CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Nick Clegg was the winner in this historic leaders' debate (Guardian)

Martin Kettle discusses last night's leaders' debate, concluding that Cameron disappointed, Brown held the line, and Clegg came out on top. If nothing else, the debate brought the election alive by confirming that our political parties also have something serious to argue about.

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2. Election 2010: Clegg uses first TV debate to best effect (Daily Telegraph)

The Telegraph View agrees that, while the debate didn't live up to its hype, it gave a much-needed lift to a lacklustre campaign. Brown waffled, and although Cameron came across as articulate and energetic, it was made apparent that Clegg could be a barrier to his premiership.

3. We saw the new masters in action... (Times)

...and they turned out to be us, says David Aaronovitch, who argues that the real significance of the debate was that it showed how the power is shifting from rulers to the ruled.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

4. A little desperation? Bring it on (Independent)

Andrew Marr claims that philosophically, the three main parties are breaking apart, ideologically, from the middle ground. The divides are real, and how we vote this time matters hugely.

5. Call it loyalty. Call it tribalism. At the ballot box a magnetic force kicks in (Guardian)

In the end, the policies count for little, argues Julian Glover. Voting for a party is a matter of the heart, much like support for a football team -- loyalty is the underappreciated force shaping this election.

6. The shameful, bloody silence at the heart of the election (Independent)

Johann Hari asks why the Afghanistan war has been left out of the election debate. Hamid Karzai is threatening to defect to the Taliban and still we won't discuss it.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

7. Justice mocked (Times)

The leading article says that the UN tribunal should curb the delaying tactics of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader. He has a right to be defended, but his actions are a bleak and unconscionable farce.

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8. Pope Benedict has turned his back on a church in crisis (Financial Times)

Philip Stephens examines the pope's response to the crisis in the Catholic church. The pontiff is a globaliser -- the pews may gather dust in Europe and the US, but in societies more respectful of authority, business is booming.

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9. Libel laws: a lethal muzzle of medicine (Guardian)

The chiropractors' absurd pursuit of Simon Singh is over, says Ben Goldacre, but libel laws are still a real health hazard. In the medical world, reasonable criticism should never be stifled, because of the enormous potential to do harm regardless of good intentions.

10. Ridicule is a weapon against terrorism (Financial Times)

Jamie Bartlett and Richard Reeves make the case for allowing radical messages to circulate freely. Terrorism has become "cool" and rebellious among young Muslims. We must "toxify" the al-Qaeda brand; not by making it seem dangerous, but by exposing it as dumb.

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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.