This has been a bad month for those who want to shut down free speech in Britain.
First there was the wholesale failure of Fiyaz Mughal (whose 'work' I have written about before). Readers will recall that Mr Mughal – whose website, Tell Mama, claims to record and counter 'Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred' – used the immediate aftermath of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby to claim hysterically that, 'The scale of the backlash is astounding… there has been a massive spike in anti-Muslim prejudice'. He also used the opportunity to attack the UK government's counter-terrorism policy. All this before Drummer Rigby – who some people may remember was killed in an actual attack by two Islamic extremists – was buried.
The Sunday Telegraph subsequently revealed that Tell Mama's study was completely wrong. Among many other things Tell Mama had conflated actual incidents with virtual online expressions of hatred and failed to do even the most basic checks, reporting all claims as facts. In a follow-up story the Sunday Telegraph also revealed that:
'The organisation has received a total of £375,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) since last year. "Mr Mughal was giving data on attacks to DCLG which wasn't stacking up when it was cross-referenced with other reports by Acpo [the Association of Chief Police Officers]," said one source closely involved in counter-extremism. He was questioned by DCLG civil servants and lost his temper. He was subsequently called in by [Liberal Democrat MP] Don Foster and told that he would receive no more money.'
Well, unsurprisingly Mughal didn't like these facts being exposed to public view and did everything he could to try to reclaim his credibility. I believe his attempt to be what people on Twitter call an 'epic fail.'
First he tried to sue the Telegraph. Not for the reports, but for a column following on from them by that well known extremist Charles Moore. (The column in question is available here.) Mughal claimed that the typically intelligent and sobering piece by Charles Moore somehow gave the impression that Mughal was a 'Muslim extremist... more extremist in his views and actions than the far-right extremists in the English Defence League' and a 'hypocrite' who 'falsely portrays himself as being anti-extremist'. And so he sued.
Happily there has just been a ruling in the case where Mr Justice Tugendhat said that there was 'little scope …for restrictions on political speech or on debate on questions of public interest', and said that Charles Moore was entitled to criticise Mughal's views.
But what a month in the courts it has been for Mr Mughal. It is only a few weeks since he had another legal attempt thrown out of court. On that occasion Mr Mughal had attempted to sue a Twitter user who had referred to Mughal as a 'Mendacious Grievance-Mongering Taqiyya-Artist'. ('Taqiyya' is a concept in Shia Islam which permits believers to lie in certain circumstances.) Last month at Birmingham magistrates’ court Mughal's claim of racially aggravated harassment was thrown out by the judge who said that 'the prosecution had manifestly failed to meet the bar required.' Just another day in court for Mr Mughal.
But at least he has some small residual sense. For he failed to back up another great time-waster of the British police and public called 'Mo Ansar'. This man, someone who has absolutely no history or CV but who pretends to be one of the great Muslim figures of our age, apparently spends his life and career on Twitter. Apart from the occasional brief media appearance, this seems the only medium on which Mo has any identity. Although now, after some online digging, it appears that he may in fact have several such identities.
Anyhow, sometime in March Mo was engaging in his second favourite pastime, having lengthy discussions with himself via his apparent Twitter sock-puppets and praising his own media appearances, when suddenly he seems to have engaged in his absolutely top favourite pastime and reported someone to the police for 'Islamophobia'. The person in question was the wonderful Iain Dale: blogger, radio host and all-round good thing. To cut a long story short one day on Twitter (as himself) Mo was defending the now dead head of Birmingham Central mosque (a lunatic who believed that the 7/7 bombers did not carry out the 7/7 attacks). And when Iain objected to this and other things Mo was saying, Mo suddenly decided to report Iain to the police. The reasons given were that he thought Iain had 'violated his dignity' and said things which Mo said he 'consider[ed] prejudiced and targeted towards me based on my race or religion.' Foremost among these claims appeared to be the fact that Iain had said that he would never again have Mo on his LBC show. For Mo, being barred from a radio talk show is as fearsome as being shot and disappeared would be for most of us.
Anyhow, after considerable and protracted unpleasantness for Iain Dale, the police have decided that no crime has been committed. Iain writes about the whole horrible business here. It is a devastating tale. An account of how a sinister buffoon can waste a lot of good peoples' time for no good end. Nevertheless, in his piece Iain does praise Tell Mama for ignoring Mo's request to jump on his bandwagon and backing him in that particular claim.
So why do I go into this tawdry business? For several reasons. First, because such tales have become the absolute norm in this country; being frivolously legally harassed is now something you must get used to should you ever tread into contentious territory - such as taking a dim view of something false said by anyone who holds themselves out as a 'moderate' Muslim. That can come to a blogger, a tweeter or a respected former editor of the Telegraph. But the aim is the same: to shut down free speech and debate. And in particular to persuade people that it is best not to speak out because the cost of doing so has become so off-putting.
But one other thing this shows is far more serious. Both Mo and Mughal are regularly presented in the media as 'moderate' Muslims. As Maajid Nawaz has recently shown, Mo is no such thing. But most people don't want to go into the details. As long as you sound nice, wear the right clothes, put the correct amount of eyeliner on and simply show up, you can get the job. Yet the striking thing about both these two men trying and failing to shut down legitimate criticism of themselves is that they so evidently misunderstand the laws of the country they are trying to influence. Both have been a tremendous drain on the resources of our country, our police and courts. Both clearly have no concept whatsoever of the long and important tradition of free speech in this country. Both misunderstand the point of the rule of law and the role of the police and judicial authorities, believing they are there to shield them from legitimate criticism.
For my part, I cannot help thinking that such frivolous claims like these should cost the complainant rather more than they currently do. Until there is as serious a cost to making such frivolous and costly claims as there is to the people they are made against, these legal tourists will continue to push their wares unhindered.
But for now, rejoice! The latest attempts to end our historic freedoms have failed in the most beautiful ways possible.