“Why do I watch SML?” I ask myself this nearly every week. I might answer “For several reasons.”
(Inner dialogue, you understand.)
Firstly, there’s the sweet and sour factor. You know, the cringeworthy element that used to make us keep watching The Office from behind the sofa. Not a good analogy, really, because the Office made us laugh and you can’t say SML does that.
Next, there’s the excitement of seeing who’s on the panel. Like with TBQ - you spot your favourites straight away. Douglas Murray, and, and, and…… well, you get the drift.
Then there’s those contributions from the public. (You! ) Tommy reads out a few banal and mostly puerile messages from unidentifiable commenters. He often reads them inaccurately, which is all the more bizarre because we can read them for ourselves from the giant screen.
When he’s done, Naga or host-of-the-week turns back to the panel, which always continues as before; slightly embarrassed by the crude interruption, pretending it didn’t happen like a fart at a formal dinner.
I can see why the BBC keeps asking the public to join the conversation - but the fact is that the public’s contribution rarely adds value, and what’s more, often goes the ‘wrong’ way. Remember that audience poll they used to run - they scrapped it when the results were so consistently contrary to the BBC’s agenda that it became a bit of a joke. Entertaining though it was for we contrarians.
Anyway, while politics has been temporarily ripped from the Sunday morning schedule, we are grateful for SML. It’s all we’ve got.
Naga Munchetty has gone up in my estimation. She seems better suited to her role as SML host than she ever did when sitting on that sofa beside a male co-anchor, addressing the lightweight, chatty, gossipy items that dominate ‘Breakfast.’
Samira Ahmed also seemed to blossom when she quit Channel Four and started doing more intellectually demanding things at the BBC. I don’t compare them solely because they’re ‘ethnics’, or ‘women’, but because they both seemed to have spent a long time being under-utilised.
Anyway, this morning’s discussion really suffered from SML’s constraining format. Too many topics squashed into too little time. At least they didn’t have anyone Skyping from a remote location, with their huge head on a huge screen, looking menacing while waiting to speak.
The main topic was about freedom of speech and Anjem Choudary’s recent conviction.
The obvious retort would be “None” because most of us define religious extremists as anti-British, anti-democratic and dangerous. But of course it’s not as simple as that. There are many shades of religious extremism - and ‘freedom of speech’ is considered to be one of our fundamental rights. You can’t start clamping down on one person’s freedom of speech without compromising another person’s freedom of expression.
So SML confined itself to this one particular case, where Anjem Choudary was found guilty of incitement to actual killings. In particular, of supporting I.S. and encouraging others go to Syria and chop people’s heads off. This is where he appears to have crossed that crucial line.
Why Choudary didn’t join his ideal Islamic state himself is not clear; perhaps because he had a wife and family to claim benefits for? (rumoured to be £25,740 P.A.)
Chris Phillips, ‘Terror and security expert’ spoke first. He described Choudary as a revolting man - probably not a good enough reason to put him away - but he’s glad he’s finally been jailed as he has caused enormous damage to this country, but that “no-one actually knows how many deaths were the result of his words.”
It seemed kind of obvious that it was a jolly good thing Choudary has been locked up. All the more surprising, then, when Luke Gittos (solicitor) emphatically disagreed.
“I think his conviction is an outrage. I think he’s been locked up for what he believes and what he thinks”.
He thinks it’s ridiculous to claim Choudary has caused any deaths. “he merely declared his support for ISIS in a pub with his mates, and made a bunch of loony videos on Youtube’.
Now that seems slightly at odds with Choudhry’s fanatical Islamic beliefs. I’m well aware of his early boozy, druggy, womanising days when he was a student known by his mates as ‘Andy’. But did he really still go to the pub with his ‘mates’ and say something rash about ISIS whilst under the influence?
Anyway, the solicitor felt he should have been left to express his nutty ideas and let them face public scrutiny, (much as he was doing now, perhaps?)
'Censorship pushes such ideas underground, where they cannot be challenged,' he said.
Of course he didn’t consider the actual danger of challenging such ideas - a danger faced by all, including dissenting Muslims.
The next speaker was Henna Rai, from ‘Women Against Radicalisation Network’. She cited the killers of Lee Rigby, and said Choudary was responsible for ruining the lives of many by inciting and encouraging young people to go to Syria, and spreading venomous lies and vitriol about Islam.
“We need to protect the most vulnerable” she said, “and tell them the truth about what Islam really is.”
So, another agenda, squeezed into an already overflowing time-frame.
Last to speak, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, one of the regulars on this kind of programme. He explained that as a trained lawyer Choudary was clever enough to sail close to the wind, and got caught only when he crossed the line. Freedom of speech trumps everything and it’s only ‘crossing that line” by inciting people to violence that can justify putting Choudary in prison.
That’s quite a platitude, but the argument, which boiled down to finding an explicit definition of ‘incitement’, was worth developing.
The solicitor said there was no evidence that Choudary incited anyone to violence, so the conviction came close to imprisoning people merely for what they believe and think. He said that Lee Rigby’s killers couldn’t have been ‘ordinary men’ who ‘suddenly got radicalised’ after hearing Anjem Choudary preach. They must have been predisposed, I suppose is what he meant.
That theory deserved a rigorous unpacking, but instead Ms Rai went down another path, the one that takes us to “I.S. does not represent ‘True Islam’.”
The solicitor (Luke Gittos) acknowledged that Choudary’s religious principles perceive the man-made construct ‘democracy’ as artificial, and he admits that Choudary’s religion denies others (women, infidels etc) freedom of speech. Gittos believes that if we deny Choudary the freedom of speech and make a martyr of him, we only succeed in ‘proving his point’.
The sort of faultless logic that is all very well in theory, but in not in practice.
They did touch on the matter of radicalisation in prison, something that Michael Gove was beginning to tackle and his successor has pledged to continue.
The news that Choudary might be confined to some sort of isolation in prison met with the panel’s approval, apart from the lone voice (Gittos) who claimed we’re about to change our whole way of life (by imprisoning people for thought crimes) just for the sake of one or two deranged individuals.
He certainly had a point, but seemed to be in denial over the rise of radical Islam in Europe and the rest of the world. Here we are teetering on the brink of the clash of civilisations.
Suddenly he seemed to be agreeing that as soon as a line is crossed, i.e., by incitement to violence, then it’s okay to punish the accused. So, back to square one and the unanswered question. What exactly is incitement?
Jonathan Romain rounded off the circular debate by reminding us that Choudary has had 20 years of freedom, and by crossing that all important line, was the architect of his own downfall.
However, we must question ourselves, he said. Ask what was the real cause of radicalisation, be more vociferous in challenging extremists and reinforce our own values.
There came a short intervention by Tommy for YOUR tweets and messages (in which an extreme split has been detected)……… and back to the debate.
The solicitor still insisted that there was no evidence that Choudary ever directly incited anyone, and that most Muslims think of him as a bit of a windbag and don’t take any notice of him. It seemed as if we were about to embark on another lap of the same circuit. But no. At last we all agree.
We need more democracy and more freedom of speech. We also need less time-consuming padding on SML if it’s ever going to compete with Sunday morning’s regular fare.