Why Cameron was right to condemn Jimmy Carr

Hypocritical and politically inept? Perhaps, but Cameron was right to take a stand.

"I wonder if whoever advised Cameron to comment on Jimmy Carr has realised what they’ve done yet?" tweeted Marina Hyde this morning and most commentators seem to be in agreement that the Prime Minister has been foolish to make a moral pronouncement about a comedian's tax affairs. It’s certainly a licence for journalists to rake over Tory donors' tax returns.

But doesn’t the argument about whether or not he’s been politically inept or hypocritical, mask another uncomfortable truth: that he could be right. I understand the argument that it’s wrong for a politician to condemn someone who hasn’t broken the law – but I’m not sure I agree with it. We expect our politicians to make moral judgements, we call them out on it all the time, over issues like health, education, welfare and military intervention. It seems a nonsense to say that when someone has acted legally but in a way that makes them feel morally uncomfortable, our leaders should keep schtum.

Cameron had three options: say what he did; say the opposite ("perfectly legal, done nothing wrong") – imagine how that would have played - or played the Ed Miliband "but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality" card. Good luck with that one at the next PMQs, Ed, because that’s not what you’ve said in the past. Here’s a cracking quote from a Miliband speech last year.

The bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral; the people who hacked phones at the expense of victims: greedy, selfish and immoral.

Miliband was right then, just as Cameron was right yesterday.

Of course, hypocrisy litters the story left, right and centre. Various newspaper groups writing about this story employ ways and means to bring down their own tax burden. And there is an issue about where you draw the moral line. Plenty of folk avoid tax everyday, without a moment’s guilt. Pension contributions, ISAs, duty free shopping. Nothing wrong with any of them. But anyone using them is utilising a tax avoidance scheme – does that remove their right to express an opinion about the moral rectitude of rather more complicated and creative pieces of accounting? I don’t think so.

Cameron will undoubtedly live to regret his words about Carr – the newspapers will make sure of that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he was wrong to say it. Does it?

David Cameron said Jimmy Carr was "morally wrong" to avoid tax. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.