By Emma Webb
This week, our latest report Extremism on the Airwaves, investigating Islamist abuse of broadcasting, was Smart Thinking’s most read report and led to widespread anger that more isn’t being done to stop this insidious problem.
“It’s not just offensive, it’s an offence”, we are told by the recent Home Office campaign raising awareness of hate crime. In the current climate, people are increasingly anxious about the consequences of their words– sticks and stones may break my bones but words will destroy my livelihood
It is seemingly paradoxical, then, that Islamist hate preachers seem to get off Scott-free.
53-year-old Indian hate preacher Zakir Naik was banned from entering the country in 2010 by then Home Secretary Theresa May on account of his extremist views. He is most well-known for saying that all Muslims should be terrorists and that apostates who propagate their new faith should be put to death. His influence is thought to have inspired terror attacks including the Dhaka café attack in Bangladesh in 2016. As a result, his channel Peace TV has been banned in a number of countries – but not the UK.
Yet eight years after being banned from entering the country he continued to hold a broadcasting licence in the UK. He resigned in May this year but Peace TV, still very much his personal channel, continues to broadcast here and he remains the chairman of the UK-registered charity that funds it.
One might ask what the point is of banning someone from entering the country if they can freely access UK audiences ‘on the airwaves’ anyway?
Ofcom currently have six investigations open on the channel relating to aired content that breached the broadcasting code. Indeed, Ofcom have shown themselves ready and willing to meet the changing challenges posed by extreme content and updated their Broadcasting Code in 2016 to this end.
However, the burning question is not why channels that have extensive extremist involvement continue to fall foul of the Broadcasting Code by airing extreme content—of course they do.
We need a shift in focus. If we are to develop policies that tackle the problem comprehensively, we need to recognise that content is only part of the bigger picture. There are a number of channels, including one hosting a near-identical roster of Islamist speakers as Peace TV, that hold broadcasting licences. These channels raise money for extremist-linked charities and provide platforms to extreme speakers, magnifying their influence and giving them a veneer of undue credibility. Extremists benefit from broadcasting even if they don’t air any extreme content.
We need to be asking: what is the purpose of these channel? Why do they extensively host extremist speakers? Are their intentions innocent? We shouldn’t take their word at face value.
Ofcom has the power to remove licences when they deem the licensee not ‘fit and proper’ to hold it. The regulator’s ability to do this is limited by laws protecting freedom of expression, setting the bar high. But as recently as September this year Ofcom revoked the licence of a channel for extremist connections even before it aired any content, showing it is possible.
Many of the speakers on these channels have spouted homophobia, antisemitism, misogyny. They have made derogatory and hateful remarks about Christians, have advocated Female Genital Mutilation and wife beating. Where are the “offence archaeologists”?
Society shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other when faced with their views, unsure of what to say. Turning the old biblical maxim on its head, perhaps it is easier to remove the speck from our own eye than the beam from our brothers.