The BBC's America bias

Justin Webb can't bear to be back in dear ol' Blighty

I have only just now spotted this stomach-churning farewell blog post from the BBC's outgoing North America editor, Justin Webb, who has returned to the UK to become a regular presenter on Radio 4's Today programme:

Sorry again for not being more attentive. With great sadness -- really huge sadness, as the time we spent in America will I think be the highlight of our family life -- it is time to say goodbye.

We have arrived back in the UK to begin the rest of our lives. Memo to other Brits who might think of coming home from the US: spend your final US holiday in (fill in the name of your least favourite US place) -- don't do what we do and fly home from northern California. Granted, I was unimpressed with San Francisco, but for climate and lifestyle and gorgeous scenery there is nowhere better than the rest of the state. But you already know this.

What I would like to do is thank people who have contributed to the blog -- including those who find my views frustratingly jejune -- and ask you to forgive my failure to reply to many, many fascinating insights including (rather shamefully) several I nicked for my book.

Now back in the UK I find myself utterly at sea -- I say hello to people I pass in the street. They lunge on, muttering insults. We'll get used to it. But we will never forget the kindness of America. In Swindon buying a car the other day (yes, life has changed) the conversation turned to a familiar theme but one that endlessly fascinates me -- the relative peaceableness of the American life, guns and all. Too many Brits seriously think that America is violent. It isn't. Most Americans' lives are free of violence and the threat of it in a way no life in Swindon can be. Why that's true is a subject all of its own (religion, gun ownership, moral fibre, space, social cohesiveness?) and one worthy of a future study.

By the way, we bought a large second-hand American car and we will pay the extra costs with pride . . . Have a nice day!

Webb, like his predecessors Matt Frei and Gavin Esler, has long been an ardent Americanophile, writing and presenting a BBC radio series in which he excoriated anti-Americanism, and authoring a book-length encomium to the United States entitled Have a Nice Day -- Behind the Clichés: Giving America Another Chance. His dewy-eyed Atlanticism is nothing new; as the Guardian pointed out in an interview with him last year:

He arrived in Washington as radio correspondent in 2002 and has an eyebrow-raising ardour for America, rarely found at the BBC. 'There is nowhere in the world I'd rather be than Washington DC,' he wrote in his introductory post on his blog. 'Sexier cities do exist, of course, and less socially divided places as well, but nowhere is as powerful, as full of news and as vitally important to the lives and futures of us all. I've been here six years and intend to stay for 600. My youngest child is American and my older ones sound American. And that's fine by me.'

While many Britons shudder at American displays of national pride and the fact that the Stars and Stripes hangs in every municipal building and on millions of porches too, Webb is entirely at ease with the notion. 'I go out on a limb here,' he says. 'I'm a real admirer of American patriotism. It occasionally plainly leads them down terrible dark alleys and sometimes leads us to laugh at them, but I love the way their patriotism genuinely binds together small communities into the wider nation.'

Here is Webb, however, in his farewell post from Brussels, where he was the BBC correspondent until seven years ago:

I opened the door of our townhouse the other day to find a dog defecating on the step. The dog was unfazed by my sudden appearance -- that, I suppose, was to be expected -- but it was the reaction of the owner that I found fascinating.

A respectable-looking chap wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he merely moved the creature slightly to one side to let me pass, and then just carried on with his cigarette, waiting for the dog to finish and amble off.

Nothing untoward had happened -- a dirty city had become slightly dirtier, but few would notice or care.

Brussels is the filthiest, most dilapidated capital city in the European Union -- yes, even including Athens.

The grime here seems to have infected the soul of the place. Its people have a defeated air.

My wife says everyone here looks tired. As the parents of two-year-old twins, we know that look, but we do have the odd good night -- the Belgians seem tired all the time. And everything is too much trouble.

Notice the difference in tone and content? So much for the BBC's instinctive Europhilia and "institutionalised" anti-Americanism.

Webb, of course, writes from the perspective of a welcomed, moneyed outsider. Living and working in America is a deeply seductive proposition if the lifestyle and the work involves rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, cut off from the obstacles and challenges faced by ordinary working Americans. Two comments on Webb's farewell post from Washington, therefore, stood out to me:

I am glad to read Justin Webb's favourable comments about his time in the US. After his vitriolic comments upon leaving his post in Brussels and thoroughly maligning this lovely little country, some of his readers might have been waiting with bated breath to see what gems came forth from this posting. Of course . . . it is easy to have favourable views if you live in Georgetown in a nice house, frequent the upper echelons of society and don't really have to bother with the lower, poorer and homeless, who are infinitely less appealing.

. . .

I thought that the BBC's reporters would have been more grown-up than this. Living in the US on the privileges that the BBC has provided for you and your family is not representative of the existence that the average person in the US has. I assume that your health care was covered? I assume that you lived in a gated or well-to-do community? I assume that you didn't live in an area where your neighbours don't talk to you if you do not attend church and black people are afraid to talk to you if you are white? I assume that your workmates didn't go and buy assault rifles when President Obama was elected because they thought he was going to send brainwashing squads to town to take them from them? I do. I am a servant of the government on exchange here in the US. I have served the US in war and am very proud to have done so, but I, unlike you, will go back to Swindon and will buy a Honda that doesn't destroy the environment and I will leave my bubble with a smile on my face, knowing that when my children grow up they will do so with free health care in a modern, moderate, liberal society.

Touché!

(Incidentally, I have a piece on BBC bias in this week's magazine, which is out on Thursday.)

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.