Another bad day for the media

The British media have spent the last 24 hours or so celebrating Britain's victory at the European Court of Human Rights. Some victory.

The court says that five "terrorism" suspects can be sent from Britain to the US, even though they will suffer years of solitary confinement there. The BBC so forgot themselves in their delight at this obscenity that they ended up treading on royal toes.

Yesterday the BBC broadcast a claim by its security correspondent Frank Gardner that the Queen had told him, some years ago, that she was "pretty upset" that Abu Hamza hadn't been arrested and that she had said as much to the then Home Secretary.

It would be of great interest to know which Home Secretary the Queen spoke to. David Blunkett, who was Home Secretary at the time when Abu Hamza was most likely to have caught the Queen's attention, denies that it was him.

The BBC has apologised to the Queen for broadcasting her comments, which it now describes as a "private conversation." No apology was due. If the Queen shares her views on who should be arrested with the Home Secretary, that is a matter of public interest. If the Queen then relays her conversation to a journalist, whether on or off the record, she has only herself to blame if the story becomes public knowledge.

On the other hand, the BBC owes the rest of us an explanation. Frank Gardner's revelations have been described as a gaffe. It's a funny kind of gaffe that dovetails neatly and precisely with the Government's preferred narrative. Abu Hamza is portrayed as a man who deserves whatever is coming to him. The troublesome European Court of Human Rights has given the go-ahead for Abu Hamza's extradition, and no further questions should be asked.

This idea is presented as British common sense. And now it apparently has the stamp of royal approval. The Government can advertise its own reasonableness, and the Queen's well-wishers can advertise her common touch, in a mutually beneficial circle from which facts and reason are completely excluded.

In fact, the Queen's alleged views have a good deal more merit than the views now being touted by the media. According to Frank Gardner, the Queen said to the Home Secretary "surely this man must have broken some laws." She did not say "surely this man could be extradited to the US to see if he has broken some US laws."

According to the Independent, Gardner is understood "to have initially thought his disclosure of marginal significance." In an interview for the Guardian in 2009 Gardner said "I enjoy peering through the murky gloom trying to make sense of spin." So why did he think it right to tell a stale anecdote instead of using his airtime to analyse the half-hidden and unaccountable trans-atlantic security collaboration that is driving attempts to extradite Abu Hamza, Babar Ahmad, Talha Ahsan, Adel Abdul Bary and Khalid Al-Fawwaz?

Abu Hamza is a British citizen by marriage. He was living in Britain throughout the period covered by the US indictment against him. The most eye-catching of the charges against him implicate him in a hostage-taking incident in Yemen which ended in a gun battle that resulted in the deaths of 4 hostages. Three of the dead hostages were British; one was Australian. Abu Hamza is said to have had telephone contact with the hostage-takers and to have agreed to act as an intermediary for them.

Abu Hamza is also said to have provided material support, from Britain, for violent jihad and violent jihad training in Afghanistan. And he is said to have conspired, from Britain, to provide material support for a planned "violent jihad training camp" in Bly, Oregon. All the charges would be better heard in Britain than in the US.

Before his arrest and conviction in Britain on an earlier set of charges, Abu Hamza had drawn vitriol upon himself through his speeches and media interviews. Much of what he said was capable of striking a chord with progressive people of all communities. Some was not, and didn't go down well with London jurors at his 2006 trial, who decided that some of his comments amounted to "soliciting to murder" and that other comments amounted to "stirring up racial hatred."

Abu Hamza was absolutely opposed to US policy in the Islamic world. In an August 2002 interview with the Frontline US TV programme he characterised the US approach as:

"So they're basically saying to everybody, 'Don't worry about what our policies were not making sense. But we are the strongest. We can do whatever we like.' "

He added:

"So you can't say Muslims are against Americans. That's too crude. But we are against some policy makers, who actually, we do believe, are slaving their own nations, and they're using them as a shield for some personal motives, who only very few individuals benefited from."

It is easy to see that repeated calls from media pundits and government ministers for Abu Hamza to be somehow got rid of might lead the British authorities to encourage an extradition request from the US. To suggest that this is what actually happened would be mere speculation.

On the other hand, there is indisputable evidence that the US charges against Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan are the product of work carried out by British police on behalf of the US authorities, while keeping the Crown Prosecution Service in the dark.

We don't know what part MI5 played in the investigation, though we know they planted a bug in Babar Ahmad's home. We don't know whether government ministers knew that the police were working for the Americans. We don't know whether there was – or is – a general policy that certain kinds of criminal investigation in Britain should be led from the US.

Will other British people – perhaps a lot of other British people – be targeted by US-led investigations if precedent makes extradition easy? We have no evidence on which to base a guess.

These are matters that the BBC's Frank Gardner might have discussed on the Today programme yesterday. Better still, he might have tried to uncover some of the missing pieces in the jigsaw. Instead, he told a story about the Queen.

The peculiar handling of the evidence against Babar Ahmad was one of the issues raised by MPs when they debated Britain's extradition arrangements last December. MPs then agreed a non-binding motion calling upon the Government to reform Britain's extradition arrangements "as a matter of urgency."

If the Government were to embark on a process aimed at extradition reform it would of course be unthinkable for the extraditions currently pending to go ahead. An Early Day Motion supported by 62 MPs asks the Government to take the steps proposed in the December 2011 motion and says that "it would not be in the public interest for anyone to be extradited to the US from the UK until the urgent legislation called for by Parliament to amend the 2003 Treaty has been passed."

Neither the unfairness of Britain's extradition arrangements nor the subordination of the Metropolitan Police to US requirements troubled the European Court of Human Rights. In an admissibility decision given in July 2010 it ruled that these matters were none of its business. Its judgment in April 2012, made final this week, only concerned the treatment the appellants were likely to receive in US custody. Even within this narrow field, the judges chose to sidestep some important matters. These ought to be dealt with by further legal moves in the UK

The Strasbourg judgment was a grave setback for efforts to remove the scourge of long-term solitary confinement from the world's jails. But it has no bearing on the aspects of the extradition battle that are likely to be of most concern to people in Britain.

The British Government has still to address the issues raised by the House of Commons last year. The extraditions cannot decently go ahead until the Government does that. Of course, you wouldn't know that from a survey of British media coverage of the court decision.

Headline after headline has instead repeated the magic phrase "Abu Hamza." Never mind that the court case the headlines celebrate goes by the name "Babar Ahmad and others v The United Kingdom." Never mind that Babar Ahmad has become a celebrity, his name known to just about everyone likely to pick up a newspaper.

The mantra "Abu Hamza" is thought by newspaper editors to dull readers' minds. We are told that we don't like Abu Hamza. And then we are invited to avert our eyes and ask no questions so that Abu Hamza can be removed from our neighbourhood. It is nothing less than an attempt to draw millions of people into an open conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

You may agree with this objective or abhor it. But promoting it has nothing to do with journalism. It is simply spin.

Why do journalists do this? Are they fool enough to believe that scratching the backs of the powerful will lead the powerful to scratch their backs in return? Are they so inexperienced that they haven't noticed that what goes around comes around?

Who would have predicted in 1989 that, twelve years into the 21st century, we would finally learn that the 96 football fans who died in Hillsborough Stadium died because of the actions of the police? And who would have predicted that we would have before us evidence that the police covered up their actions more shamelessly than even their sharpest critics had dared suggest in public?

Actually, quite a lot of people might have guessed those things. They just didn't get much space in the media to say so. And a lot of people who were keeping their mouths shut must have known what happened. Any moderately resourceful and determined journalist working for a moderately supportive editor ought to have been able to find a loose end to tug that would unravel the story. It didn't happen.

Why do journalists leave their best stories for their children to write? We need the truth now, while there is still time to act upon it.