This is a cross-post from Andrew Gilligan
I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph in January last year about something called Prevent Watch, an organisation of Islamist activists linked to the terror-sympathising group Cage (famously supportive of “Jihadi John”) who promote inflammatory stories about the Government’s anti-terrorism policy, Prevent. I discovered that not only were many of the stories false or exaggerated, but that several of the people presented as ordinary victims in them were in fact activists in Prevent Watch.
Among these activists was a lady called Ifhat Smith, also known as Ifhat Shaheen or Ifhat Shaheen-Smith, who won copious newsprint and airtime with a claim that her schoolboy son had been “interrogated” and “treated as a criminal” because he had used the phrase “eco-terrorism” in class. It was, she told the BBC, the act of a “police state.”
I discovered, and reported, that when Mrs Smith took the school (and the Government) to court over the matter, her claim had been dismissed in scathing terms as “bound to fail” and “totally without merit” and she had even been ordered to pay £1000 for wasting the court’s time. I also found that Mrs Smith managed the London office of the Tunisian Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennadha.
Prevent Watch took us to Ipso about the story – and lost. Ipso ruled that it was not inaccurate for its and Mrs Smith’s claims to be described as false or exaggerated, or for Prevent Watch’s work to be criticised by somebody quoted in the story as a “campaign of lies.”
Ipso also stated that Prevent Watch had “published comments on their website in defence of a person convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000, [and] it was not significantly misleading to characterise Prevent Watch as having ‘sympathised’ with terrorists.”
Mrs Smith then decided to threaten to sue: much wiser from her point of view. Because last year, as part of its long retreat from journalism, the Telegraph got rid of its former, rather robust lawyers (who successfully fought the Ipso case) and appears now to have taken a policy decision to settle legal threats. The paper did duly capitulate, despite the verdict of a court of law and of Ipso that Mrs Smith’s claim was false.
Now, after the good Mrs Smith, another Prevent Watch activist, Haras Ahmed, has quite understandably decided that he wants a piece of the action. Last week he too trousered a settlement from the paper over the same story.
Here’s the background to his achievement. On 30 November 2015, the BBC reported that a school in Waltham Forest, Greenleaf Primary, had “mistakenly revealed” the names of children deemed at risk of radicalisation “in response to a Freedom of Information request by a parent… Haras Ahmed submitted the FoI request referring to one class at the school, asking if certain children had been targeted.” An indignant Mr Ahmed, presented as an ordinary parent, was duly interviewed outside the school. Prevent Watch used the case to press its narrative of Muslims being picked on.
Alas, a few details were missing from this concerning tale.
(1) Mr Ahmed does not appear to have been a parent at Greenleaf School. At the time he made the FOI request, one of several he made in June and July 2015, he was a parent governor at a different Waltham Forest primary school, Thorpe Hall, which his lawyers, Carter Ruck, described as “the local primary school attended by his children.”
(2) Carter Ruck claimed in its complaint that at the time he made his FOI request Mr Ahmed was not an activist in Prevent Watch, saying he had “never even heard” of the group and had only become involved with it “several months after he had made the FOI requests.” His LinkedIn page says that he was involved with Prevent Watch from January 2015, five months before he made the requests.
(3) Prevent Watch itself accepted to Ipso that Mr Ahmed was “already affiliated” with it “at the time [he] had approached the media” with the Greenleaf story. He has represented Prevent Watch on numerous occasions since.
(4) Mr Ahmed involved a second Islamist front group, Claystone, in the story. (They too campaign against counter-terrorism policy on the basis of exaggerations and lies and they too lost an Ipso complaint against me when I said as much.) Mr Ahmed passed Claystone the emails and they issued a press release on 22 September 2015. This didn’t state that the school had revealed the children’s names – just that seven pupils “had been identified” as vulnerable to radicalisation – and the story got very little coverage. So perhaps something else was needed for a fresh media push in November.
(5) According to Waltham Forest council, which runs Greenleaf Primary, the children’s names weren’t mistakenly revealed at all. The council said the names had been redacted from the document sent under the FOI request, which had then been “manipulated by a third party to reveal the blocked-out names.” Who was the third party? We don’t know.
(6) The council also stated that the counter-radicalisation programme at Greenleaf was “not targeted at children of any one faith” and that the seven pupils referred under it were “of different religions.”
Now Mr Ahmed has managed to extract from the Telegraph £20,000 and a statement saying: “The article suggested Mr Ahmed had, in an interview with the BBC, presented himself as an ordinary parent when in fact he was engaged in a campaign to undermine the government’s anti-terrorism policy.
“We accept that Mr Ahmed’s BBC interview was given in good faith. We also accept that, whilst he is critical of the Prevent strategy (elements of which he believes are highly discriminatory), he does not support Islamist extremists and is in no way himself an extremist.”
If the Telegraph wants to advertise itself as a cashpoint for libel lawyers, that, I suppose, is its prerogative and its problem. It could end up costing the paper a lot more than fighting. But the decision to settle with Haras Ahmed has wider consequences: it raises the bar for anyone else who wants to expose the truth about the likes of Prevent Watch and strengthens the hands of those who want to hamper this country’s fight against terror.