Is Sky News biased against Labour?

No, is the short answer. Balls and Prescott are wrong.

During my period as a producer at Sky News, between 2005 and 2007, I used to answer the question, "Where do you work?" from members of my wife's family in the United States with the line: "A channel called Sky News. It's the British equivalent of Fox News."

What I meant, of course, was that Sky News is, like Fox News, a 24-hour rolling news channel, available on satellite and via cable, and part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire. But in style and in substance, of course, it is nothing like the pro-war, pro-Republican, pro-Palin Fox News Channel (FNC).

For a start, we have Ofcom (which the Tories want to abolish!) and Ofcom would never allow such blatant, on-air bias in this country (God bless Ofcom!). Indeed, I defy you to find me a single anchor or reporter on Sky News who bears even a passing ideological resemblance to Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.

But the Labour Party and some of its more credulous supporters seem to be insinuating -- or, in the case of Ed Balls and John Prescott, explicitly claiming -- that Sky News has a pro-Tory, anti-Labour bias.

Here's what the Children's Secretary said to me in his constituency on Saturday:

I travel to Yorkshire on the day the Guardian has endorsed the Liberal Democrats and the Times the Conservatives. Are the media united against a Labour victory? "The BBC has fought valiantly to be fair and balanced, but Sky News and most of the newspapers are deeply partisan." He criticises the Murdoch-owned broadcaster and the right-wing press again later in the interview. "This election is much more open than the newspapers and Sky News suggest. The polls are very tight."

And here is John Prescott, on the Guardian's Comment is Free, in the immediate wake of "Bigotgate":

Yet again, the dying Murdoch empire is doing all it can to influence a British election . . . But today, the Murdoch family reached a new low in their desperate attempt to turn the election for the Tories. News International's Sky News broadcast a private conversation between Gordon and his staff . . . What Murdoch's Sky News did today was just as bad as his paper's phone-hacking. It was a breach of privacy. It was underhand. And it was done in the pursuit of ratings and political influence.

This is absurd. Yes, Sky News broadcast the conversation in "pursuit of ratings". That's a given. And, I should add, you could argue that there was also a genuine public interest defence. Also, does anyone honestly believe ITV News wouldn't have done the same?

But to accuse Sky News of pursuing "political influence" is a desperate claim. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there is a co-ordinated anti-Labour, pro-Conservative campaign on the part of Sky News. John Ryley, the Sky News boss, Chris Birkett, his executive editor, and Jonathan Levy, the head of the broadcaster's political unit in Millbank -- all of whom I consider friends of mine -- are not Tories, and, if they are, they've done a damn fine job of hiding it from me and countless others.

Adam Boulton, meanwhile, is the semi-sympathetic biographer of Tony Blair -- and married to Blair's former "gatekeeper", Anji Hunter. Oh, and to those of you who have never worked in a TV newsroom, let me be very clear: Rupert Murdoch doesn't ring up each evening to discuss and decide the running orders with Messrs Ryley and Birkett. In fact, in my two years at Sky News HQ in Isleworth, Middlesex, Murdoch Sr physically turned up just once -- and, that too, to open a new building, not to pontificate on day-to-day editorial matters.

Labour critics of Sky News might point to last night's events at Methodist Central Hall, where Gordon Brown gave perhaps the best speech of the campaign so far, while Sky News chose to cover the lone anti-nuclear protester, rather than the speech itself and the impressive performance from the PM. It was a bad decision -- but again, in my view, this reflects Sky's sensationalist and perhaps understandable desire for ratings, upsets, gaffes and "incidents", rather than an explicit, pre-planned, anti-Brown agenda.

Left-wing conspiracy theorists can sleep in peace. The Sun is fighting a partisan, pro-Cameron, ant-Brown campaign. So, too, is the Times, with its propagandistic picture of Sam Cam lying in Dave's arms on its front page today. But Sky News remains, as far as I can see, free of party political bias.

All you could accuse it of -- maybe! -- is being part of a wider British press pack that has gullibly, lazily and perhaps subconsciously bought David Cameron's guff about change, momentum and inevitablility. If that's the case, the the BBC is equally guilty. But I repeat: Sky News is not the Sun. To compare the two is just silly.

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.