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Only alert readers will have noticed the revival of the old fight for freedom of speech in Britain. The threat of a writ so alarms the mainstream media that it barely discusses the increasingly angry arguments around what the United Nations rightly described as the "scandal" of England's suppression of plain prose and investigative journalism.

The case for reform is not being made by what we used to call Fleet Street or the broadcasters but by Index on Censorship and Private Eye, small journals that are more willing than most to make a stand. A heartening coalition of MPs from all parties is offering critical support, but the strongest push is coming not from editors and politicians but from writers in Britain and abroad, who are infuriated by the ability of rich men to use our authoritarian libel laws to suppress unfavourable reports.

First among them is the New York journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld, who is reshaping Anglo-US legal relations after Mr Justice Eady ordered the banning of her book on the funding of radical Islam. She did not publish or publicise it in Britain, and only a few copies reached Britain via Amazon. The obliging Eady nevertheless acceded to the demands of the Saudi banker Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz to fine Ehrenfeld and order the destruction of her book.

Boy, did he pick the wrong woman to censor. Ehrenfeld has organised US publishers and civil liberties groups to persuade Congress to declare that English libel judgements should have no validity in the US.

That the Ehrenfeld case was all about Islamism should surprise no one. Carter- Ruck, an aggressive firm of libel lawyers, has spotted a growing market among the religious. A newsletter to clients boasted that, "during the course of the last 12 months, Carter-Ruck has secured numerous apologies, together with damages totalling in excess of £700,000, for a number of Muslim clients falsely accused of suspected involvement with terrorism".

I have no objection to the exposure of false accusations - although I place more trust in the verdicts of the court of public opinion than of Mr Justice Eady - but the notion that a libel law exploited by criminals and charlatans from Robert Maxwell to Jeffrey Archer only defends the falsely accused is ludicrous.

For years, my colleagues have been telling me about the rapid rebuttal service Carter-Ruck offered Mohamed Ali Harrath, founder and manager of the Islam Channel. Journalists were interested because it is the Muslim equivalent of an American tele-evangelist station, and just as popular. Since it began broadcasting on Sky satellite and the internet in 2004, it has won a devoted audience. The British government estimates that it reaches about 60 per cent of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, as well as audiences in Europe and North Africa. Journalists had heard rumours about the station for years. After they put them to the station, however, the phone would ring and a solicitor would be on the line telling reporters to back off or face a libel action. Most did until the editor of The Times decided that enough was enough. He assigned reporters to the story, and they soon found the reason for the nervousness of Harrath and the aggression of his lawyers.

Interpol has an international alert out on him. The dictatorship in his native Tunisia claims he is a leading member of an Islamic terrorist organisation, and the US government repeats the allegation. The accusations did not stop the Metropolitan Police pumping public money into Harrath's Global Peace and Unity forums and consulting him on how to "combat extremism" - of all things.

None of the above means that he is a terrorist - he denies the charge and he has never been convicted - or that the Islam Channel is a terrorist network. By contrast, much of what passes as entertainment on the Islam Channel is as tedious as a tax return. Meanwhile, its political programmes are not the full-blooded totalitarianism of al-Qaeda and its associates. Rather, the Islam Channel represents the views of the Arab Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaati-e-Islami, its south Asian sister organisation. Both parties are totalitarian in that they want a theocratic empire, but both have been very successful in persuading not only the police but Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians and pseudo-left journalists and intellectuals that, in Harrath's words, "there is nothing wrong or criminal in trying to establish an Islamic state".

A viewing of the channel's documentaries shows the folly of the liberal establishment's acquiescence to what we old lefties would call "entryist" tactics. A Promise of Heaven, the Islam Channel's history of Jerusalem, is the most notorious. You do not have to be any kind of supporter of Israel to find its apparently authoritative narrator's commentary mind-bogglingly sinister. Israel was never Jewish but "colonised by Arab Canaanites", he assures us. The Old Testament would appear to contradict the assertion, but the narrator continues, "Abraham was no Jew, no Christian. He was a Muslim." What Jews there were in Israel merely "passed by this land as warriors, not as tribes of settlers who lived on this land". Viewers must discount the archaeological evidence of Jewish names on gravestones. They are forgeries, the result of a hellish plot by Zionists and their western allies to deny the Muslim claim to Jerusalem.

The media regulator Ofcom found the Islam Channel guilty of a failure to show "due impartiality". Detectives found a copy of A Promise of Heaven in the home of Saajid Badat, a radical from Gloucester who pleaded guilty in 2005 to plotting to destroy an aircraft with a shoe bomb. But I emphasise that terrorism is not the most worrying aspect of the Islam Channel's popularity. Its undoubted success shows that a significant part of British Islam has been caught up in a theocratic version of the faith that is anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-democratic and has difficulties with Jews, to put the case for the prosecution mildly. Needless to add, the first and foremost victims of the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values are British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, particularly Muslim women.

As a supposedly free citizen of a supposedly free country, I long for the day when I will be able to denounce such reactionary politics without first having to have my writings approved by a lawyer.

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Barry Larking
February 1st, 2009
3:02 PM
A very welcome post. The libel laws are both lucrative and appalling. Thank heavens for a few brave souls who are not going to be bullied into silence.

michael burleigh
February 1st, 2009
11:02 AM
Great piece Nick. One of the obvious problems of our time is how a legislature packed with lawyers can be expected to curb the amoral and rapacious activities you allude to such as trawling around for whatever allegedly gives Islamists offence. Apropos which Radio 4 did a good programme the other night alleging that the firms which negotiate deals with Somali pirates pocket the same sums as are paid in ransoms. Ugh!

Shaun Casey
January 29th, 2009
9:01 PM
I have thought for a long time now that the only heroes left in this country were our service men and women on the front line. It's reasuring to know that free thinking intellectuals are standing up and articulating the thoughts of the less intellegent amongst us.

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