Comment | Lord Ahmed, the Media Circus and the Bounty That Never Was

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.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, April 19, 2012 0:00 - 11 Comments

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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.

[Update 18/04: The Express Tribune, the only newspaper to have printed the original allegations about a “bounty” on Pres. Obama, has now officially retracted its claims and apologised for the error.]

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Muddassar Ahmed

Muddassar Ahmed is founder and Chief Executive of Unitas Communications Ltd, a London-based international communications and public affairs agency specialising in the interface between the Islamic and Western worlds. He is founding Chairman of the John Adams Society, the official alumni association for US Embassy exchange programme participants in England & Wales, and is also a founding board member of CEDAR, a pan-European network of Muslim professionals, where he currently chairs the Media Committee. Previously, Muddassar worked as a TV producer and presenter for the BBC and Channel 4. He is currently a member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.

11 Comments

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caroline jaine
Apr 18, 2012 12:26

Couldn’t have said that any better myself! I will be sharing this far and wide.

Nafeez
Apr 18, 2012 13:31

Latest update is that the Express Tribune, the only newspaper to have printed the original allegations about a “bounty” on Pres Obama, has now officially retracted its claims and apologised for the error. http://tribune.com.pk/story/366378/clarification-lord-nazir-ahmeds-statement-in-haripur/

A shame that the worldwide media was unable to do some simple fact-checking before repeating what was an error of incompetence by a Pakistani paper. What does this say about our media when a lie is broadcast everywhere simply because it’s newsworthy – while the exposure of the lie is barely reported because it simply is no longer newsworthy?

What does it say about the Labour Party and free speech?

Hicham Yezza
Apr 18, 2012 16:58

Thank you Nafeez for the update, we’ve added it at the bottom of the piece. H

Jamal
Apr 18, 2012 17:01

Great article, thanks. Outrageous. The Daily Mail article is by Abhijit Pandya, whose Wikipedia entry you shouldn’t read if you’re eating.

Hasan
Apr 18, 2012 17:37

In this report by a prominent TV station reports that Lord Ahmad announced $100,000 to ‘kill’ President Bush;

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLY_Qo7RCIk

Hasan
Apr 18, 2012 17:38

‘Qatl’ in Urdu = Kill

Hasan
Apr 18, 2012 17:40

Here is what Punjab University’s own website reports Lord Ahmad as saying;

He said that the US had fixed the head money of Hafiz Saeed purposively to keep Pakistan in defensive position. In reverse, he said, I announce 10 million dollars reward against Mr George W Bush. He said that he would collect the money whether he had to beg in the streets but Bush and Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes. He said that 43 militaries of powerful countries with all their might could not defeat Afghans who had no shoes to wear. If US President Obama is negotiating with them, then our president should also follow the suit, he added. He said that the president should invite Taliban, aggrieved Baloch in the mountains and us to President House for parleys.

http://pu.edu.pk/home/section/seminars/1445

Hasan
Apr 18, 2012 17:46

What does it say about the Labour Party…?

That they take prominent Pakistani media’s reports too seriously.

Abdul Wahid
Apr 23, 2012 18:27

Most of the international media reports only about Lord Nazir Ahmed’s Haripur speech and not about the speech in Punjab University in Lahore. After the Lahore speech, The News carried a report headlined: “Nazir Puts $10m Bounty on Bush”; Urdu daily Ausaf of London carried a headline:”America Set Price for the Head of Hafiz Saeed to Keep Him On the Defensive – Lord Nazir” – “I set $10 Million for the Head of Bush; [I] Will Arrange the Money”; Roznama Express carried a news titled: “Lord Nazir Offers $10 Million as Price of George Bush”. In fact, according to the CNN, the Haripur reporter of The Express Tribune stood by the accuracy of his report, see this CNN report here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5W0Iy1sCfLU. In fact, an American organization carried out an analysis of this episode – http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/840/6288.htm. Maybe the organizers of the Punjab University speech should publish the unedited video of his speech.

Uza Syed
May 2, 2012 12:36

What just suspended?! This dangerous man must be kicked out of Not only Labour Party but banished from a civilized society like Britain. He is venom spitting cobra and won’t spare the hands that feed him.

UK: “Lord Ahmed Delighted” After Being Reinstated by Labour Whip — Winds Of Jihad By SheikYerMami
Jul 3, 2012 4:55

[…] a sorry reflection on the Labour Party that it ever suspended Lord Ahmed in the first place, on the basis of a story […]

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