Paxman and Mason clash over Greece protests

"Oh come on Paul, it was hardly the entire population of Athens on the streets".

The tragedy that is Greece. A conflict that has exploded across our TV screens, pitting brother against brother. And that's just in the Newsnight studio.

Jeremy Paxman is famed for exposing the evasions and obfuscation of his guests. But last night, seemingly frustrated by the absence of someone to interrogate, he chose to turn on his own colleague, Paul Mason.

The bizarre exchange began as Mason began to sign off a package he had produced on the day's unrest in Athens. "There's sporadic rioting going on", said Mason, "and not a single politician can leave their secure accommodation". Describing the situation as "a little bit chaotic", Newsnight's economics editor explained that the austerity package had nevertheless been passed in the face of what he termed "viscerally felt anger".

At which point the BBC's grand inquisitor pounced. "Oh come on Paul, it was hardly the entire population of Athens on the streets was it, and certainly not the entire population of Greece". Mason, who had spent the day dodging tear gas and riot police, appeared momentarily stunned, his face set in an expression that made it look like he'd swallowed an Athenian wasp.

"But if people are, as you say, losing faith in such numbers", followed up Paxman pointedly, "where does that lead?"

For a moment the nation's Newsnight viewers held our collective breaths in the hope it might lead to Mason storming off live on air. But showing a level of restraint markedly absent from the streets of the Greek capital, he confined himself to a gritted, "There are a lot of people out Jeremy".

A clip of a Greek commentator helpfully comparing the situation in his country to 1930's Germany momentarily cut across the BBC's own domestic strife, but when we returned Mason was shaking his head and had a strange grin on his face. The rest of the two-way passed offpeacefully until in the final exchange, when Newsnight's economics editor threw down his own challenge over who was responsible for the collapse of the Eurozone; "the people who run the Eurozone, you tell me Jeremy who that is, who we ask the question of". Jeremy didn't.

Badinage between colleagues is all part of the Newsnight brand. But few journalists I've spoken to can ever recall an anchor directly challenging a colleague over his description of events on the ground. One broadcast correspondent working for a different outlet seemed perplexed at Paxman's challenge to Mason; "We've got guys out in Athens and from what we had coming back yesterday it certainly looked like it was getting a bit tasty".

BBC colleagues denied there was any "history" between the two men. "Paul likes to wear his heart on his sleeve a bit, and Jeremy's a bit more refined, but I'm not aware of any problems", said one. Asked if he'd like to comment on the minor on air contretemps, Mason provided a succinct response; "No". A BBC spokesman said; "This is the sort of thing you come to expect on Newsnight. He [Paxman] wasn't contradicting him [Mason], he was challenging him".

Well that's all right then. Paxman/Mason. Coming to a theatre near you.

Photo: Getty
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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.