Men walk past a bank of television screens in the BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House. Photograph: Getty Images
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We must defend the BBC from Murdoch and death by a thousand Tory cuts

If we want to preserve quality public-service broadcasting in Britain, we must defend the Beeb.

Rule one of politics, as Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once remarked, is: “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Right-wingers in the UK have heeded his words: they certainly aren’t allowing the crises engulfing the BBC “to go to waste”. And their strategy is as brazen as it is cynical and opportunistic: to magnify and exaggerate the sins of the hated Beeb while quietly minimising the crimes of their friends at News International.

A case in point was Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column of 12 November. After blithely declaring that the “real tragedy” was the “smearing [of] an innocent man’s name” by BBC’s Newsnight (and not, as you might think, the sexual abuse of children), Johnson claimed that Newsnight’s reporting had been “more cruel, revolting and idiotic than anything perpetrated by the News of the World”.

Sorry, what? Dare I remind the Mayor of London that more than 4,000 people have been identified by police as possible victims of phone-hacking, including the families of dead British soldiers, relatives of the 7/7 victims and a murdered schoolgirl? Yet the cultural vandals on the right only have eyes for the BBC, whose existence has always been anathema to their free-market, anti-regulation ideology.

Hysteria and hyperbole

The Newsnight debacle has provided the perfect cover for an attack on the corporation that has been a long time in the making. Remember, in opposition, the Conservative Party in effect allowed James Murdoch and NewsCorp lobbyists to write its media policy. And on coming to office, the Tory-led coalition froze the BBC licence fee for six years. An unavoidable cost-cutting measure, perhaps? Not quite: a gleeful David Cameron let the mask slip when he referred to the BBC “deliciously” having to slash its budget. (For the record, the BBC costs each licensed household less than 40p a day.)

In recent weeks, conservatives – both big and small “c” – have queued up to denounce the broadcaster and demand that it be downsized or even broken up. “The BBC must do less, and do it better,” declaimed the Telegraph on 13 November. The Defence Secretary, the Conservative Philip Hammond, suggested in (where else?) a BBC radio interview that the future of the licence fee might be in doubt.

What we are witnessing is a shameless, co-ordinated assault on the BBC’s reputation and output by Conservative politicians and by their outriders in the right-wing media echo chamber. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: where were these doughty Tory defenders of media ethics when Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of the murdered architect Joanna Yeates, was being smeared as a “creepy” killer by the press? Eight newspapers, including the Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail, had to pay “substantial” libel damages to the former schoolmaster. None of those papers’ editors quit his job; none “stood aside” from his post pending an independent inquiry.

It is also worth asking why so few Tory MPs and Tory-supporting columnists have gone after ITV – the network on which the presenter Phillip Schofield idiotically ambushed the Prime Minister, live on air, with a list of alleged paedophiles culled from the internet. Schofield is still in his job. So, too, are the chairman and chief executive of ITV.

To try to delegitimise or dismantle the BBC, the world’s biggest and best broadcaster, on the basis of Newsnight’s double failure – first over Jimmy Savile, then over Lord McAlpine – is unfair both to the corporation and to Newsnight itself. Ask the brave people of the besieged Syrian city of Homs what they think of the show. Newsnight’s acclaimed film Undercover in Homs, which reported their plight to Britain, won an Amnesty media award in May.

The BBC is bigger than Newsnight – though you might not have guessed it from the recent hysteria and hyperbole in the press. Consider some of the award-winning and popular BBC output of the past 12 months: Panorama, David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet, Andrew Marr’s History of the World, Strictly Come Dancing, The Archers, Sherlock, the Today programme, Children in Need, the Proms, Woman’s Hour, CBeebies . . . the list goes on. Figures released by the corporation suggest 96 per cent of the UK population consumes BBC services every week.

The inconvenient truth for right-wingers is that their hatred of the taxpayer-funded, publicly owned BBC has never been shared by the tax-paying public. As the Financial Times noted on 12 November: “In a survey by Ofcom, the media regulator, in November 2011, 59 per cent of people said the BBC was the news source they most trusted. The next, ITV News, scored 7 per cent.” The reporters added: “No newspaper beat 2 per cent.”

Beware the Rupert

The BBC has bent over backwards to hold itself to account. How many other media organisations would have allowed their editor-in-chief to be flayed in public by one of his own employees, as Ent­wistle was by the Today programme’s John Humphrys on 10 November?

Full disclosure: I was once a BBC employee and I now do paid punditry for various BBC programmes. But I am no dewy-eyed defender of Auntie: I have, on these pages, condemned the Beeb’s “establishment bias . . . towards power and privilege, tradition and orthodoxy” and its “stomach-churning” coverage of the monarchy. And I agree that the corporation’s “bonkers” (© David Dimbleby) management structure is stuffed with “cowards and incompetents” (© Jeremy Paxman).

But what is the alternative? Death by a thousand Tory cuts? The Foxification of the British media landscape? Make no mistake, Rupert Murdoch – who incidentally hasn’t had to resign as chief executive of a media company where phone-hacking was conducted on an industrial scale – is waiting in the wings.

The BBC, despite its many faults, must be protected from its right-wing enemies. In the battle to preserve high-quality, non-partisan public-service broadcasting, Auntie is our last line of defence.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer to the New Statesman. This piece is crossposted with the Huffington Post here

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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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.