Abu Qatada on the ropes – wrestling with the media

Posted by Alexander Hay

Hysteria and humbug combine to depressing levels as the extremist preacher becomes the latest media villain

The standard of debate on terrorism, yesterday. (Image C/O Robert Bejil Photography @ Flickr)One of the conventions of pro-wrestling is the principle of the Heel, or villain. There is little room for ambiguity in the ring - you're either a hero or a villain, and the heel's job is make the audience boo, win by cheating or using monstrous force, and ham it up for the cameras after having knocked out the hero (aka 'The Babyface') with a steel chair. Sometimes they will make a career out of this. Indeed, some of the greatest performers in the world have in fact been heels.

Tabloid culture runs along similar lines. Their coverage of depraved criminals, fallen celebrities and dictators who have outlived their usefulness has all the sideshow swagger and hyperbole of an 'outraged' commentator describing the latest outrage by Ivan Bin Laden The Kittendrowner, as he and his coterie of Samoan goons beat the All-American Super Trooper senseless in a one-sided cage match. Whether it's Myra Hindley receiving a Humanities degree, young thugs going on holiday to Kenya or Kerry Katona vomiting into a bargain bucket, you can almost hear the bell ring and theme music play.

The current heel in tabloid land may as well have come from central casting. True, Al Qaida demagogue Abu Qatada would probably need to work on his push-ups and might also want to practice his Boston Crab submission hold. But otherwise, he is the perfect heel - having inspired the 9/11 terrorists, called for the murder of Jews and advocated Holy War in the UK.

Like all the best heels, he also manages to avoid censure despite being guilty as sin. Attempts to have him deported have faltered on human rights grounds, and so the tabloids boo and hiss as Qatada leaves prison, takes his children to school and walks the streets for about two hours a day, as that's all he's allowed under the terms of his release.

Naturally, heels need to be built up every bit as much as babyfaces. Qatada's contemporary, Abu Hamza had this nailed, with the press practically drooling as it reported on his advocating terrorism, his scary foreign-looking clothes and beard and his signature hook hand... While not quite on par with Kendo Nagasaki in the villain stakes, Hamza is still in prison, waiting to be extradited to the US where, presumably, he will have to take part in a 30 man Battle Royale with the American legal profession and the FBI.

Likewise, Qatada has the best PR agencies in the world - the UK press - to build up his villainous credentials. The Mirror calls him a 'hate cleric' and a 'dangerous terrorist', not to mention a recipient of over '£1.5million in benefits, legal and prison fees', which neatly links him to those other villains of the day, the poor and disabled.

The Sun has pictures of 'the hate-filled cleric' going shopping with a veiled woman (the aliens amongst us!), while describing him as 'Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe' and 'a foreign terrorist', all the while goading on Home Secretary Teresa May to ignore the European Court of Human Right's decision and deport him straight away! (After all, why should a government minister obey the law anyway? Hit him with a steel chair!)

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail focuses on pictures making 'the hate preacher' look fat while snarling, because that just makes the 'fanatic' even more villainous to the Mail's forever-dieting readership. And as an added bonus, the Mail also reports that Abu Hamza could be released on the same grounds. It's a tag team!

Of course, there's another tradition in pro-wrestling, which is kayfabe, a sort of US showman-speak term for something that must never be revealed – namely, that it is all a massive fix. Qatada is no real threat to anyone. If he was, then he would have disappeared or been properly sentenced a long time ago. Hyping up Teresa May and declaring that she would be a national hero if she deported Qatada is up there with Hulk Hogan ripping off his vest and waving the Stars & Stripes – it looks rather dramatic, but it's meaningless beyond being for show.

Like pro-wrestling, there is a great deal of effort exerted over a charade, though the difference is that at least wrestlers drop out of kayfabe once they're backstage, and the audience goes home satisfied. Here, the only winners are the people who like to be outraged and the legal professionals cashing their cheques. 

Image C/O Robert Bejil Photography @ FLICKR

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Alexander Hay

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