Yesterday evening Radio 4's File on 4 devoted forty minutes to the English Defence League and far right extremism.
A Game Of Two Halves
Urry got down to business straight away, with the sound recording switching from the noise of an English Defence League demonstration in Birmingham to the case of Reading's would be nazi bomber Neil Lewington, and the 'private warnings' of senior police officers that a terrorist spectacular could be carried out by a far-right extremist.
The inference was of course clear - that the EDL is a conduit for or could be linked to such activity. A big claim (if it were made directly) but not one backed up by evidence. A series of short interviews were conducted with regards to the EDL activity in Birmingham - Lisa Brooks of the EDL, Salma Yaqoob from Respect and West Midlands Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe. Somewhat amusingly Ms Rowe was sceptical about whether the EDL ever intended to protest in Birmingham that day. As her officers had most of their number trapped in a pub for many hours, she arguably played as big a role in that decision as the EDL!
Online Is Off Message
What was significant here was the degree to which both Asst Chief Constable Rowe and presenter Urry stressed that these were activities being organised on-line, and that although further arrests would follow regarding the violence in Birmingham (the Association of Chief Police Officer's National Public Order Intelligence Unit got a name check) that was not enough. Rowe went on to pose the question: Is the Public Order Act now sufficient, in the era of the Internet and the speed with which it allows people to organise? I suspect she, and ACPO already have an answer to that question.
Luton is a town with a comparatively long history of association with Islamic extremism (the 7/7 bombers, familiar with the town, met up there before heading into London to carry out their attacks in 2005), whilst media reports, from within and outside the Muslim community have stressed the presence of extremists in the town. Couple this with poor relations between Muslim and non-Muslim, and the town centre demonstration by an Al-Mujihiroun off-shoot against Briish soldiers, it is not surprising that Luton has emerged as one of the English Defence League's strongest areas.
Urry interviewed 'Wayne' a local EDL activist. Here it is hard not to scream frustration at the BBC. Wayne was clearly an intelligent, articulate man, yet Urry felt the need to tell us he had short hair and tattoos - information that was not given about anyone else featured during the programme. It is no use Urry speculating that the white working feels left out of political discourse or discriminated against, when he himself is repeating the offence!
Wayne was on weak ground when claiming his opposition was only to Islamic extremism (not something borne out by at least one EDL leaflet and several of its chants) but it was noticeable just how middle class many of the BBC criticisms of the EDL put forward were - they are not going about things 'the right way', they are 'not doing things properly'. The last time I heard an organisation spoken about in this manner was Fathers For Justice, and look how big they got......
Luton Council and Multiculturalism
Wayne took us on a little tour of Farley Hill Estate, and raised his objection to Luton Town taking 10 coaches of local Muslim children, for free, to Wembley last season for the Football League Trophy final. In a way this comment cuts to the heart of multiculturalism as it is currently practiced. Luton Town is uncomfortable about having a mostly white fan base when the ground is located in a largely Muslim area. Whether the fans themselves, or the local Muslim community is as concerned is not recorded, but the solution is to offer local Muslim kids a free ticket and coach trip, and to offer the kids in Farley Hill (of all colours) nothing.
When Urry put the issue of council funding with regards to local communites to Luton council's leader, she insisted that she did not like to talk in terms of white, black or Muslim communities. Neither do I, but coming from any politician, this is more than a bit rich. Is she going to say that to the local Muslim community at election time?
Next up was the governments Prevent strategy for opposing extremism, which seems to have pleased no one, but to have wasted millions of pounds. No wonder a government minister could not be found to go on the programme! A spokesman from the Bury Park Mosque and Islamic Centre discussed the attack on the mosque this summer. As is sometimes the case with racist attacks, here some irony was to be found - his was the only mosque in Luton that had already banned Al-Mujihiroun (although one wonders why the others had not?) Interestingly a significant degree of planning occured with that attack. The stolen car used in the petrol bombing, had been nicked some 9 months earlier..........
Edmund Standing has carried out some interesting research into the far-right and the Internet. His argument was a straight forward one - that the Internet has made groups on the Nazi fringe far more accessible. Groups like the Racial Volunteer Force and British People's Party can now be reached easily via google, and Nazi forums can even contain information on bomb making equipment. What worries me here is the subtext - clamp down on such websites, and the police will very soon be clamping down on websites that also get on their nerves, for example by promoting and reporting on direct action. Indymedia anyone?
In terrorism studies, arguably the most difficult person to both analyse and counter is the 'lone wolf'. This could be someone radicalised at home or on-line, who does not attend any far-right meetings, is not a member of any group, but is nuturing a strong hatred and desire to attack his perceived opponents.
Two talking heads from the Crown Prosecution Service were put forward to discuss Neil Lewington (who does fit the bill of the lone wolf) and Martyn Gilleard, who does not. Gilleard was a member of a well known fascist organisation, the British People's Party, and indeed one that is riddled with suspected and actual informers. The CPS rather weakened the thrust of the argument by even misnaming the BPP as the British Nazi Party - at least read your own scripts properly!
Earlier this year, Police Review reported on a conference stressing the dangers of the far-right, and in particular the far-right music scene. An un-named spokesman mentioned that the focus on Al Qaeda terrorism should not distract from other threats. We rather got to the meat of this dish only at the end of the programme, when we were informed of an ACPO conference where police had talked of 'knocking over' right wing extremists. Despite this, and concerns expressed to Urry by the Met about far-right terrorism, we were expected to believe the issue was 'so sensitive' ACPO would not put up a speaker. Oh please!
It now appears a given that the government will extent its countering extremism strategy to the neo-Nazi right. As a programme, this documentary failed to prove the English Defence League is a fascist organisation. I can't help thinking however that was not its intention. Its aim was to flag up the need for new laws - whether against the EDL itself, against certain websites, or against those organising demonstrations on-line. If history has taught us anything, it is that we should be suspicious of giving the state more power on any issue.
Be careful out there.