The Messenger: a steaming pile of meology journalism
British journalist Shiv Malik fails to address many of the troubling questions behind the ‘dangerous fraternisation’ between a reporter and their source
Shiv Malik is a journalist and former investigative reporter for the Guardian, a prominent voice across the British media on radicalism
A common feature of John Le Carré’s Cold War fiction was his ambivalent, two-way looking glass. Drawing on his brief time as an intelligence officer, Le Carré used his novels and characters – in particular George Smiley – to question the west’s insistence of its moral superiority over the Soviet bloc.
From its blurb The Messenger sounds like a worthy successor to that tradition: a true-life story of a British journalist and a source inside the successor to the Cold War: the so-called War on Terror. Instead this problematic book takes us in a very different direction, making it impossible to review without spoilers.
Shiv Malik is a journalist and former investigative reporter for the Guardian, a prominent voice across the British media on radicalism. In July 2005 he was a freelancer, assisting in reporting the aftermath of the 7/7 London attacks. As part of a research job, he struck up a relationship with Hassan Butt, at that time a well-known, British-Pakistani Islamist radical. Still in his early 20s, Butt was the go-to rent-a-quote radical for journalists in a hurry. Weeks after the 9/11 attacks he told the Daily Mail: “For every one British Muslim killed, there are a dozen waiting to take their place and become martyrs as well.”
Disregarding warnings from more experienced journalist colleagues, Malik insinuates himself into Butt’s life and begins ghostwriting his memoirs. Why? Because Butt has signalled that he has seen the errors of his ways, left radical Islam behind and is anxious to pull others like him out of the terrorists’ tractor beam.
In hindsight, Malik acknowledges the “dangerous fraternisation” that had begun. At the time, though, he was an ambitious freelancer who saw a fabulous fish fall into his lap. In the muddy pond of modern journalism, however, he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see the translucent twine attached to the bait he has just swallowed.
Islamist Walter Mitty
Instead he set to work writing the life story of Butt, which reads like a cross between a Boy’s Own tale and the adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Born and raised in Manchester, Butt embraced radical Islam as a young man, and its promise of meaning to a life previously defined by deprivation. Malik dutifully sets about recording his story for their book project, which he reproduces in this very different book.
Malik, through Butt’s imagination, takes us from a dreary Manchester suburb inside al-Qaeda and dozens of other shadowy groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Within a short time, Butt established himself in the Middle East as an extremist public relations supremo with a Mancunian accent.
As soon as Butt’s story is told, though, it begins to fall apart and Malik realises he was being played by an Islamist Walter Mitty. After the big reveal, however, Malik reflects only briefly on the enormity of what has just happened and concludes his book with many troubling and unanswered questions. For instance: how complicit are journalists in the war on terror, giving hours of air time and acres of newsprint to sources who are playing them, perhaps even making up every word?
This book could have been compressed into half the space, leaving more room for the book that wasn’t written: exploring the uncomfortable dependency between western gung-ho journalists and the world of Islamist extremism they ostensibly condemn – yet report on slavishly.
‘I fool journalists’
The book could have analysed journalists’ Achilles heel: their desperate need for good stories, and the ego boost when they land irresistible stories that may be too good to be true. Attack this weak spot, as Butt did, and the damage is staggering. In one of his rare moments of honesty, Butt declares: “I fool journalists because they want to be fooled.” Or, to quote the latter-day philosophy of Homer Simpson: “It takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen.”
Despite early warnings from colleagues, Malik realises too late that Butt was recruited by British intelligence and dangled before journalists. The apparent aim: alarmist Islamist reports to soften British public opinion and the political class as to the level of risk they are facing and, with the promise of greater security, sign away fundamental civil rights. That is a massive story that is touched on, but not explored, in this book.
To earn your living as journalist writing about a world in flames, while feeding it with petrol of dubious origin, makes you a professional arsonist. Instead of examining his own failings, and looking at others fooled by Butt and his ilk, Malik leaves the poisonous, low-hanging fruit dangling for 322 pages – and refuses to grasp it.
Instead The Messenger reads like an obituary to old-school journalism where you take your time, check and double-check your sources and facts. In the 21st century, journalism has been given a stealth upgrade to something resembling computer software: release your error-filled product and follow-up with continuous, corrective updates in the form of rolling news, without conceding errors or admitting responsibility.
Somewhere in The Messenger is a professional mea culpa, mixed with incomplete ideas about tackling Islamist extremism, but all is buried under a steaming pile of meology journalism. John Le Carré, please come and sort this out.