Undercover Mosque: tables turned as programme makers sue police for libel

Its normally the media that get sued for libel and the damage to reputation their coverage is alleged to do. This time the tables are turned and the editor and production company behind the controversial documentary, Undercover Mosque, aired in January last year are suing the police for libel.

While controversial, the programme, overseen by Channel 4 Dispatches editor Kevin Sutcliffe, had involved extensive research and dealt with the sensitive issues of extreme Islamic views and radicalisation. While uncomfortable and likely to attract condemnation from various parties, the debate underlying and surrounding the programme addressed important issues of public interest. For reasons best known to the West Midlands police, they decided to complain to media regulator Ofcom about the programme and the way it was edited, publicly suggesting it was biased. Their complaint had significant implications for the media and freedom of expression in that what they were seeking to claim and have some say over was the manner in which a television programme was edited.

As has been discussed in the press, this is clearly intrusive of free expression and goes againt the freedom of expression guarantee as exists under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights as applied through the UK Human Rights Act. Under the UK Act both the courts and police as public bodies have an obligation to act in a manner that upholds and is consistent with the European Convention. The European Court in the case of Jersild v Denmark was clear in establishing that it is not for the state or regulators to prescribe or interfere with the 'form and substance' of a television programme. Insofar as a programme does not of itself contravene a law or incite racial hatred, it is up to programme makers to decide the best way to portray the story and images that support it.

Ofcom published its decision in Broadcast Bulletin Issue number 97 - 19|11|07 and found the programme not to be in breach of the Broadcast Code

It will be interestng to see what becomes of the action announced this week. What the case highlights is that the media has as much right as the public, celebrities or politicians to be protected by libel laws against having its reputation damaged without just cause. The assumption that libel actions are one way traffic is being rebutted by this action. While the overall case has clear human rights and free expression considerations, the specific facts that would need to be proved are that the police complaint to Ofcom and surrounding publicity damaged the reputation of the editor and programme makers - or had the potential to do so. If this were to proceed to full trial it would provide a legally formative public debate on the rights of the media to be protected from unjust attack and allowed free expression. It is however more likely that damage limitation will see an out of court settlement.

Undercover Mosque cleared

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