Boris Johnson and the Met

Boris has never missed an opportunity to dismiss legitimate criticisms of the police and to defend t

Two years ago, Boris Johnson's Policing Deputy declared that he and Boris had their "hands on the tiller" of the Metropolitan Police.

No longer would The Met be obsessed with managing media relations, he told the Guardian. No longer would they be obsessed with fighting headlines rather than fighting crime.

And yet on the very next day, another one of Boris's Deputy Mayors was charged with five counts of fraud.

Unable to keep his own deputy mayor's hands off the City Hall credit card, it is not surprising that Boris has also failed to get his hands around the far trickier problems at Scotland Yard.

Since then the Met has continued to blunder on from crisis to crisis, and since then Boris has actually loosened his shaky hold on the force.

Despite his election promise to exert greater power over the Met, Boris soon resigned his Chairmanship of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and handed it over to a man whose main crime-fighting concern so far has been to tell Londoners which breeds of dog they should own.

From the controversial policing of recent protests, to the abysmal investigation into phone hacking, Boris has never missed an opportunity to dismiss legitimate criticisms of the police, and to defend those that now look indefensible.

In the London Assembly and in his £250k Telegraph column, Boris described the phone hacking story as "a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party," a "song and dance about nothing" and persuaded his readers that celebrities actually wanted their phones to be hacked.

Claims about phone hacking had, he told us, been "substantially investigated" and he was therefore "completely satisfied" that the Met had done a good job.

It is not clear whether Boris's dismissals were simply the "extraordinary and unwise" actions of a partisan politicians or whether they were informed by darker memories of his own time as a journalist.

But what is now clear is that the Met actually did the worst of all possible jobs investigating criminal activities at the News of the World. And even now as the second police commissioner in three years steps down, Boris is still pretending that any problems are merely superficial and the fault of at most a handful of corrupt officers.

Now with Sir Paul Stephenson gone there is an opportunity for somebody to finally get a steady hand on the shaky tiller of the Metropolitan Police.

But whoever the Home Office finds to do the job, Boris Johnson is somebody whose tiller-holding advice they can clearly manage to do without.

 

Adam Bienkov is a journalist and blogger covering London Politics. He writes a regular column and blog for Snipe London Magazine.

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

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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.