Thursday, December 13, 2007

Policy Exchange on Newsnight

Newsnight_logoLast night's Newsnight program was one of the more memorable ones in a while. In this episode, Richard Watson, not usually known for his sympathy towards Islam, presented the reasons why earlier on in October Newsnight had decided not to run an exclusive item on the report of the independent think tank Policy Exchange on their claims that a quarter of the 100 mosques their researchers had visited were selling hate literature.

Instead Richard Watson, armed with some of Policy Exchange's receipts (part of the evidence of their claims regarding the sale of extremist materials at said mosques) and a good dollop of dogged determination to get to the truth, found that at least part of the evidence was highly questionable, to put it mildly. Here are some of Newsnight's findings with regards to the veracity of said receipts:
1. In all five cases the mosques involved said the receipts did not belong to them.

2. The expert analysis showed that all five had been printed on an inkjet printer - suggesting they were created on a PC.

3. The analysis found "strong evidence" that two of the receipts were written by the same person.

4. The analysis found that one of the receipts had been written out while resting on another receipt said to be from a mosque 40 miles away.

It's important to note that Watson didn't claim Policy Exchange's conclusions with regards to the sale of extremist literature at some British Mosques was wholly incorrect, but merely that in five out of twenty five cases the evidence underpinning there conclusions seems highly questionable and seriously calls into question Policy Exchange's methodology with regards to evidence gathering. That extremist literature is sold in some instances at British mosques wasn't really in doubt here.

Who is Policy Exchange? In their own words:
Policy Exchange is an independent think tank whose mission is to develop and promote new policy ideas which will foster a free society based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture.

After last night's Newsnight episode and Dean Godson's (of Policy Exchange) performance when grilled by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman, it's impossible to believe any longer in the think tank's independent status. Dean Godson came across as an extremely partisan person who dodged Paxman's questions, went on to deflect and minimise, created straw man arguments and on the whole seemed to think attack was the best form of defense when faced with flaws in his organisation's evidence gathering methodology. At one point he could be seen waving a copy of "Women who deserve to go to hell" (a book found in several mosques) which appeared to Godson to vindicate the entire report. He also claimed to "stand[s] by his report 100 %", an absurd claim when one considers about 20 % of its evidentiary basis had just been sunk. Clearly Mr Godson wants badly to believe in the perfidy of the mosque booksellers, no matter what. Dodson is a partisan person when it comes to Islam (and I stand by that 100 %) and for that reason alone cannot be considered independent or objective.

On several counts he also attacked Peter Barron (of Newsnight), accusing him at one point of "bottling it" with regards to publishing Newsnight's report on Policy Exchange's findings. Here's Peter Barron's response (note: it contains video links to the actual program, as well as photos of some of the dodgy receipts):
Last night on Newsnight, Dean Godson of the think tank Policy Exchange accused me personally (watch it here) of making a "disastrous editorial misjudgement" and of "appalling stewardship of Newsnight". I think I should respond to that.

Mr Godson was responding to Richard Watson's investigation (watch it here) into Policy Exchange's recent report - entitled "The Hijacking of British Islam" - which accused several leading mosques of selling extremist literature.

In October Newsnight had been due to run an exclusive report on the findings and Policy Exchange had given us the receipts to corroborate their claim that a quarter of the 100 mosques their researchers had visited were selling hate literature.

On the planned day of broadcast our reporter Richard Watson came to me and said he had a problem. He had put the claim and shown a receipt to one of the mosques mentioned in the report - The Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in London. They had immediately denied selling the book and said the receipt was not theirs.

We decided to look at the rest of the receipts and quickly identified five of the 25 which looked suspicious. They appeared to have been created on a home computer, rather than printed professionally as you would expect. The printed names and addresses of some of the mosques contained simple errors and two of the receipts purportedly from different mosques appeared to have been written by the same hand.

I spoke to Policy Exchange to try to clear up these discrepancies but in the end I decided not to run the report. This is not because I "bottled" it as Mr Godson suggests, but because I did not have the necessary level of confidence in the evidence presented.

In the days that followed we focused further on the five receipts about which we had concerns and eventually asked a forensic scientist to analyse them. This is what we found.

1. In all five cases the mosques involved said the receipts did not belong to them.

2. The expert analysis showed that all five had been printed on an inkjet printer - suggesting they were created on a PC.

3. The analysis found "strong evidence" that two of the receipts were written by the same person.

4. The analysis found that one of the receipts had been written out while resting on another receipt said to be from a mosque 40 miles away.

Mr Godson says he stands by his report 100%. I also stand by our report 100%. I don't think we can both be right. [my emphasis]

But Watson and Barron aren't the only ones questioning Policy Exchange's standards of research. Here is Gabriele Marranci, an anthropologist specialising in the study of Muslim communities, in his piece on Policy Exchange's report: the blog post is called Policy Exchange Hijacks Professional Research.

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