A witch-hunt against the Sun?

Why those at the tabloid should be more concerned with News International than the police.

The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh has described the weekend's arrests of journalists and others as a "witch-hunt". Some, who should know better, are nodding along to this. It is, of course, nothing of the kind, as the sensible Brian Cathcart has calmly explained. However, what is actually happening is a serious matter for those at the Sun and perhaps elsewhere at News International.

But first, a few words about "witch-hunts". It is a phrase often invoked when someone is faced with the sort of sustained and deliberate scrutiny required to overcome obstructions and evasions. In the case of the Sun it is because police officers, operating under the law, have arrested suspects as part of their enquiries. Those suspects are entitled to due process and could well not be charged. They are entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This is not a "witch-hunt". It is just the normal approach of the police to those suspected of crimes.

The Metropolitan Police are doing something that those who work for a powerful media entity do not like. Instead of the cosy relationship where editors routinely had lunches with senior police officers and their press advisers, and where various reporters allegedly saw nothing wrong in paying public officials for information, there is the short sharp shock of practical law-enforcement. Journalists have turned out not to be above the law: all those tabloid demands for "law and order" were not only for other people.

Nonetheless, there is something deeply uncomfortable about journalists being arrested by the police. But there was also something uncomfortable about members of parliament being taken to police stations. In the latter case, this rightly did not stop democratically elected politicians being arrested, charged, and then convicted for criminal offences over fraudulent expense claims. The enforcement of the Rule of Law in respect of parliamentarians did not mean the undermining of a liberal and democratic society, just as now holding the media to account will not mean either anarchy or repression. In both cases, the fearless and impartial enforcement of the law of the land is a sign of a healthy democracy, not an alarming symptom of political decline.

However, those at the Sun are right to be nervous. News International, through its Management and Standards Committee, is now being ruthless and commercial in dealing with the alleged wrongdoings of all its British titles. In doing so, News International is showing no more sentimental attachment to its reporters than it did thirty years ago to its print workers. It is akin to when a despot withdraws his favour from certain underlings: they are not "thrown to the wolves" but they suddenly are treated like any other subjects, and they then have to account for their actions when they thought they could get away with it.

No sensible person wants another newspaper to close. Indeed, the only people who seem to think closing down newspapers is a solution to the current problems appear to be the senior management of News International. The demand is for better journalism, not for no journalism. There is -- and was -- simply no need for vibrant, mass-market newspapers to use the "dark arts" of blagging or hacking, or to make corrupt payments to public officials. Wise-heads in the industry realise this, and there is likely to be a firm distinction between pre- and post-Leveson journalism.

But in the meantime, whilst it may well seem a good tactic to cry "witch-hunt", all that many can hear are the tabloids crying wolf.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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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.