Mehdi Hasan on the threat from far-right terrorism

The Home Affairs Select Committee has produced an important report on an oft-ignored subject.

For some in the west, and in particular here in the UK, the murder of 77 people in Norway by Anders Breivik seemed unbelievable and inexplicable. It didn't compute. The moment the news broke, for instance, Labour MP Tom Harris took to Twitter to blame - yep, you guessed it - Muslim extremists for the killings. To be fair to Harris, he was just articulating out loud what others - liberals and conservatives alike - were thinking and assuming in their heads. Even after it became clear that it wasn't a Muslim who had perpetrated this atrocity, some refused to call it an act of terrorism, preferring to refer to the perpetrator of the crime as "mad" and "insane".

As Guy Walters noted at the time:

For some commentators, such as Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, Sam Leith in the Evening Standard, and Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph, Breivik's actions are explained by insanity, and there is not much need to study Breivik's 'manifesto'. This, the argument runs, was the work of a lunatic who had built a puerile ideology to accommodate his psychopathy. In essence - the madness comes first, then the political justification, then the slaughter.

But Anders Breivik isn't a madman and his crime wasn't prompted by voices in his head. Just read his detailed, 1500-page manifesto, 2083 A European Declaration of Independence, to see how disturbingly rational, thought-through and politicized his hate-filled views and opinions are.

As Walters argued last year:

The roots of Breivik's actions clearly lie in his politics, and when you read his 'manifesto', it is clear why he decided to act as he did. His argument runs thus: Multiculturalism, 'cultural Marxism' and immigration of Muslims is destroying our way of life. The people responsible for this are the ruling Labour Party. These people are traitors. I have tried to act politically, but that has yielded no reward, and little hope of doing so. Violence is the only solution. Therefore, kill the next generation of political Labour Party leaders. This is a necessary evil, but will save us from the greater murderousness of Islam in the long run. And, in a brutally logical way, that is just what Breivik did.

You can read Walter's excellent blogpost in full here.

Now, I've written before about the oft-ignored threat from far-right, "white" terrorism - for example, in the New Statesman in July 2009 and in the Guardian in January 2011. In the latter piece, I noted how

FBI figures show between 2002 and 2005 there were 24 acts of terrorism recorded in the US; 23 of those incidents were carried out by non-Muslim,"domestic terrorists".

Often the reaction I get to such pieces amounts to a version of: "You're just saying all this because you're Muslim and you want to deflect attention away from the crimes of your co-religionists." There is an assumption among opinion-formers and decison-makers that the threat from far-right terrorism isn't as serious or worthy of debate and discussion as the threat from Islamist terorrism - despite the killing of 77 people in nearby Norway by a non-Muslim terrorist with extensive links to our own English Defence League (EDL).

Thankfully, the Home Affairs Select Committee, in a new report out today, seems to disagree with the conventional wisdom. MPs on the committee noted that there

appears to be a growth in more extreme and violent forms of far-right ideology. Indeed it is clear that individuals from many different backgrounds are vulnerable, with no typical profile or pathway to radicalisation.

The MPs concluded:

A view was expressed by some of those giving evidence to us, and those to whom we spoke less formally, that the revised Prevent Strategy only pays lip service to the threat from extreme far-right terrorism. We accept that Prevent resources should be allocated proportionately to the terrorist threat, and that to an extent we must rely upon the intelligence and security services to make this judgement. However, we received persuasive evidence about the potential threat from extreme far-right terrorism. The ease of travel and communications between countries in Europe and the growth of far-right organisations, which appear to have good communications with like-minded groups within Europe, suggest that the current lack of firm evidence should not be a reason for neglecting this area of risk. The Prevent Strategy should outline more clearly the actions to be taken to tackle far right radicalisation as well as explicitly acknowledge the potential interplay between different forms of violent extremism, and the potential for measures directed at far-right extremism to have a consequential effect on Islamist extremism, and vice versa.

Will Theresa May and co take notice of the report's conclusions? Will the media start shining a light on the very real threat from far-right terrorism? If not in the interests of fairness and balance, then at least in the interests of safety, security and self-preservation? I have my doubts...

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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder