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Home > Media

Robert Mendick: When Journalism Ruins LIves

9 September 2005

Before we begin, we should point out that it is not our intention to persecute or harass Evening Standard journalist Robert Mendick in any way. It’s just that, like everyone else who has heard the story of how his mendacious, nasty little article has resulted in violent abuse, death threats and severe loss of earnings for the innocent employees of a North London bookshop, we are horrified at the idea of no one being held accountable and an innocent family’s name and livelihood being ruined. The way it stands at the moment, the Evening Standard is ready to brush it under the carpet, to pretend it never happened. So if the least we can do to help is to keep banging on about it, then that’s what we’ll do.

Towards the end of July, Robert Mendick entered the Dar Al Taqwa bookshop just off Baker Street. He told Umm Bilal, a bookshop employee of two years, that he was interested in Islam. She assumed from the way he behaved – she didn’t specify, but we assume shiftily – that he was a journalist. But she didn’t mention it. Mendick didn’t mention it either. Then, for around an hour and a half, Umm Bilal answered his questions, openly, politely and patiently. Mendick was particularly interested in the whole issue of jihad, so Umm Bilal explained that jihad in Islam actually represents every Muslim’s personal spiritual struggle to attain perfect faith. She stressed that the militaristic interpretation is anathema to good Muslims and quoted the Prophet Muhammad, who said: 'To take the life of one innocent person is as if you have killed the whole of humanity and to save the life of a person is as if you have saved the whole of humanity' . Mendick nodded sagely, but it’s possible he wasn't actually listening. Later in the conversation, Umm Bilal received a book for which she had been waiting for some time. As Mendick showed an interest in the book, she ‘offered it to him as a gift, and he accepted and seemed lost for words’. It was beginning to look like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

A few days later, on Thursday 28th July, Mendick’s article was published with a photograph of the Dar Al Taqwa shopfront, phone number and all. Next to another photograph of three seemingly violence-related publications was the caption: ‘Uncomfortable reading: books and DVDs advocating terrorism in the name of Islam are available in West End bookshops such as Dal Al Taqwa.’ Sadly, this was not the only blatant deception in an article which was even prepared to stoop to doctoring photos.

Yesterday morning, after another week of trying and failing to get Robert Mendick to comment on the article, we popped along to the bookshop and talked to Umm Bilal ourselves. She gave us the above account of Mendick’s visit to the shop. She also told us how she had phoned him post-publication, after the abusive phone calls had begun, and asked him if he’d been treated badly when he’d been in the shop, if he’d been greeted with terror and hatred. He said that of course he had not. She asked him why in that case was there a photo of their shop next to the headline ‘terror and hatred for sale just yards from Baker Street’. Mendick, in his defence, replied that he hadn’t written the headline.

Umm Bilal recalls, from the same conversation, ‘He said a strange thing. I didn’t think about it till later, but then it struck me as odd. He said, “This is my job. Tony Blair has asked us to go and look at all Islamic bookshops.”’ Probably he was just attempting to pass the buck to Blair, hoping to hide one stench beneath another. But maybe, just maybe, Tony makes *all* of the Standard’s editorial decisions. Mendick could clear all of this up himself of course, if only he’d stop pretending to be away from his phone.

Something else from that phone call with Umm Bilal: Mendick apparently repeated a couple of phrases over and over. One was, ‘That was never my intention.’ The other was, ‘I’m really really sorry.’

We’re sure that Robert Mendick is at heart a decent chap – actually we’re not sure, but we recognise that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he is genuinely upset at the consequences of his article. We also recognise that the way in which the article finally appeared in the paper also had a lot to do with other Evening Standard employees. Rob Singh probably had a hand in it for a start. He visited the shop a few days before Mendick. He was the one who admitted to actually being a journalist and proceeded, expertly, to question the ethics of displaying a well-regarded academic text (Terror and Suicide Attacks: An Islamic Perspective) in the window of an Islamic book shop. Then of course there was the input of various subs and, presumably, editor Veronica Wadley. Basically, what we’re trying to say is that maybe Robert Mendick really isn’t the soulless mercenary shit-stirrer he appears, and maybe he really is sincerely sorry and not solely responsible for what’s happened. If that is the case however, surely he has to do something about it. Apologise maybe. Then tell the truth.

In the meantime, not only are the Press Complaints Commission on the case, but visitors to an online forum frequented by the bookshop owner’s daughter have been hatching plots to convince the Standard to make proper amends. One of them even got a written response from Doug Wills, the Managing Editor. This was by the far the best paragraph:

‘As a newspaper we are always very anxious to ensure that our articles are accurate and if there are any mistakes these are corrected. You appear to be under the impression that the article that featured Dar Al Taqwa was inaccurate. This was not the case.’

Right you are, Doug. Whatever you say.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, with this level of denial showing no signs of abating, there is still clearly a lot more banging on to be done. Please, join us.

The Defence
The Dissent
The Address: veronica.wadley@standard.co.uk

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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