Bank Holidays on a News Desk can be a lonely old station. You’ve got three and half news cycles stretching out in front of you and not so much as a fig leaf of real, new, as yet unreported news to cover your embarrassingly long list of re-heated items. Nobody of any consequence anywhere returns your calls from about 2pm on the Friday afternoon. The only thing in your inbox is the thoroughly predictable attention seeking of a few old dinosaurs who would struggle to be newsworthy even if they walked to the corner shop without clothes and their hair on fire.
So when a couple of Tabloids were alerted to proceedings the previous Saturday in Uxbridge magistrates court it must have been what an old editor of mine used to call “ferret down your pants time” ie look lively. A man called Ashraf Islam had pleaded guilty under section 16 of the offences against the person act to threatening to assassinate Prince Harry. There was added value to the story in that it came just 24 hours after the murder in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby.
The Star was out in front straight away “Irish Jihadi Caged For Plot to Kill Harry” accompanied on the front page by a picture of a menacing looking shaven headed man with a Taliban regulation issue beard. The “Convert’s evil plan to murder prince” was detailed. And The Star editorialised on how all of this would be unknown had they not pressed the Crown Prosecution Service for details under the headline “Brits Deserve The Truth On Terror”.
The Sun Headline was a typically more terse “Brit Jihad Harry Kill Plot” over a copy of the same picture. They offered the additional nuggets of a glimpse of the accused’s internet search history which included google searches for kidnapping, guns and vans. The Telegraph reported the facts but added the fascinating nugget that Ashraf Islam had been “radicalised in prison, it was claimed last night”. Which prison and who was doing the claiming was not expanded upon in the piece.
By Tea time on Monday 72 news outlets around the globe had reported the sensational story of the Jihadi intent on abducting and assassinating Prince Harry. Fleshing out the scant details of what was known with breathless accounts from anonymous securocrat types about the probability that the Taliban had targeted the third in line to the British throne.
The actual known facts of the story were only this; Ashraf Islam had handed himself in at Hounslow police station the day after Lee Rigby was murdered and threatened to murder Prince Harry. He was charged under section 16 of the offences against the person act, namely that he had made a verbal threat. One assumes the threat was made to the police officer in Hounslow. He pleaded guilty to the offence in the Magistrates court and is being held on remand pending sentencing.
And that’s that, or it would be that if you were printing the story accompanied by this image of Ashraf Islam.
On Saturday night I started to get missed calls on my phone and a lot of emails and tweets. The Mail wanted to get in touch with me. Then a producer of BBC Ten O’Clock News was looking for me, and then somebody else from another division in the BBC. They knew by this stage that The Sun, The Star and The Mirror had lifted a photo of Ashraf Islam from my Twitter timeline or from my blog. This photo lent the otherwise rather scant facts of Ashraf Islam’s arrest and remand an entirely new dimension. Gentlemen playing by the Marquess of Queensbury rules that they were they wanted my clearance before using the photograph.
As a rule I always cooperate with pressed colleagues working under the cosh of an impending deadline. It’s a karma thing. On this occasion I declined permission. To my almost certain knowledge Ashraf Islam is no more a convert to Islam than I am. In fact I’ll bet I probably know more about Islam than Ashraf and can make a pretty good stab at saying the call to prayer phonetically. I know this because I know what all the journalists lifting the picture from my twitter timeline should have seen straight away. Ashraf Islam is actually one of Ireland and Britain’s most prolific con artists.
He was born Mark Townley, but has at various points either changed his name by deed poll or re-fashioned himself as Antonio Mandez, or Marx or others that I don’t know about, and Ashraf Islam is merely the latest in a long line of aliases. I have been following his scrapes with the law and the complaints of his victims periodically since 2007. If you are interested in what he has got up to and what kind of a person he is you can listen to a detailed interview he gave me in November 2012 here. You can listen just like any visitor to my timeline can listen. You could listen and put those facts together with the rather underwhelming circumstances of Ashraf Islam’s arrest and arrive at the conclusion that this man is anything other than a Jihadi.
He is a sociopathic, egomaniacal monster who has left untold financial and emotional damage in his wake. He is a narcissistic rogue who is utterly convinced of his own brilliance and superiority to those around him. He is in short a nasty piece of work but he is no Jihadi. How could he be when he is utterly incapable of surrendering his life to anything other than the pursuit of his own comfort and happiness.
Even a quick scan of the internet for Mark Townley would confirm that Prince Harry is at far greater risk from contracting Avian Flu walking around West End nightclubs than he is from Mark Townley AKA Antonio Mandez AKA Marx AKA Ashraf Islam. Put his name into google images and one of the first returned results is from his foray into the porn industry with an offensive skin flick called “Jesus Christ – Porn Star”.
Two minutes of research should be more than enough to set the precautionary alarm bells ringing. Five minutes of reading or listening would have revealed Ashraf Islam’s surrender to the authorities as almost certainly not the culmination of a well planned regicidal plot.
If I had to speculate wildly as to why Townley has handed himself in to police it would be either because he has once again fallen on hard times and wants three squares and a bed at the taxpayers expense. Or perhaps he’s trying to put himself beyond the reach of his creditors, not all of whom are always entirely innocent themselves. Linking himself indirectly to the Woolwich attack would simply appeal to Mark’s twisted sense of the theatric.
Put all of those facts together and you haven’t got a story. But put the picture I took of Townley in 2012 together with the scant known facts of the story and suddenly you’ve got a REALLY good story. Well you haven’t actually. What you have is a set of islamophobic assumptions feeding the prejudices of your audience. So rotten spoilsport that I am I declined permission for the photo to be used. I didn’t want to be even peripherally involved with giving some twit with a racist grudge ammunition for their ignorance.
I offered all who had asked the use of alternative photos of Mark. Free, gratis and for nothing too, generous soul that I am. Only he doesn’t have a beard in any of them. Nobody took me up on the offer.
Now why do you think that is?