Finsbury Park Mosque minaret, by Ben Bashford; found on flickr and used under creative commons

Bank account bans; aka, frantically digging for a story where there is none

I’m a big fan of podcasts. I have been since I first discovered them, probably because I’m just a geek for radio generally. I like all sorts of podcasts, whether they’re factual, like the BBC’s excellent ‘Witness’ series, or fictional, like ‘The Truth’; humorous ones such as ‘Football Weekly’, or topical ones like ‘The Political Party’; and ones that simply transcend pigeonholing, refusing to obey either the laws of causality or the rules of cricket. There is only of of those, of course: ‘Welcome to Night Vale’.

 

The BBC World Service ‘Documentaries’ series is another favourite. The standard is extremely high and the choice of topics fascinating. “The Killing of Farkhunda”, a recent episode, was exceptional (if horrific. If you don’t know the story of this 28 year old woman murdered by a mob, you should check it out). So when I saw there was a new episode, I downloaded it immediately.

 

“Bank account bans”, presented by former Torygraph chief political commentator Peter Oborne, promised a story that his former employers refused to run for fear of offender the paper’s major advertisers, HSBC. The bank was accused of closing down the bank accounts of both individual Muslims and Muslim organisations, and when his paper refused to run it, Oborne did the decent thing and resigned immediately. Oborne was very upfront about his Conservative leanings. “Hear a Tory criticise the banking industry?” I thought, “This I have to hear!”

Oborne breathlessly disclosed how a source had given him half an hour’s access to a confidential database, one that flagged up that his friend’s mosque – Finsbury Park Mosque, former home of Abu Hamza – had links to terrorism. Because of that HSBC had closed their bank account. Not just this mosque, but the bank accounts of other Muslim individuals, organisations and charities, without reason. The ‘rather dramatic journey’ that this information had sent him on led him to ask whether they were targeted by mistake, because they were terrorists, or [dramatic pause] simply because they were Muslim.

So far, so good. The idea that some secret database somewhere held critical information and was being withheld from us all was a good hook, especially if evil organisations (like banks) were using this supersecret system – the ominously-named “World-Check” – to discriminate against innocent parties. And that was the point that I stopped and thought, “wait a minute, I’m sure I know that name…”

I freely admit I’m a geek for computers and the internet. Not like, a sysadmin level geek or anything like that, but I like to think I know my way around. I’m not a hacker but I have been programming in Basic since 1984 – yes, Spectrum Basic still counts as programming – and I do work for a technology company. I built my first 286SX-based PC back in what, 1992, something like that? So, yeah, I’m not a n00b or anything.

Not that I needed any hacking skills to find out about this mysterious ‘World-Check’ system. I Googled it on my phone while I was still listening to the podcast, in fact. Basically, this confidential database is so amazingly highly supersecret that:

Basically, it’s about as secret as a Wile E. Coyote plan in a bright red folder wrapped in yellow and black hazard warning tape with a large stencilled-font sign on the side saying “TOP SECRET” inside a glass casket with a flashing red light and a very loud klaxon on top. Which is to say, not at all secret.

Undeterred by this complete lack of a story, Oborne looked up the Finsbury Park Mosque on World-Check. “It’s there!” he’s exclaimed. “It’s flagged with ‘Terrorism’!” He clicked on the entry to learn more about the Mosque’s terrorist links.

It did indeed talk about the links, from when Abu Hamza was there. It also said that that was some years ago, and there was a new board, and a new Imam. It was under new management, and the new management had no known links to terrorist activities. 0 for 2, Oborne.

Moving swiftly on, Oborne told the story of how HSBC had used this information and decided to close down the mosque’s bank account. He told how US authorities had been ruthless in clamping down with huge penalties against any financial institution accused of dealing with any organisation with possible terrorist links, and HSBC had taken a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach in closing off the mosque’s facilities. With two months’ notice, in writing, and an offer to help with the consequences of this decision. Heinous behaviour!

So, in a nutshell, the entire story of the podcast, and Oborne’s amazing, dramatic, exposé, is this: a business used widely-available commercial information to assess a potential risk and took a safety-first decision based on that information.

Doesn’t sound so exciting when you say it like that.

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