This week, Labour peer Lord Ahmed was summarily suspended by his party for allegedly putting a bounty on the heads of Barack Obama and GW Bush. Despite these allegations being quickly shown to be false, they continued to be widely-propagated in the British media. Muddassar Ahmed says this case has worrying implications for political dissent and media ethics in the UK.
This week, Lord Nazir Ahmed was summarily suspended from the Labour Party following widely-reported allegations that he called for a £10 million bounty for the capture of President Obama during a speech in Pakistan
Though parroted unquestioningly throughout the British press on Monday, it has now come to light that Lord Ahmed never made any such claim. Video footage of the speech obtained yesterday by the Telegraph showed that on the contrary, Lord Ahmed had called for justice, due process and specifically for Tony Blair and George W. Bush to be held to account for war crimes in the International Criminal Court – a far cry from a ringing endorsement of illegal violence. “[The] footage of his speech, made in Urdu at a conference in Haripur on Friday, indicates that he was misquoted”, observes news reporter Murray Wardrop.
For people who know and work with Lord Ahmed on a regular basis, the allegation seemed suspect from the outset. Yet the performance of the press on this subject raises disturbing questions. Instead of investigating the allegations against Lord Ahmed, the press largely reported the claims uncritically without confirming whether or not they were actually true. One paper, the Daily Mail, in a report published after Channel 4′s broadcast of the original video footage disproving the allegations, simply repeated them as follows: “Lord Ahmed was suspended by the Labour party yesterday for allegedly putting a bounty on the heads of President Obama and former President GW Bush while supporting the man indicted for the Bombay terror attacks. It is unclear whether Ahmed actually said this.”
It is strange that a British newspaper claims that the matter is “unclear”, when it is now a matter of public record that Lord Ahmed never said anything approaching an endorsement of illegal violence against the US President.
Similarly, a speculative blog on the Sky News website by foreign affairs correspondent Tim Marshall continues to insist that the matter is far from resolved, questioning the authenticity of the footage of Lord Ahmed’s speech. In a resounding display of journalistic integrity, he declares that he has written for clarification to Punjab University – on whose website the original inaccurate claims may have been made.
A worrying pattern thus emerges – the press has decided to investigate the facts of the matter after widely reporting unconfirmed rumours as news.
What is clear is that Lord Ahmed was voicing his longstanding opinion on the need for Blair and Bush to be held accountable through a transparent legal process for their involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as the matter has been corrected through video footage, some elements of the press are either ignoring the new evidence, or trying to explain why it should be ignored. It seems once word has spread, even the truth cannot undo the damage done.
In this case, Lord Ahmed’s reputation and career is at stake – the most serious repercussion being the Labour Party’s pre-emptive decision to suspend Lord Ahmed, before even carrying out an investigation.
Lord Ahmed has been a member of the Labour Party for 37 years and a life peer for over a decade, and as such is perhaps the most popular Muslim politician amongst Muslims communities in the UK. The speed of his suspension illustrates how much precedence Labour gives to poorly verified sources of information – as long as they are widely endorsed by the mainstream media. Coming so soon after the party’s defeat in Bradford, this mistake will not win Labour many friends amongst the Muslim community. In effect, the party’s unilateral suspension of Lord Ahmed – still in effect despite the facts – comes across as an institutionalised lack of tolerance for any form of dissent on foreign policy issues.
Differing opinions on policy are the backbone of our open and progressive society, as are the public figures that voice these opinions. Yet, if such figures are forced to bite their tongue for fear of their dissent being sensationalised, distorted and demonised without warrant, how can we expect a free and open dialogue on such crucial matters to continue?
Lord Ahmed’s unfortunate experience should cause at least a little soul-searching about the state of Britain’s media and political institutions who remain – even when the facts are at the core of an issue – prone to reacting reflexively to wild rumours instead of conducting impartial and robust investigations. We should be asking ourselves why this is the case, and what can be done to prevent it in the future.