Don't rejoice at Giggs's downfall

Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is tawdry at best.

Ryan Giggs's spectacular plummet in the public estimation is the perfect example of how our celebrity culture works. A couple of years back, he was Sports Personality of the Year, a shining example for youngsters everywhere; now he's Ryan Giggs, Love Rat.

It's a familiar narrative arc: The young, talented sportsman comes from nowhere to reach the top of his game; he goes on to accumulate an impressive haul of trophies; he has everything that money can buy; but fails to keep his private life as perfect as everything else. Our cheers turn to boos as the secrets are gaudily splashed over the front pages of the red-tops.

"GIGGS IS THE NEW TIGER WOODS" says today's Daily Star. And it's a similar story: the supposedly squeaky-clean bubble punctured by a series of revelations; the kiss-and-tell stories snowballing along as more and more events come to light. Just as with Woods, the tabloids can smell blood - and money.

The Woods stories were dragged out over several weeks, with new affairs coming to light, new people telling their tales of what they got up to, and didn't get up to, with the world's second best ever golfer. The women involved were quickly dehumanised, turned into a series of numbers - or rather holes that Woods had played. Because we didn't really care what they thought, or felt, or did - it was all about the man at the centre of it all. What was he like? What did he say?

The humbling of the alpha-male millionaire was complete; and we could read all about it, and feel a sense of superiority over this super-human ball-hitter, that we hadn't made the mistakes as him - or if we had, that we weren't notable or famous enough to have our mistakes inked onto a million paper pages, peered at on a million shimmering screens. We could enjoy his pain, because it wasn't happening to us; we could revel in his self-inflicted misery, enjoy seeing his hubris turn to shame before our delighted eyes.

So it is with Giggs, although there's another element to all this, a barely disguised stench of triumphalism among our friends at the tabloids. Look, he was doing this all along! And he tried to hide it with that evil injunction! Well now, the floodgates are open. If anything, the huge interest in Giggs brought about by the injunction gave these stories a value they might not have otherwise had - not that they wouldn't have been big stories anyway.

It's hard to find much sympathy for Giggs in all this, and clearly he is the originator of his own downfall through his actions and choices. But I still see these things as very much a private tragedy. No, perhaps we shouldn't be prevented from knowing about these matters, distasteful though that is; but I still feel a bit grubby reading about them - there's a slime that rubs off on your fingers when you put the paper down, or leave the keyboard.

We may like to convince ourselves that we're better than people like Giggs, because we get to see their decline and fall take place in public, but I am not so sure that we are. Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is a bit mucky, I think; a bit adolescent. Of course, the papers will sell by the palletload on the back of his face being on the front, and so they will have been proved right all along.

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.