It's not all about Sienna

The missing witnesses at the Leveson inquiry are you and me.

Are tabloid readers just as responsible for the bad behaviour of the press as the hacks and paps? It's a question I've been asking myself over and over while the Leveson inquiry (or to give it its full name, the "Leveson inquiry into the culture and practices and ethics of the press") has been going on.

In a rather poignant reflection of the celebrity culture that fuelled this miserable business in the first place, the appearances of "big names" at Leveson have drawn bigger headlines and longer articles than those of more ordinary, more boring, less photogenic folk. Today's appearance by Sienna Miller will doubtless give the chance for trouser-rubbing picture editors to pore over her features once again. And so it was the case yesterday when Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing child Madeleine, came to give evidence.

The couple spoke of how their privacy was invaded, how their shocked world was intruded upon by photographers and reporters alike, how private diaries were printed without their permission, and how they had to read rumours from police lines of inquiry presented as if they were legitimate versions of the truth. Anyone who has the merest sliver of empathy can only recoil in horror at how the parents of a missing child could feel under those circumstances.

But the hacks and paps didn't descend on Praia de Luz because they were out to get Kate and Gerry -- their privacy was just collateral damage. What they really wanted to do was flog papers -- and this was a story that had produced a reading frenzy, even bumping the Daily Express's traditional sales banker of Diana off the front page. Is it the fault of a profit-making enterprise to want to maximise sales at a time of decline? Or should those who hungrily sucked up the photos and stories of the McCanns bear some responsibility, too?

Nobody knows what sells papers; it's still a bit of a mystery even as the newspaper industry heads towards terminal decline. We can all guess and speculate. You can ask readers, but you will always have to bear in mind that people like to sound more ethical than they really are - who's going to fess up to feasting on trashy celebrity sleaze and intrusion into famous people's private lives, even in an anonymous survey?

But the heat and light generated by certain subjects and certain stories is easier to see now, thanks to the web, where our interests can be easier to see than what we'd admit to reading in a paper. That's why huge chunks of the Daily Mail's website, for example, are devoted to American minor celebrities you've never even heard of wearing bikinis; that's what guarantees traffic.

And that's why there was such a clamour for McCann stories back when the little girl went missing, and why stories about the mystery continue to be popular today. We want to read them, so the search for new angles continues; in that battle for fresh meat, it's not a massive surprise that some journalists will cross the line to get what they want. They do it because we want them to.

Additionally, it was a case that took place in Portugal, so newspapers were left unrestrained by those annoying obstacles of trying not to prejudice criminal proceedings and could say what they wanted while Robert Murat -arrested because the pack of hacks swarming around Praia de Luz decided he was a bit weird - and the McCanns were treated as suspects. It was a chilling glimpse into what would happen without reporting restrictions, a look into a world where journalists could simply write about ongoing cases without thinking of the consequences.

So while Leveson carries on, hearing from victims of phone hacking and journalistic wrongdoing, there's something missing. The other people responsible for this behaviour are getting away completely free of blame, without being scrutinised or having their actions looked at. The other perpetrators are us -- those who bought the newspapers in the first place. You or I might haughtily contend that we are above such things and we don't buy such garbage, but are we really not part of the problem? Do we really not contribute to a culture in which celebrity is seen as the peak of achievement, in which the lines between public and private are being erased all the time?

It would take a long time for Leveson to hear from the millions of people who bought papers because they wanted to read about Celebrity A's lovelife, or the misery of Family B as they were immersed in grief. But we can't pretend they don't exist. Or that we're not part of the problem.

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.