Public faith in politics may be the casualty of this scandal

As with expenses, politicians are tempted down the route of self-flagellation which does not tackle

"It was the Sun wot won it" crowed the front page after the 1992 general election. On the previous day, their front page warned the voters "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights". Sometime later, a story emerged that in a focus group someone said "I didn't vote for Neil Kinnock because I heard he had a light bulb inside his head". Entirely plausible, because people often have impressions of politicians and rarely -- oh, so rarely -- have the detail.

It would be no great surprise in a focus group today to discover that everyone believes David Cameron's wife held a slumber party for Rebekah Brooks, when it was actually Sarah Brown; that Tony Blair went horse riding with Brooks when it was David Cameron; that Nick Clegg held a séance with James Murdoch, which I know to be untrue in the same way I know that Neil Kinnock never had a light bulb inside his head.

Which is why when it comes to this next step towards truth and reconciliation between the media and politicians, we should all be cautious. People will, at the end of this, believe that all of them are as bad as each other, and be left with an impression of sleaze running through the media, police and politics.

Don't get me wrong -- there most definitely should be a judicial inquiry, which goes wider than News International. As Nick Clegg says in his speech today:

... a fundamentally corrupted relationship between politics, the media, and the police. All these groups are supposed to serve the people. But too often they have been serving only themselves or each other. A light has been shone on the murky underworld of British public life. A world in which confidential information is for sale; in which journalists cross the line from public interest into vulgar voyeurism; and politicians, petrified of the power of the media, fail in their duty to ensure a free, accountable, plural press.

It is an excellent speech with a strong commitment to a free press, that gives everyone an insight into the significant work he has put in on this issue behind the scenes. It raises the opportunity to have a decent debate on what comes next after the flabby and flaccid Press Complaint Commission.

But so far, only a paving slab has been overturned. Observing all the stuff that is coming out is like watching the creepy crawlies under one slab. We now have an inquiry that will pull up the whole pavement. Whilst it will marginally improve things for the Liberal Democrats and for Ed Miliband, for senior politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives, this will be the expenses story all over again. So the loser will be the reputation of politics itself. Therefore, there is a danger even to those who come out of this inquiry squeaky clean.

Like the expenses scandal, politicians will be tempted down the route of some kind of half-cock, self-flagellation style IPSA idea, as a backlash reaction against the massive outcry. IPSA is system of financial scrutiny in Parliament which is almost unworkable and punishes all MPs.

Yesterday Labour's Tom Harris MP who has long campaigned on media issues summed it up perfectly in a tweet:

Journalists illegally tap people's phones. The response? Force MPs to publically record every meeting with media. Utterly. Bloody. Bonkers.

A strong and vibrant belief in politics may be what we sacrifice in the last roll of a dice of a retiring judge. This may end up as a backlash against politicians, triggered by an appalling act by people who should simply be developing a new and entirely different relationship with the police -- one which ends with a conviction.

 

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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.