Abu Qatada is an extremist so why won’t the BBC tell the truth?

Calling Abu Qatada an extremist may well be a value judgement but it would be the right value judgement and more importantly than this it would also be the truth

Good old Auntie has done its best not to offend this man and his advocates
Tom Wilson
On 9 February 2012 10:16

According to notes shown to the Daily Telegraph, BBC journalists have been told by the corporation’s managers that they should avoid referring to the al-Qaeda preacher Abu Qatada as ‘an extremist’.  This, they were told, would be to make a ‘value judgement’ and rather they were to describe Qatada as ‘a radical’. 

Yet this seems an incredible position for the BBC to have adopted, and it’s incredible because it very clearly appears that the BBC is instructing it’s journalists to avoid telling the truth.

Abu Qatada is quite demonstrably an extremist. Calling him a radical just doesn’t suffice.  You might say that Roy Jenkins was a radical Home Secretary or that Ayn Rand with her views on the virtue of selfishness was a radical. They were radicals because, to varying degrees, they went against the grain of the prevailing orthodoxies that had existed.  But Abu Qatada sits at the extreme end of what is in itself an overtly extreme and violent ideology.

This is after all the man who essentially acted as Bin Laden’s ambassador to Europe. He is known to have acted as a mentor to shoe bomber Richard Reid, Abu Hamza and Zacarias Moussaoui; the so called ‘20th hijacker’ of 9/11. And Qatada has been a fundraiser for terrorist activities and linked with terror groups whose networks stretch from as far as Algeria to Chechnya. Indeed, the immigration judge who thought it would be a good idea to rule that Qatada should walk free from Long Lartin high security prison had already been advised by his security team that the preacher posed a ‘grave risk’ to national security.   


So what business does the BBC have telling their reporters not to refer to this Islamist cleric as an extremist? After all it hardly comes under the heading of BBC impartiality.

Yes we expect the BBC to refrain from showing support for any particular political party and yes we ask that the BBC avoid favouring any one point of view on the EU (as much as this simple task often seems to elude them). But this has nothing to do with impartiality and the BBC ought to be capable of upholding a certain moral standard when it comes to religious fanatics who would employ terrorism to further their aims.

It is, however, the very phraseology chosen by the BBC that reveals the most about the mind-set within which the corporation’s bosses and editors operate. To talk about avoiding making a ‘value judgement’ is of course the language of cultural relativism.

As the philosopher Allan Bloom explained, it is this view that holds that absolutism and the belief in absolute truths has been responsible for all the evils in man’s history. So instead, a tolerance and openness to all things must become our new overriding virtue. But as we know, the moral vacuum that this creates will all too often be seized upon by those with the most intolerant and authoritarian agenda, with the cultural relativists left with nothing to say in defence of their own system lest they be seen to be making a value judgement.

Most people are capable of comprehending that this is how liberal democracy risks undermining itself, but not the BBC apparently.

Yet, in many ways, in refusing to label Qatada an extremist, the BBC is only complying with the same political correctness that most of us impose on ourselves all the time. It is, after all, political correctness that says that intolerance and judgements about other cultures and belief systems is a cardinal sin.

The very notion that something can be politically incorrect, which is really just a less Marxist way of saying ‘false consciousness’, flirts with a form of intellectual totalitarianism that, rather than being imposed by a police state, in fact sustains itself as we police ourselves.  

Through this self-censorship certain things become unsayable and with that comes the implication that they should also become unthinkable. Yet there are things that are clearly true while, from the point of view of political correctness, also completely unacceptable. For instance, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report from October 2010 showed quite clearly that some ethnic minorities had a dramatically disproportionate dependency on welfare support. Making reference to this in certain circles may be unwise, however, and so we are forced to perform a kind of doublethink, where we know one set of facts to be true, but must instead make ourselves believe a contradictory alternative.   

The idea that the BBC must prevent itself from labelling Abu Qatada with the extremist label that he has undoubtedly earned because to do so would be a ‘value judgement’ is simply ridiculous.  

The BBC makes value judgements all the time. When Jeremy Paxman or Andrew Marr conduct an interview they are quite rightly expected to do so with an attitude that embraces, for instance, society’s value of gender equality: it would not be tolerated if they were to make a sexist remark.  

If we are to have a national broadcaster (and whether we should is another question altogether) then we ought to be able to expect it to uphold some basic moral principles, both in its entertainment programming and in its news reporting.  

Calling Abu Qatada an extremist may well be a value judgement but it would be the right value judgement and more importantly than this it would also be the truth.  

Tom Wilson is a political analyst and a doctoral student at University College London

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