CommonSpace columnist Yvonne Ridley says the media should recognise the role it played in the rise of Anjem Choudary's profile
A WHOLE raft of London-based journalists must now be pondering who will be their next stooge as Anjem Choudary faces the prospect of a 10-year stretch on Tuesday (6 September) when he appears for sentencing at the Old Bailey.
He was, without doubt, their very own Ron Obvious. Monty Python fans will know exactly who I mean: Ron was a character from Neepsend in Sheffield who appeared in the first series and attempted to perform a number of outrageous stunts in order to get publicity.
Among his headline-grabbing stunts, Ron Obvious tells journalists he will jump the English Channel. At another the cameras roll as he prepares to eat Chichester Cathedral and there's great media excitement as Ron Obvious sets out to split a railway carriage with his nose.
The headlines were predictable and Ron Obvious would've been pea green with envy.
Similarly in March 2009, Anjem Choudary from Welling, in south-east London had Sun journalists salivating as he told them he wanted to see all British women dressed in burkas and an Islamic flag flying over Downing Street. The headlines were predictable and Ron Obvious would've been pea green with envy … had he survived his attempt to run to Mercury.
Warming to the theme by October the same year, Choudary managed to pull in hoards more gullible journalists as he demanded the Queen wear Islamic dress and he even provided them with mocked up photographs of Buckingham Palace complete with Islamic flags and a mosque-style dome and minaret.
He called for drunks to be publicly flogged and adulterers stoned and the media played along with it. Monty Python creators could have written his script. The front pages have been many and varied and no doubt the last of the headlines will be fittingly prepared as he faces the prospect of a possible 10-year sentence following his conviction at the Old Bailey last month for supporting the so-called Islamic State.
However, there is also a degree of certainty that not one newspaper will publish the real story about the hate preacher, because for nearly 20 years he was aided and abetted by the mainstream media and could never have become a household name without them.
The uncomfortable reality is most of Choudary's regular demonstrations and rallies presented photographers and cameramen with enormous problems because they often attracted more journalists than activists. Choudary struggled to muster more than 20 or so followers at a time.
Anjem Choudary called for drunks to be publicly flogged and adulterers stoned and the media played along with it. Monty Python creators could have written his script.
Most of his meetings were held alfresco because not a single mosque in the UK would give him space since he was shunned by the majority of the muslim community. Yet the media willingly portrayed him as a major representative and leader of muslims.
In the first 24 hours following his conviction, various investigative journalists and undercover researchers talked up the role played by the "charismatic" leader of the banned al-Muhajiroun group, describing him as articulate, intelligent and like a father figure.
Just like John Cleese's journalist in the Ron Obvious sketch, they kept a poker face as they spouted complete balderdash possibly because it was less embarrassing to keep up the pretence than admit the inconvenient truth.
Don't get me wrong, the media did not create this monster, but they did give him the megaphone and the oxygen of publicity via the lurid headlines he craved as much as Python's Ron Obvious, played by Terry Jones.
However, unlike the character who delighted Monty Python devotees there was a dark side to the manufactured headlines created by Choudary's silly antics. The publicity enabled him to recruit equally attention-seeking, needy, low-achieving losers and vulnerable individuals who did not quite grasp what was going on.
Furthermore, Choudary is not charismatic but he does have a massive ego which was regularly massaged by the media. If you crossed him – as I once did – he was offensive, belligerent and downright rude.
Most of his meetings were held alfresco because not a single mosque in the UK would give him space since he was shunned by the majority of the muslim community.
While there are many adjectives to describe him, "charismatic" is not one unless, it seems, you are a journalist who has been provided with lots of shocking pictures, sexy soundbites and masses of column inches.
Without the media he was nobody but he helped them make their headlines, whip up hatred against the muslim community and cause general outrage among Brits who would never have known about him were it not for the front page stories and shocking images his actions created. All of this from a man who could barely have pulled together a village cricket team from his supporters.
The 49 year old and his co-defendant, Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, 33, were found guilty of inviting support for Isis, also knowsn as Daesh, and will be sentenced on Tuesday, 6 September.
For years he played a cat and mouse game, going just far enough to incur the faux wrath of Fleet Street but not enough to get him locked up. His downfall came when he urged people to obey Isis in a series of videos posted to YouTube and also urged muslims to travel to Syria to live there.
Without the presence of the mainstream media, Choudary would not have had a platform and therefore, it could be argued, he would not have become a magnet for impressionable young men, in particular converts to Islam like the Lee Rigby killers.
Yet the media willingly portrayed him as a major representative and leader of muslims.
The flood of young radicals beating a path to his door has been grossly exaggerated, although there was a constant trickle of naive, emotionally damaged, nihilistic young men who were drawn to him. That is undeniable but I wonder how many even knew he existed without the stories in the tabloids and broadsheets and let's not forget the role of television and radio in all of this.
This is not to excuse the behaviour or explain the mental state of his followers who set out and committed some heinous crimes. At the end of the day all individuals must accept and take responsibility for their actions.
But the question must be asked: if it wasn't for the banner headlines, would Lee Rigby’s killers Michael Adebalago and Michael Adebowale have been drawn to Choudary's ranks?
Muslim convert Adebolajo, who along with Adebowale hacked Lee Rigby to death with a meat cleaver in Woolwich in 2013, was pictured standing behind the cleric at a typically tiny rally in 2007.
After the murder, Choudary said in a carefully worded statement that Adebolajo was a "practising muslim and a family man" who he was "proud of". However, he denied encouraging the attack, insisting he was "channelling the energy of the youth through demonstrations and processions".
I also suspect another of his followers, the former bouncy castle salesman turned Daesh executioner Siddhartha Dhar, would have gravitated to Syria with or without falling into the company of Choudary. Another low achieving, unremarkable individual, Dhar, calling himself Abu Rumaysah, is Daesh's new "Jihadi John", replacing Briton Mohammed Emwazi.
Don't get me wrong, the media did not create this monster, but they did give him the megaphone and the oxygen of publicity via the lurid headlines he craved as much as Python's Ron Obvious.
There's more than a handful in the high security prison Belmarsh who, I'm reliably informed, rue the day they met Choudary, and while so-called terror experts fear Choudary will radicalise prison inmates they couldn't be more wrong – he's been warned to watch his own back as some of those serving sentences in the harsh Belmarsh regime blame the preacher for their predicament and want revenge. It is quite possible, after sentencing, Choudary may be isolated for his own safety.
Without the headlines of hate, the television interviews and the radio soundbites, Choudary will not be able to draw in the naive and vulnerable that he did on the streets of London. While he regularly appeared on TV to trash the British way of life and criticise the results of British foreign policy there'll be no one with a microphone waiting to greet him in jail.
Since obliging journalists providing flags and poppy wreaths for him to burn will no longer be on hand, Choudary is going to find life out of the media glare difficult; he was the man the media loved to hate and he would return that hate in spades but it was all a game being played out by both sides.
The real loser caught up in this uncomfortable relationship was the muslim community in the UK. Several muslims have been murdered or seriously injured, abused and terrorised in hate crimes as a result of Islamophobia, much of it whipped up by the media.
The antics of one man was, at times, cleverly portrayed in such a way that ordinary people believed the hate preacher truly represented the views of Britain's muslims and very few in the mainstream media were prepared to correct that misassumption.
If Choudary was the real revolutionary leader he portrayed himself to be then he would not have relied so heavily on handouts from Britain's welfare state to support himself and his family. I am also puzzled as to why he instructed an establishment law firm like Matrix Chambers where Cherie Blair is based, choosing liberal human rights lawyer Mark Summers QC to represent him.
The antics of one man was, at times, cleverly portrayed in such a way that ordinary people believed the hate preacher truly represented the views of Britain's muslims.
Let's remember Choudary graduated as a law student so surely if he'd been true to his beliefs he would have refused to recognise the court's authority, demanded to be tried under shari'a law and would have, at the very least, represented himself. But it seems when the going gets tough even the likes of Anjem Choudary prefer to rely on help from the Kafir.
With Remembrance Sunday looming I've no doubt some of Fleet Street's finest will miss him … unless they find another useful idiot to fill the vacuum.
Sadly Monty Python's Ron Obvious was a one off – let's hope the Choudary circus has also performed its last act for the media.
Picture courtesy of Day Donaldson
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