Today, something happened that, without any bluster, showiness or the first hint of violence, blew apart the fantasy world constructed by dozens of hacks, pundits and editors about the reality of a middle-aged Jordanian living in North London. Because today, Abu Qatada told that he was happy to voluntarily return to Jordan if that country, and the UK, ratify a treaty ensuring he will not be tortured.
The treaty also prevents the use of evidence obtained under duress. But it is the assertion by the Muslim cleric that will take apart the press image of a freeloader intent on milking the UK’s welfare system while allegedly plotting mass murder and other mayhem. The pantomime villain thus painted could never, but never, voluntarily return to his homeland.
And he was, by definition, evil, especially as the BBC took an insufficiently hard line against him. This package of bluster was typified by the Maily Telegraph’s frightener “Abu Qatada: the evil let loose on our streets” last year, which stressed “His family has cost the taxpayer more than £500,000 in benefits, while his sermons are required reading for terrorists”. Deploy fact, slip in whopper. Ho hum.
The Tel was, of course, only keeping up with the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, who last Autumn thundered “Hate preacher Abu Qatada will get a new home at the taxpayers' expense ... He and his family will continue to live on state benefits”. Young Dave was quoted as being “completely fed up that this man is still at large in our country”.
Except, of course, Qatada is anything but “at large”: he’s been either banged up, or under 24 hour surveillance, for the past decade. Had he not been Middle Eastern, a Muslim, and alleged (but never proved) to have had some tangential involvement with 9/11, the press would have been clamouring for the Government to put him on trial or free him. But back to the screaming hysteria.
One paper with egg all over its corporate face – not that Richard “Dirty” Desmond will care – is the Express, which only last month proclaimed “Abu Qatada to ‘stay here for good’ after court refuses new hearing”. Yes, this “also opens the door for him to swap jail for his state-funded £1,400-a-month home”. Benefits! Muslims!! Be angry!!! And that home costs more than the Government’s proposed benefits cap!
None of the howling hacks seems to have noticed that, if successive Governments are going to order someone’s detention, it is incumbent upon them to pick up the tab for it. Being in receipt of benefits is not, in this case, Abu Qatada’s fault. Nor is he, as today’s news has shown, determined to remain in the UK at all costs. The whole business has been talked up out of next to nothing.
Having been thus inflated, it then helps to sell more papers. No change there, then.