Knocking press industry heads together

The latest on Leveson.

One man who hasn’t had much time to enjoy the Olympics is press inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson.

And as he reviews the stupendous amount of evidence that his wide-ranging inquiry has compiled, one question will weigh most heavily on his mind. Does he give the industry one last chance to set its own house in order by agreeing to the Pressbof plan for PCC2? Or does he set himself against the collective might of the press owners, ignore their painstakingly worked out  and go his own way.

My hunch is that, as is often the way with judges in civil cases, he will find a way to knock the heads together of the press industry and its detractors in order to come up with a compromise arrangement which all can sign up to.

Pressbof’s plan for PCC2 is mainly concerned with finding ways to lock publishers into membership of a new regulator by controlling press cards,
access to Press Association copy and major advertising. It nods its head to being a more independent body by giving public members the majority on the new complaints arm. But ultimately it would remain a body funded and governed by the industry.
While the owners have come a long way, it does not seem to have occurred to them to include any voices from outside their number in the reform process.

Consultation was confined chiefly to the publishers themselves and the top national editors. Not only did they not involve the ‘victims of the press’ in their deliberations, few editors from outside the top tier of the industry were involved and no effort at all was made to consult ordinary journalists at the coalface.

While PCC2 may have much to recommend it, I can’t see Lord Justice Leveson going with a plan which represents such a narrow group of opinions and interests.

There is a danger that a body dominated by owners and editors will fail to pick up on the problems which led to the hacking scandal.
A look at the list of names charged with in the great hacking ‘conspiracy’ – from former chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks down – suggests that this was not a problem confined to a few rogue foot soldiers.

My hope is that the owners hold their noses and engage with the likes of the NUJ and the Chartered Institute of Journalists to come up with a new system which involves all parts of the industry.

This could simply involve including a ‘conscience clause’ in journalists’ contracts, some provision for and protection of whistleblowers  and ensuring there is a journalists’ representative on the new complaints body.

Pressbof also needs to come up with a way to ensure that the new regulator is genuinely independent of the owners to the extent that, if necessary, it can turn on them.

A regulator set up to protect press freedom should do more than just ensure that erring journalists are punished for their mistakes. It needs to ensure that honest journalists are protected from the pressures brought by unscrupulous owners.

Pressbof needs to carry out a genuine public consultation now and get cracking soon on PCC3 - otherwise it will only have itself to blame when a state-backed regulation system is imposed on us all.

This story first appeared in Press Gazette

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.