In a move guaranteed to get right up the noses of the seething classes it appears that the BBC’s Newsnight programme may well have caught the Cameroonies favourite think-tank up to their elbows in fabricating evidence used in a flagship report on the alleged sale of extremist ‘Islamic’ literature by British mosques.
A rightwing thinktank which claimed to have uncovered extremist literature on sale at dozens of British mosques was last night accused of basing a report on fabricated evidence.
The report by Policy Exchange alleged that books condoning violent jihad and encouraging hatred of Christians, Jews and gays were being sold in a quarter of the 100 mosques visited.
But BBC2’s Newsnight said examination of receipts provided by the researchers to verify their purchases showed some had been written by the same person – even though they purported to come from different mosques.
Several receipts also misspelled the names or addresses of the mosques where the books were supposedly sold.
I have to say that I’m not sure that you read too much into the misspelling of the names of mosques; not without satisfying yourself first that these are not simply errors in the transliteration of names from Arabic or Urdu, which is at least a possibility. Nevertheless, it would appear that Newsnight’s assertion that there may be something altogether a little fishy in the research does appear to be supported by other evidence that does raise more substantive doubts about the manner in which the research was carried out – one of the contentious receipts is alleged to have been written while resting on another receipt that was ostensibly from a mosque some forty miles away from that which was claimed to have produced the first receipt, which, if true, would raise serious questions about the manner in which the research was carried out and evidenced.
Policy Exchange has responded to Newsnight’s allegations with the following press release, which is well worth reviewing in detail as – to my reading – it does very little by way of actually rebutting any of the main allegations about the report:
POLICY EXCHANGE AND BBC NEWSNIGHT
Policy Exchange stands by its report The Hijacking of British Islam and the Muslim researchers who took considerable risks to enable its compilation. The report is the most comprehensive and authoritative study to date into the availability of extremist literature within UK Islamic institutions.
That last statement, asserting that the report is the most comprehensive and authoritative study into the availability of extremist literature in the UK is, of course, both a matter of opinion and an assertion that needs to put to the test in light of Newsnight’s allegations as, quite obviously, neither assertion will stand up if it is shown that the report made use of fabricated evidence.
During the course of a year-long investigation, our researchers were able to obtain extremist material, some of it anti-Semitic, misogynistic, separatist and homophobic, from a quarter of the representative sample of mosques and places of Islamic instruction. Three-quarters of the nearly 100 institutions were conversely found to be nothing other than perfectly reputable centres of Muslim worship and learning.
It’s worth making one important presentational point to begin with – in promoting this report on its own website, Policy Exchange make no mention of either the number of mosques it claims were selling extremist literature or, indeed, the number that weren’t, although it does include this somewhat ambiguous comment from its director, Anthony Browne.
“It is reassuring that the majority of mosques investigated do not propagate hate literature -but much work needs to be done to ensure that a large number of leading Islamic institutions remove this sectarianism from their midst.”
Although Browne acknowledges that the majority of mosques that were ostensibly visited by their researchers showed no traces of extremist literature, neither he nor the text on the rest of the page, quotes any figures to indicate the size of this majority – all the reader is told is that ‘a large number’ were ‘found’ to be selling literature that Policy Exchange considered to be extremist in character. The actual figure was 25% but to the casual observer could easily be anything up to 49% on the information provided.
That said, the actual figure (25%) was picked up and reported widely in the press and uniformly without referencing Browne’s assertion that he considers the report’s assertion that three-quarters of all mosques visited had no truck with this kind of literature to be ‘reassuring’.
The other point of interest here is the assertion that the report’s evidence was obtained by means of researchers visiting a ‘representative sample of mosques and places of Islamic instruction’. However, in discussing the methodology used in carrying out this research, the report states:
Institutions were largely selected in locations that form major centres of the Muslim population in the UK; they included London, Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester and its immediate environs (Bury, Blackburn, Bolton and Rochdale), Bradford, Edinburgh, Glasgow, High Wycombe and Camberley. Oxford was also visited as an important site of learning and the home of a large transient population – both from within the UK and abroad. In each area, the teams were instructed to visit centrally-located institutions from across the spectrum of Islamic belief.
The Hijacking of British Islam – pp 16
You’ll forgive me if I say that, on its own, that doesn’t sound much like the kind of approach that would provide a genuinely representative sample and although report does provide a list of the mosque’s and other institutions visited (pp 28-30) it otherwise provides very little by way of information that could be used to evaluate its assertion that a representative sample was used in compiling the report. Where one might reasonably expect to see at least some basic demographic information, identifying which particular strand of Islam (i.e. Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, etc.) was serviced by the mosque and which ethnic groups predominated amongst its congregation, the report focusses instead on providing information ‘points of interest’ relating to visits to the premises by politician and – occasionally – members of the royal family, connections to well-known Muslim public figures and any past news coverage in which the mosque/institution was ‘linked’ with allegations of terrorist activity. At several points the report reads less like a serious piece of research and more like a celebrity gossip magazine, so much so that one half expects to scroll down to the next page and find article on how to prevent your hijab chafing during hot weather and a halal version of the Atkin’s diet.
The Newsnight package broadcast on Wednesday 12th December 2007 arose from an extraordinary set of circumstances. In mid-October, Policy Exchange and Newsnight negotiated an exclusive deal on the release of the report, prior to its being made available to other media organisations.
For maximum publicity, naturally.
At all times, Policy Exchange acted in good faith, even volunteering to Newsnight receipts obtained in the course of the investigation to corroborate the fact that the various extremist books were indeed procured from the particular institutions identified in the report. 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. Contrary to the programme’s claims, when Newsnight raised concerns about some of the receipts, Policy Exchange facilitated discussions between Newsnight and two of our researchers.
Oh dear… that must have been a tad unexpected. You offer the Beeb exclusivity in return, presumably, for blanket coverage and then the awkward buggers decide to try and verify your findings before they give the report the full ‘big splash’ treatment. How inconvenient.
I must admit that this passage contains what has to be my favourite comment in the entire press release:
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.
These would be the same researchers who are alleged to have fabricated evidence to support their testimony, one presumes?
Whoever wrote appears to think that Joe Public won’t make the connection between the suggestion that researchers may have put in a few distinctly dodgy receipts and the possibility that, if some of their evidence is shown to be have been fabricated then their personal testimony might also be a tad unreliable as well – and its perhaps also worth noting at this point that while this press release states, a little earlier, that Policy Exchange carried out a ‘year long’ investigation, the actual report puts the duration of the research phase at only six months. On the face of it, facts appear to becoming rather a movable feast here.
Several mosques and places of Islamic instruction were mentioned in Newsnight’s film. None of these institutions has been able to demonstrate convincingly that extremist literature could not have been procured on their premises. Indeed, several of them openly propagate extremist literature and are intimately linked to extremist ideologues.
At which point Policy Exchange’s attempts to rebut the BBC’s allegations begin to descend into farce with the assertion that the mosques named in Newsnight’s film should be considered to be guilty unless and until they can prove themselves to be innocent.
Of everything that Policy Exchange has to say on the subject of Newsnight’s film, this is the statement that most raises suspicions that the BBC may be on to something here and that there may genuinely be something iffy in the manner in which Policy Exchange obtained its ‘evidence’. Having made the allegation that a quarter of the mosques and other institutions it looked at were selling extremist literature it is for Policy Exchange and its researchers to back up those allegations with credible supporting evidence in order to refute the BBC’s allegation that some of that evidence was falsified.
To respond, instead, by demanding that these mosques provide evidence to demonstrate that they weren’t selling extremist literature suggests, at the best, that Policy Exchange privately doubts that it can back up its claims while, at worst, one might reasonably begin to wonder whether there are some in the organisation who are aware that evidence may have been falsified and who are now, consciously, trying to shift the burden of proof in order to cover the organisation’s collective arse.
In such circumstances, it is strange that the national BBC network made an editorial decision to ignore our report in October. Rather than taking up the critically important issues for community cohesion raised, Newsnight has chosen to broadcast a package about receipts. We can only speculate as to the programme makers’ agenda.
Actually, there is nothing strange at all in a national news organisation whose credibility rests in providing the public with factual reporting taking the editorial decision not to give prominence to a report about which it harbours doubts as to the veracity of its findings. The availability, or otherwise, of extremist literature in Britain’s mosques may well be a critically important issue for community cohesion but that does not override the need to ensure that any assertions made on the subject can be backed up with credible evidence, and especially documentary evidence.
Newsnight’s report is not just ‘a package about receipts’. In alleging that researchers working to collective evidence for the report may have falsified some of that evidence, it calls into question the verisimilitude of the whole report. If researchers have lied about the origins of some of the material they’ve provided to the report’s author as evidence that extremist literature is being sold in Britain’s mosque then one cannot but ask what else there may be in the report that these same researchers may have also have lied about?
It also, in turn, raises serious questions about Policy Exchange’s research methodology and its credibility as political thinktank that, in its own words, purports to be ‘committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development’. Clearly, and by applying the well-known principle of ‘garbage in – garbage out’ if one cannot rely on the veracity of the evidence procured by Policy Exchange in support of its policy development activities then one cannot also rely on its policy recommendations, at least inasmuch as the organisation claims that they are based on and derived from evidence.
Nothing that Policy Exchange has to say here in any sense refutes any of the allegations levelled at it by Newsnight. Indeed by taking a line which demands that a number of mosques named in the report as distributing extremist literature should prove their innocence rather than defending the validity of their evidence and by implying that the BBC has an unstated ‘agenda’ in questioning the veracity of its work – an obvious dog whistle to right’s green ink brigade if ever there was one – the organisation is raising the stakes on this issue and placing its credibility fully on the line.
Even if Newsnight is correct, it is still possible that Policy Exchange, itself, has acted in good faith throughout the course of the research and in the publication of its report – it may simply have been duped by one or more rogue researchers. Now that is, for an organisation that pitches itself as being ‘committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development’, rather embarrassing but it is the kind of embarrassment that will pass in time. However in that scenario one would expect to see the organisation take a stance in which it withdrew the report from publication while it reviewed the report and the evidence on which its based to evaluate the extent to which, if at all, it is based on falsified. Once done, its then up to the organisation to decide whether it should reissue the report as is and stand its ground, issue a revised report excluding evidence it considers suspect or that has been found to have been falsified or just give the whole thing up as a bad job and move on.
By taking the belligerent line, instead, and demanding that the BBC and mosques and institutions named in the report prove them wrong while, at the same time, suggesting that the BBC has an agenda in not taking their report at face value, Policy Exchange appear to be implicitly ruling out such a possibility by their own actions, which are inconsistent with what one would expect of an organisation that may have been stitched-up by a rogue researcher. That leaves only two other possibilities – either the BBC has got it wrong – in which case why not simply blow them out of the water with the evidence to support that assertion, or the organisation (at least someone within it) has been complicit in publication of a report based on falsified evidence by, at the very least, turning a blind-eye to the use of such evidence.
One of the perennial issues one has to address in all social research is that of bias, the more so in dealing with political thinktanks where there is the ever present temptation to tailor the evidence to fit the hypothesis rather than test the hypothesis against the evidence. This is something that it evidence in the report on family breakdown produced for the Tory party by IDS’s Centre for Social Justice, which sets out the ideological view that marriage is a moral, social and political ‘good’ right at the outset and which then proceeds to provide reams of carefully selected ‘evidence’ to support that assertion while studiously ignoring or playing down as unimportant anything that might question or contradict the reports core assumption about marriage.
The question that has to be asked is whether this is what has happened here, but with ‘knobs’ on?
Did the research proceed under the assumption that extremist literature would be found in British mosques and, more importantly, was there a view taken as to what kind of level of incidence of mosques distributing extremist literature would prove ‘useful’ to Policy Exchange in terms of either publicity or even politically in its role as policy feeder to the Conservative Party, one that might have introduced a bias into the research sufficient to prompt a researcher to manufacture evidence ‘to order’ in order to hit a preconceived ‘target’ figure – 25% is, after all, large enough to sound scary without being so large as to risk provoking a serious backlash of the kind one might expect were credible research to show that extremist literature was available in much large percentage of mosques, if not in a majority of them.
To find evidence of bias in the output of a political thinktank is only to be expected and is a matter best addressed by ensuring that the underlying political views and assumptions of such organisations are a known quantity.
To find that such a thinktank has been complicit in the falsification of evidence to suit its biases is another matter entirely and one which calls into question its credibility and, implicitly, the credibility of any political party or leader who uses the fruits of that evidence as the basis for their own policy-making. That is the issue that Policy Exchange has to address here and it efforts to shift the burden of proof to other and rally support using an all-too-obvious dog whistle hardly inspire confidence in its capacity to address the real questions that Newsnight’s investigation raises.
The executive of Policy Exchange will meet on Thursday 13th to discuss legal action against the BBC.
Is that more bravado or are they serious about taking the BBC to court and opening up the possibility of the Beeb’s lawyers picking over their research methodology in a public arena?
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.