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King Obama? The media are going overboard, says Mehdi Hasan

The press coverage of the US president's state visit to Britain is bordering on the ridiculous.

I blogged in the weekend about Andrew Marr's soft interview with Barack Obama in the White House ahead of his state visit to the UK. There were plenty of journalists willing to take potshots at Marr's giddiness and obvious excitement at being in the presence of "The One".

But newspaper journalists, commentators, pundits, broadcasters and bloggers alike have been fawning in their coverage of the US president since his arrival on our shores on Monday night.

It's a point that hasn't been lost on the more Obama-sceptic press corps back home in the United States. From USA Today:

President Obama traded a cozy pub for a spacious palace Tuesday, but the reception was the same: he was treated like royalty.


After basking amid one of the most affectionate audiences of his presidency Monday in Ireland, Obama arrived here to be feted by a queen and three generations of princes.

He and first lady Michelle Obama were welcomed at Buckingham Palace, where they were given a six-room suite last occupied by Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, on their wedding night.

They were fawned over at Westminster Abbey, greeted warmly at No 10 Downing Street and, finally, lauded at the first state dinner thrown here for a US president in eight years.

I never thought I'd find myself in agreement with the City AM editor, Allister Heath, who tweeted:

Why is the UK media treating Barack Obama's visit with such deference? Feels like being in some 1950s BBC newsreel on trip by royal family

Forget Afghanistan or Libya, climate change or Middle East peace -- the real issues have been table tennis and the Downing Street barbecue. Take the BBC, the voice of the establishment, which, on its live blog, notes:

Now the news you've all been waiting for. After the grandeur of last night's state banquet at Buckingham Palace, we are told the Downing Street barbecue is a little more down to earth. Guests are apparently tucking into British sausages, beefburgers, Kentish lamb chops, corn on the cob, Jersey Royal potatoes, with tomato, mozarella and basil salad, then summer berries and ice cream to top it off. Sounds tasty.

Doesn't the "leader of the free world", the president of the globe's only remaining superpower, the commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed forces on earth, deserve proper scrutiny? Rigorous and serious coverage? Yes, he is a great speaker and a cool dude. Yes, he isn't George W Bush. But he is a foreign president who has done some pretty dodgy things (from helping undermine Copenhagen to doubling the number of drone strikes inside Pakistan). Or are all these issues off-limits?

As I type this blog post, I'm watching Obama and Cameron on television, in shirt sleeves and ties, grilling sausages in the No 10 garden. This is what geopolitics has been reduced to; this is what the "special relationship" is all about. Gimme a break . . .

The cult of Obama, especially in the British media, is deeply dispiriting. Having said all this, I'm now off to Westminster Hall to see the US president address both Houses of Parliament on issues unrelated to ping-pong and barbecues and I'm sure I won't be able to stop myself from going all weak-at-the-knees when he starts speaking. Agh!

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.

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.