Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

In the Times the former army officer Patrick Hennessey warns the military to be wary of criticising journalists such as the freed New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell:

That Mr Farrell was investigating the sort of collateral damage incident that is undermining the progress being made by Nato forces is admirable. Those within the Armed Forces who would seek to criticise or restrict journalists such as him would do well to remember that those same journalists, reporting on kit shortages and under-resourcing, put a public pressure on the Government that the MoD has been unable to do.

The Independent's Andreas Whittam Smith writes that David Cameron's plan to cut ministerial pay ignores the extraordinary growth of the payroll vote:

Actually the figure to look at is not what ministers are paid but how many there are. Way back in 1900, the government consisted of 60 ministers. By 1970, after two world wars, the development of the welfare state and greater involvement by government in every area of life, the number had risen to just above 100. What has subsequently driven the total to 170 is not the requirements of governing but the desire to control the House of Commons.

The Guardian's Martin Kettle argues that the illiberalism of British society prevents the Liberal Democrats doing as well as they deserve:

The truth is simply that most Tory and Labour voters are not instinctively liberals.

Being liberal, the writer-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff said in a lecture in London in July, is a habit of the heart. A liberal has a generous heart and an open mind. A liberal puts freedom first, is optimistic about human nature but sceptical about power. Ignatieff's definitions seem about right to me. But I do not think a majority of people share them, and certainly not in either the Tory or the Labour party.

In the Independent, Steve Richards writes that Labour's problems are too entrenched and complex for a change of leader to help:

The harsh reality for Labour is that the influential right-wing newspapers that once gave Blair a fair hearing have made up their mind that they want Cameron and Osborne in power. Almost certainly they would report a sudden switch of leader as a symptom of Labour's crisis and not as a successful resolution of internal traumas. What is more, if [Alan] Johnson as a new prime minister were to make one slip as he outlined economic policy for the first time in his political career, they would slaughter him and his party.

The Economist's Bagehot column says that the malaise in Afghanistan could mark the end of Britain's "era of war":

For fear of seeming unpatriotic, no prominent politician is calling for withdrawal -- yet. Nevertheless, the momentum of the war and opinion about it seem to be heading that way. As Mr Blair learned, making predictions in such a volatile world can be hazardous.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.