David Cameron caves in over Leveson

The Tories accept Labour and Lib Dem demands for statutory underpinning of a Royal Charter to establish a new press regulator.

After talks that lasted until 2:30am in Ed Miliband's offiice, the three main parties are close to reaching an agreement on press regulation - and it is the Conservatives who have given way. A Labour source told The Staggers: "we are confident we have the basis of an agreement around our Royal Charter entrenched in statute". The Tories, represented by Oliver Letwin at the talks (Miliband, Clegg and Harriet Harman were also present), have accepted three of Labour and the Lib Dems' key demands: 

-That the Royal Charter will be underpinned by law, so that it can only be amended by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, rather than by ministers at will. 

-That the press will not be able to veto appointments to the board of the new industry regulator.

-That the independent regulator will have the power to "direct" how newspaper apologies are made, rather than merely "requiring" them to be made. Papers, for instance, will be ordered to publish front page corrections, rather than bury them elsewhere.  

Despite these concessions, the Tories are claiming success on the basis that they have avoided the wider version of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Miliband and Clegg. Earlier this year, Harman said of the Tories' proposal of a Royal Charter: "It's a bit like Dolly the sheep, it might look like a sheep, but we do not know if it will do all the thing that a sheep is supposed to do". But Labour and the Lib Dems have now accepted that a Royal Charter, rather than a formal press law, is the appropriate mechanism to establish the new regulator.

A Tory source told the Daily Mail: "We have not caved. It is a near as dammit our version of Royal Charter. The entrenchment clause has been rewritten". But "near as dammit" means Miliband and Clegg can still chalk this up as a major political victory. We'll get the full details when a statement is made in the House of Commons later today. 

Update: Speaking on Sky News, Harriet Harman has just confirmed that "agreement has been reached" and that there will no longer be a Commons vote held today. She later told the Today programme that there will be "a small piece of legislation" in the House of Lords "which will say you can't tamper with or water down this charter". However, she conceded that this was not the form of statutory underpinning originally demanded by Labour and the Lib Dems: "The framework is set up in a Royal Charter, not by statute". That will aid the Tories' attempts to argue that it is ultimately the pro-Leveson camp that has given most ground. 

Harman also said that the new regulator would have the power to order newspapers to publish front page corrections and that Hacked Off would be "very pleased by the outcome". The key question, however, isn't whether the Tories or Labour think they've "won" but what the press makes of it all. The credibility of the new regulator will depend on the participation of all papers. 

David Cameron during a press conference last week on press regulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.