Is it possible to read the whole Mail Online in a sitting?

You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette.

I’m a big fan of Man vs Food, the TV show ode to gluttony in which Adam Richman overeats his way around the US. A giant 12-egg omelette here, a massive steak there, a huge burrito, a giant breakfast, a gargantuan dessert – the man will take on any challenge.
 
One day, of course, he will die in a provincial eaterie, choking on the heart of a blue whale, as a hundred whooping fans roar their approval, mistaking his pleas for resuscitation as signs of triumph – but until then, it’s all fun.
 
I mention all this because the task I foolishly set myself yesterday in a moment of whimsy and boredom – to read every single item on the front page of Mail Online – is not an original one. It’s Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but with stories about Khloe Kardashian instead of eggs – and they leave a far worse taste in the mouth. 352 stories, in total, I counted, including a few duplicates. By the time you read this, dozens of them will have changed, overlapped, been edited and rearranged. The world’s No 1 news website (fight back the emotion while you think about that) is an ever-changing, organic beast.
 
I went for the right-hand side of Mail Online first. Forget the in-depth "coverage" of so-called "news" or "columnists" writing about "opinions"; here’s the moneyshot. You can sum up the first few stories like this: Some people have had a baby. Someone went jogging. Someone had a hen party. Someone went to a beach. Someone has changed the colour of her hair. Someone went out to lunch. There was television. There was television. Someone is having a baby. There was television. There was an awards ceremony. A couple have separated. There will be television.
 
It’s not about the stories; it’s about the people in them. (Some of them are wearing bikinis, by the way. Some of them have tits.) The "someone went jogging" tale is about Susanna Reid, of BBC Breakfast fame, who has been jogging and who "barely looked out of breath" according to "bystanders". She’s running the London Marathon, apparently, so it’s important that we see the photos of her in training: Susanna Reid running from the front, the side and from the rear (oh yes, the rear).
 
A clue to why this appeared might be in a recent article about Reid in Mail Online, when a piece interestingly headlined “Yes, women have breasts!” appeared, and almost certainly dragged all kinds of web searches about the presenter, and breasts in general, to the site. A few smudgy screengrabs of Reid’s cleavage probably didn’t hurt, either, the pixellated sfumato effect only adding to the grubbiness of it all.
 
As I went down the column of showbiz/celebrity/bikinis, it was like drowning in a ballpit of tits. You’re barely beyond one story about someone you’ve barely heard of in a bikini before you’re swamped by another. Then there are the hotpants, swimsuits, monokinis, miniskirts and dresses. Hotpants that are so scandalous that you need to look at them seven times to work out if they’re appropriate or not. Tits! Bums! Cleavage! Curves! You might as well play the Benny Hill Show music while you’re reading it.
 
I made it to the end of what I shall hereby refer to as the "tit and tat" column (some call it the "sidebar of shame", others simply "the right wing"). I don’t know how I did it, but I did. I learned things: I learned that “PDA” is ‘public display of affection; I learned that, in contrast to the dead-tree Mail, not a lot of copy appears to be checked as there were errors everywhere; I learned that a lot of celebrities are on Twitter, and if you can’t be bothered simply following them on there, you’ll find out what they’re tweeting anyway; and I learned that hours can pass very quickly when you’re not having a tremendous amount of fun.
 
But this was mere displacement activity, for I knew what lay ahead: the rest of the front page. Heroic Prince Harry, beer goggles, It’s the Olympics, We’re sick of the lot of you, stealth tax, grubby dream for the left, Russian friend of Vanessa Redgrave, TEN-STOREY tree house, FINALLY evicted, plane crash horror, gay sex attack at Prince Harry’s base, diversity targets, I served SamCam a curry, abandoned to the vandals, black suspect taped PC, mein summer camp, revealed, human rights wrangles, Gandhi’s glasses, Billy the orphan badger, helium gas prank, retro fashion, beauty queen, more Tasers... I could go on.
 
I tried to go on, even if I felt like quitting. Like my hero Richman, I knew I would hit the wall sometime. I asked myself: what would the Man in Man vs Food do? He’d wipe his napkin, pat his belly and shovel more forkfuls of meat into his mouth, that’s what he’d do. So that’s what I tried to do. I dived back in to the mass of news, but I found myself struggling against news heartburn. I’d just consumed too much.
 
I tried. I started looking for morsels that would keep me going: a baby aardvark, a big treehouse, the kind of thing the Mail does so very well. But then I got bogged down again with the meat-sweats: OJ is innocent, a woman who swapped her truncheon for a tiara, and so on.
 
But it was an article about the happiness of a baked potato that proved to be my "waffer-thin" mint. I just couldn’t stomach it any longer. My conclusion? That it’s impossible to wade through everything on there. You’re not supposed to, of course; the ever-changing news matrix (I wrote that with a straight face) is there to entice you by throwing as much content at you and seeing how much of it will stick.
 
You have to admire Mail Online, as one might admire a giant omelette, a coffin-sized burrito or a burger that would have trouble fitting in a family car. The sheer scale of the thing is mightily impressive. Is it possible to digest it all at one sitting? No, but that’s not the point. Like any menu, you’re just supposed to pick at the things that entice you the most; by giving you an overwhelming choice it happens to make it more likely you’ll find something you want.
 
Will I be dining there again? Not for a while.
 

Doyennes of the Mail Online, Kim and Khloe Kardashian. Photograph: Getty Images
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.