Policy Exchange, Newsnight and hate literature

10:49 am - December 14th 2007

by David T    

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The Tory think tank, The Policy Exchange is under fire from Newsnight. At stake, specifically, is the credibility of their recent report, the Hijacking of British Islam.

More generally at stake is the reputation of The Policy Exchange itself.
Osama Saeed summarises the Newsnight allegations as follows:

Tonight’s Newsnight investigation into The Policy Exchange’s recent report on extremism in British mosques found major irregularities with the receipts that the think tank handed them to investigate the issue further:

  • Receipts from North London mosque’s bookshop, when the mosque doesn’t have a bookshop. Forensic examination revealed that the receipt’s heading had been printed on an inkjet printer – when usual procedure for such pieces of paper would be mass printing
  • Receipts from other mosques printed entirely on inkjet printers
  • A receipt for Euston Mosque with the address on it being for the mosque next door to it on North Gower Street (who would have thought that two mosques next door to each other would be an advantage one day!)
  • Forensic tests that found handwriting matching on two separate receipts for different mosques
  • Forensic tests showing that the writing on one receipt had been done on top of another receipt for an entirely different mosque

The Policy Exchange, in response, points out that the report did not mention the receipts at all, but was based entirely upon the testimony of the researchers. Therefore, it says, the question of the veracity of the receipts is not a relevant issue at all. Dean Godson criticises Newsnight for giving the false impression that the Policy Exchange did not make the researchers available to Newsnight: when conversations were had between Newsnight and two of the researchers.

Policy Exchange also says that several of the institutions investigated “openly propagate extremist literature and are intimately linked to extremist ideologues. . It also claims to have been ambushed by Newsnight and hampered from mounting its own defence.

You can read the Policy Exchange response here.

All this may be true. Policy Exchange may very well have found that there are organisations, presenting themselves as “mainstream”, while selling literature which promotes bigotry and extremism. The receipts are certainly not explicitly mentioned in the report.

However, what undermines the Policy Exchange’s case, is the fact that there are “receipts” in existence, the nature of which are difficult to explain.

If the receipts had simply been handwritten records of which books were bought, and where, then this would be a minor issue. Nothing more would be at stake than whether or not the publications were, in fact, sold by the institutions, and whether the bookshops in question were related to the institutions or wholly independent ventures.

However, the Newsnight evidence suggests that some of the “receipts” were not in fact issued by the institutions which, on their face, they purported to be. Some of these receipts were knocked up on a computer. That might have been done by the sellers of these books, working out of the mosque. Alternatively, they might have been produced by the researchers.

The crucial question, therefore, is: who produced these receipts?

If it was the institutions, then there’s no issue. If it was “rogue traders” operating out of the institution, then there’s a question in relation to the responsibility of the institution for books sold on its premises.

If, however, these “receipts” were produced by the researchers, in order either to bolster their contention, or to give a false impression, that the books were bought in the institutions in question, then this is an enormously serious matter. It calls into question the value of the report, as a whole.

It also puts the reputation of the Policy Exchange at risk: unless they can show that they were themselves fooled by their researchers, in a manner that they could not reasonably have detected.

Computer produced receipts don’t worry me that much, one way or the other. So what. Institutions sometimes produce computer generated receipts. The suggestion that some receipts, from different institutions were signed by the same person concerns me slightly more.

Finally, I can’t think of an good innocent explanation for handwriting impressions from one receipt appearing on another, unrelated receipt. Perhaps the receipts were obtained some time after purchase from a single trader, operating out of two institutions. That is possbile: but then we’d be talking about a single trader selling extremist literature, rather than two institutions. Alternatively, as one commentator below suggests, one receipt might have been signed at one institution while sitting on top of another from a second institution. Possible, I suppose.

The thing is this. It is no good for the Policy Exchange to say “we’re relying on the veracity of our researchers, not the receipts”. If any the receipts were forged, then that throws into doubt the honesty of at least some of the researchers, and therefore the value of the research itself.

If a researcher did produce his own receipts, then we need to know why he did so. Was it simply in order to ensure that he was reimbursed by the Policy Exchange for books that were genuinely purchased at the institutions in question? Or was it created to evidence books being sold, which were not in fact being sold by those institutions? To what extend does the level of dishonesty taint the totality of the evidence collected by that researcher?

As a matter of urgency, the Policy Exchange needs to find out whether all the receipts were genuine, and whether there is an innocent explanation for the Newsnight evidence. If the receipts are said to be genuine, then the issues raised by Newsnight need to be addressed and answered fully.

The absurdity of this situation is that – as Dean Godson points out – there is extremist and separatist literature available on the websites and in the bookshops of those “mainstream” Islamist institutions associated with Jamaat e Islami and certain Salafist groupings. Inayat Bunglawala himself has declared himself a fan of the clerical fascist, Mawdudi. These are serious matters of concern. Evidence to support that fact is easy to obtain.

However, if a study which purports to show that 25% of mosques sampled were pedding extremist literature was based, even in part, on research carried out by researchers who may have created, to any degree, ‘evidence’ to back up their contentions – even without the knowledge of senior Policy Exchange staff – it cannot be relied upon.

There is never an excuse for “gilding the lily”: making a good case stronger, by improper methods. Such a technique inevitably rebounds upon the person who seeks to ‘improve’ the evidence.

The Policy Exchange is meeting today in order to “discuss legal action against the BBC”. If the Newsnight allegations are false and were carelessly made then they have a good case. If they are not, then they ought seriously to consider the prospect of legal action against them, by any institution which did not in fact sell extremist literature, but which was falsely portrayed as peddling it.

You can watch the Newsnight programme here and read a Guardian report of some of Newsnight’s claims here.

If the Policy Exchange finds dishonesty on the part of a researcher, then they would be sensible to:

1. Assess which parts of the report can be attributed to the researcher who created these receipts;

2. Withdraw the report entirely: or republish the report, minus any parts of the report which is tainted by that researcher’s work; and

3. Conduct an audit of the the methodologies used in the report generally.
(cross-posted from Harry’s Place)

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About the author
David T is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He normally blogs at Harry's Place.
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Reader comments

Eh, being a think-tank means never having to say you’re sorry and never having to actually abide by any real scrutiny of your evidence. That’s just the way it works.

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  1. Just wait till I get out my inkjet « akatsuki ra-ra-ra

    […] receipt affair isn’t the bigotry, poor research or jumping to conclusions; it’s the possibility that some of the evidence was artificial. Storm in a teacup1? We’ll have to wait and […]

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