Jeremy Paxman: lovable grump or cantankerous luddite?

The <em>Newsnight</em> host can’t hold his tongue – and we love him for it.

One of the best – and worst – things about Jeremy Paxman is his inability to bite his tongue.

Jeremy Paxman finds it hard to keep shtum when he's got an opinion. For many, it's the quality that elevates him beyond the level of A N Other journalist to being a national treasure. For others, though, it's what gives him a rather snotty and supercilious air that chips away at his credentials.

Sometimes I don't know which way I go on Paxman. When he got stroppy about a pair of pants and wrote to M&S to voice his displeasure, I found it rather endearing. You can imagine the righteous anger of an aggrieved Y-fronts wearer seething out of his pores as he wrote the email, his tolerance stretched, like an inadequate gusset, to breaking point. On the other hand, when he grumbled about having to do a weather report on Newsnight it seemed to be verging on the juvenile (though I found it amusing). And then there was his withering rant about how white, middle-class men (The Real Victims, as you may recall from this column last week) were discriminated against in television.

So, into what category does his latest grumpy outpouring – this time writing in Newsnight's daily email about what a bad idea having a daily email is – fall? Is it lovable old Paxo, railing against his daft bosses, striking a blow as the only one who can see past the madness? Or is it Victor Meldrew Paxman, whingeing and whining about anything slightly innovative?

I think it's probably a bit of both. The rebel in me enjoys the way in which Paxman refuses to keep quiet about what he has always thought is a bad idea, despite being forced to push it by his superiors, and the blunt tone is rather refreshing. "The reason for killing it off is pretty straightforward," Jeremy P wrote yesterday, sparks presumably flying off his keyboard: "it's crap." As well as that, you have to concede that an email which arrives after the programme it's promoting has gone to air isn't spectacularly successful.

On the other hand, I think Paxman's a bit too quick to dismiss multi-platform promotion of his TV show. Things like emails, podcasts (as Paxman somewhat Luddishly calls them, "television without pictures") and blogs (presumably "television without moving pictures, or sound") can be a pretty handy way of engaging your audience, as opposed to the one-way "like it or lump it" approach of conventional broadcasting. And in an era when people don't just watch your programme when it's transmitted, but can catch up on iPlayer for a week afterwards, emails arriving a bit late might not be the end of the world.

Still, that rather truculent sign-off is the reason we should cherish Paxman, even if every now and then he occasionally makes us wince. How many of us in our daily jobs have had to put up with some kind of tinkering from the higher echelons which makes no sense at the coalface? How many times have we bitten our tongues and stayed silent, knowing that what we're doing is madness?

Most of us just stay silent and keep our head down. Paxo gives us the chance vicariously to stick two fingers up at the boss – and hurrah for that. We may have to keep our head down, but he's not afraid to say what he thinks – even if he gets it wrong sometimes.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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.