Stop blogging, start talking...

Blogs have taken on a number of roles in recent years, but opinion is divided on the importance of t

With so much mainstream media attention at the Lib Dem conference focused on Ming’s leadership, you would be forgiven for thinking there was not a word spoken on policy. This prompted Richard Huzzey to write: “It’s a sad indictment of the media that a week-long conference discussing the pressing issues of the day hinges on whether a man says ‘there’s no vacancy’ or ‘I probably would’.”

But a trawl through the blogosphere reveals a fascinating insight into the day-to-day activity of a party political conference.

If political commentators were seeking a barometer for the popularity of likely leadership candidates, Stephen Tall may have come up with an alternative to YouGov: “Mugs with Steve [Webb]’s face on them are the top sellers at this year’s conference.”

In a Q&A session between Ming and Sandi Toksvig, many wondered why the photos turned out so bad. Jonathon Calder has a suggestion: “The stools had been carefully adjusted and positioned to show Ming to best advantage. Unfortunately, though, when the two of them went out on to the stage they sat the wrong way round.”

The sole topic of conversation among attendees was not – as the mainstream media implied – Ming’s future, as Alex Foster states: “Talk in the conference bar reveals that some delegates have been rather disappointed with the quality of their hotels.”

As a testament to how highly-regarded the blog has become in politics, the Lib Dems’ annual blog awards was a key event of the conference. James Graham's Quaequam blog won the award for best blogger and best blog post for the repost to Simon Jenkins’s question of what the Lib Dems were for.

Jonny Wright’s Hug a Hoodie won best new blog, Mary Reid scooped best blog by an elected representative and best designed blog, while Liberal Mafia won best humourous blog. As best blog for an elected representative nominee Peter Black writes in our conference blog section, Liberal Mafia was unable to attend, though he sent a horse head in his stead.

But not all Lib Dem bloggers are as enthusiastic about the benefits of blogging. While pontificating about how to solve the infighting the blogosphere creates in political parties, Paul Walter wrote: “A vast amount of keypad bashing in the world is completely pointless. If only some people would actually just talk to each other, then endless millions of words written wouldn’t be necessary.” So there.

Owen Walker is a journalist for a number of titles within Financial Times Business, primarily focussing on pensions. He recently graduated from Cardiff University’s newspaper journalism post-graduate course and is cursed by a passion for Crystal Palace FC.
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.