investigation into concerns that a mosque in London "may be promoting extremist Islamist ideologies". It suggested that the investigation would "centre on sermons delivered at the mosque between 2004 and 2010 by [the complainant], a preacher by whom notorious â€˜underpants bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab claims he was influenced". Elsewhere in the article it reiterated that Mr Abdulmutallab had "cited [the complainant] as an influence on his beliefs".
The complainant denied that he had influenced or inspired Mr Abdulmutallab to adopt extremist ideas: he condemned such views. His statements represented orthodox interpretations of Islam. He believed the source of the claim to be a widely circulated note by Mr Abdulmutallab, which stated that he had attended a course organised by the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF), of which the complainant was Chairman. The complainant said the 3-day course, entitled "Manhaj Al Istidhlal" ("methodology of derivation") was "purely academic" and could not "remotely" be considered as extreme; Mr Abdulmutallab's note stated that it included sessions on "team building and media skills". He said Mr Abdulmutallab was only one of many students who had attended the course, and no other student had gone on to develop extreme ideas.
In relation to the investigation by the Charity Commission the complainant said its purpose was to examine allegations that the mosque had given a platform to extremists, but he had held no position of responsibility at the mosque and therefore had not played a role in such decisions. The reference to him in this context was wholly unfounded and inaccurate.
The newspaper confirmed that the reference had been based on the online note, which had referred to the complainant by name as chairman of the MRDF. It considered that the note had focussed on experiences that had developed Mr Abdulmutallab's understanding of Islam, and it emphasised that the complainant had been the only person cited in the note by name. It considered that it was difficult to come to any conclusion other than that Mr Abdulmutallab's view of Islam had been influenced by his attendance on the complainant's course. It said that its article had not contended that the complainant encouraged Mr Abdulmutallab to commit an act of terror. As to whether its report could be taken to imply that the complainant is an extremist, the newspaper acknowledged it could, but maintained this was justified. It provided examples of statements by the complainant that, it said, many people would regard as lying "well beyond the boundary of acceptability".
In relation to the investigation by the Charity Commission, the newspaper said that part of the purpose of the investigation was to enquire into "regulatory concerns" raised by allegations that "the trustees of the [mosque] are followers of [the complainant]". It noted that the Centre for Social Cohesion had included the complainant in a list of "radical preachers on UK campuses".
The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code, but it nonetheless offered to publish a statement clarifying the source of the claim about the apparent connection between Mr Abdulmutallab and the complainant and the fact that Mr Abdulmutallab had not used the term "influence" in the note. The clarification would also confirm that it had not been suggested that the complainant had encouraged him to engage in violence.
The complainant denied that the note related only to Mr Abdulmutallab's religious experiences. He considered that the newspaper had sought to connect his teachings to an act of terrorism, for which it should apologise. He also believed it should make clear that he was not the main focus of the Charity Commission's investigation.
Under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice, newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information and must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
The sources of terrorism - and influences on those who engage in terrorism - are unquestionably matters of the highest public interest, and newspapers have an important role to play in protecting public health and safety by reporting on such matters. Notwithstanding this point, describing an individual as a claimed influence on a known terrorist was a significant allegation over which particular care should be taken.
The article stated that Mr Abdulmutallab had "cited" the complainant as an "influence on his beliefs". The online note recorded his attendance on the complainant's course, but the extent to which his beliefs had been influenced by the complainant was a matter of conjecture. While the Commission was not in a position to establish Mr Abdulmutallab's religious influences without his input or further evidence on this point, it nonetheless concluded on this basis that the reference to the claim of influence was misleading. It was therefore necessary and appropriate for the newspaper to offer to clarify the reference. The publication of the statement offered by the newspaper - following the Commission's adjudication - would be, in the view of the Commission, a sufficient remedy to the initial breach of Clause 1.
The complainant also denied being an "extremist" or having preached â€˜extremist' sermons at the mosque between 2004 and 2010. It was not disputed however that his role at the mosque was under investigation by the Charity Commission in the context of wider concerns about extremism, and the newspaper had been entitled to refer to this. It had also provided the Charity Commission's letter, confirming the accuracy of this aspect of its report. There were no further issues to pursue under the terms of the Code.
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