The  Comment is Free section of the Guardian website has become an institution. It looks and feels rather like a collection of blogs, hosted and moderated by the Guardian. The Guardian gets to choose who writes there, and gets to set the moderation policy. It gains readers and web presence.

Fair enough. But the Guardian also gets editorial control. In other words, it determines what its contributors appear to have said. Comment, like lunch, is never really free. Or even as moderately-priced as you think it is. There are hidden extras.

A headline can make all the difference in the world to what readers think an article says. Social media have increased the premium on the headline.

The headline is what you mostly notice when an article is posted on facebook or twitter. A lot of people will “like” or re-post without reading the article, based simply on the headline. A headline can boost a campaign or sink it. It can kick a vulnerable person where it hurts, or bring a smile of relief.

The headline that the Guardian attached to an excellent recent article about Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan was the kind that does damage. It was misleading and factually inaccurate (it was corrected on 8 August).  I sent the following protest about it to the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliot:

I am writing to protest at the Guardian’s handling of the “Comment is Free” article by Arun Kundnani and Jeanne Theoharis about the Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsa case, dated 23 July 2014.

The headline “How outsourcing terror cases to the US can inadvertently result in a fair trial” does not reflect my understanding of the article, and I do not think it reflects the views of the authors. Moreover, it is factually incorrect.

Despite the qualifier “inadvertently” in the headline, it strongly implies that the outcome of the Ahmad and Ahsan case was a fair one. The article does indeed draw attention to Judge Janet Hall’s willingness to “challenge the official narrative” and states, in its closing paragraph, that this embodies a “fairer approach” than has previously been taken by US judges. But  “fairer” is quite some way from “fair”, especially in the light of the other points made in the article.

The headline says quite explicitly that extradition (“outsourcing”) to the US can have a fair outcome. The headline might also be thought to imply that extradition can result in fairer treatment for terrorism suspects than would be obtained in the UK, and perhaps even that the US justice system is generally fairer towards terrorism suspects than the UK justice system. I can find nothing in the article that is in any way suggestive of any of these views. On the contrary, the authors highlight the statutory unfairness of the US “material support” law. They also draw attention to the unfair pressure under which Ahmad and Ahsan agreed to a plea bargain. This latter point strongly suggests, in contradiction to the headline,  that extradition to the US cannot ever have a fair outcome.

There is an ongoing campaign for reform of Britain’s extradition arrangements (a House of Lords select committee is currently looking into the issue), prompted in part by the history of the Ahmad and Ahsan case. The Guardian’s headline is potentially damaging to that campaign, whereas the article would otherwise tend to support it.

The concept of fairness perhaps has a subjective element to it. But I think that using a headline that is at odds with the clear views and intent of the authors amounts, at the very least, to shabby treatment.

Even more importantly, the headline is in one respect flat-out wrong. Ahmad and Ahsan did not receive a trial, whether fair or unfair. They pleaded guilty. The event that prompted the article was a sentencing hearing, not a trial.

The headline does not, in literal terms, say that the Ahmad and Ahsan case went to trial. But I think it would be absurd to justify it in that way. If it were indeed drafted in a deliberate effort to avoid technical inaccuracy, I think that would indicate a more malign form of manipulation than I wish to impute to the Guardian. I prefer to regard it as a simple mistake. Unfortunately, it is a very serious one and it ought to be corrected.

Richard Haley, Chair, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

If it were not for the headline, the article would be one of the best available on the subject.

My own perspective on the US court hearing, and on the long back-story to it, can be found here.

Update: the headline was changed on 8 August in response to my protest to read “Breaking the spell of the official terrorism narrative.”

Unfortunately, if you share the article on Facebook you will still see the old inaccurate headline, since the metadata of the page has not yet been changed in line with the new title. I hope this will soon be fixed.