My brush with Bilderberg

Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, says Nelson Jones. The concerns of rabble-rousing Texan radio host Alex Jones may be risible but those of Labour MP Michael Meacher

I'm sitting in a field near Watford on a glorious summer evening. Just visible across several rolling acres of exquisitely landscaped parkland, nestled discreetly among the trees, is the Grove Hotel, where up to 150 of the world's most powerful and influential people, including George Osborne, Henry Kissinger and Google's Eric Schmidt, are holding confidential talks. Ed Balls is there as well.  Over here, cordoned off in a heavily-guarded "protest area", are at least ten times that number, the majority of whom believe that the guests in the Grove (aka the Bilderberg group) are up to no good, although the precise nature of their 60 year old conspiracy varies according to who you ask.  

It's a relaxed, even cheerful event, despite the crush of numbers (by mid-afternoon, the venue was full and hundreds have reportedly been turned away) and despite the serious implications of the global conspiracy being hatched half a mile away. There are provocative tee-shirts (the best slogan being "Kissinger my ass"), protest banners denouncing the New World Order, a man holding a ventriloquist's dummy and a rap artist wearing stick-on pointed ears. There's some security theatre, but the police and G4S are on their best behaviour, with the result that only rhetorical anger is on display. People are here to expose the Bilderberg group, even to laugh at it, not to destroy it.

Right now (it's shortly after 6pm) Alex Jones, the rabble-rousing Texan radio host now notorious for his outburst on Andrew Neil's Sunday Politics show yesterday, is leading the crowd in a chant of "We know you are killers" aimed in the general direction of the Grove. Jones's belief, which he has just outlined with much conviction though no discernible evidence, is that the shadow world government (as represented and perhaps constituted by the assembled Bilderbergers) is in the advanced stages of a strategy to halve and then enslave the world's population. "They are literally putting cancer into your children's food," he warns the crowd, who seem to be receptive to the message. Many of them will have heard it before: Jones's Infowars broadcast claims an audience of five million listeners. But if Jones's audience really believed what he was telling them one might expect them to be more visibly disturbed.

(Jones's subsequent meltdown on Sunday Politics divided opinion among Bilderberg-watchers. For some, he had blown a precious opportunity and given respectable conspiracy theorists a bad name. Others, however, saw it as a clever stratagem to gain maximum publicity - an aim in which it undoubtedly succeeded, although publicity is far from being the same as credibility.)

If Jones and his fellow headliner David Icke represent one extreme of the anti-Bilderberg tendency, the presence of Labour MP Michael Meacher suggests that concern isn't confined entirely to UFO believers and people who smoked too much dope in the 1960s. Meacher's beef was with the intrinsic lack of accountability involved with what he calls "leaders of Western finance capitalism" meeting in secret. "They want to have complete frankness, serious policy making, they want to concert their plans - which are pretty brutal,"  he complained, to wild applause.

And here, for me, lies the paradox of this event. Billed by the organisers as the "first ever Bilderberg Fringe festival", it is in many ways indeed fairly fringe ("Tinfoil-hatsonbury," one wag calls it). Speaker after speaker earns cheers for denouncing 9/11 as in inside job, calling global warming a scam and warning about plans to microchip the entire population. People I speak to are eager to discuss pyramid power, satanic ritual sacrifice and the global elite's dependence on something called "monatomic gold". Easy pickings for mainstream journalists after a dismissive vignette, as is the presence of Jones and Icke.  In the absence of information from the actual conference, and with no pictures of arriving delegates beyond a procession of cars with blacked-out windows, it's difficult to portray Bilderberg in a serious light.  

Yet newsworthy it surely is. Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched, (Kissinger, yes. Mandelson, even. But Ed Balls?) but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, three days in which top bankers and corporate executives are holed up with influential politicians and international civil servants including the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Alex Jones's concerns may be risible but Meacher's are not. Even if the Bilderbergers aren't secretly running the world, or for that matter deciding anything of substance, there is symbolism in their gathering, and in David Cameron's acceptance on Friday of an invitation to join them.  

Beyond the conspiracy pantomime lurk very real concerns. Concern over the way the international financial system, post crash, seems to have been rigged in favour of the banks and the plutocrats. Concern over the increasing possibilities of state surveillance of individuals, as shown this very weekend with the news about the US authorities' PRISM programme, not to mention the ongoing debate over the Home Office's proposed Communications Data Bill.  Concern about the impact of globalisation. Concern above all about the growing chasm that seems to separate a feather-bedded elite from a mass of the population whose jobs and incomes seem ever less secure.

That this year's Bilderberg conference has attracted so much media attention and so many protesters is testament to decades of obsessional pursuit by Alex Jones and fellow conspiracy theorists. For decades, even during the postwar years when they were genuinely influential, the meetings received no publicity at all. But it also suggests that their ideas are becoming mainstream. Icke had the air of a man vindicated after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, as well he might: last week he announced a plan to launch his own internet TV station and public donations poured in.  

Even the conference organisers are much less secretive than they used to be. Where once those involved would deny very existence of the event, these days an agenda and a list of delegates is released on an official website. And if this new openness comes in part from exasperation at the crazy claims that have been made down the years about Bilderberg, it must also reflect an understanding that in the 21st century secret meetings of highly influential people are bound to attract suspicion and deserve to attract scrutiny. If Bilderberg and similar gatherings have up to now been of interest only to an eccentric fringe of conspiracy theorists and "researchers", that is a media failure and not the fault of Alex Jones.

A banner draped over the security barrier outside the Bilderberg meetings. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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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.