Harriet Harman speaks at last year's Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Harman is right to go to war with the Daily Mail

Rather than merely rebutting the paper's smears, Labour's deputy leader is right to question its fitness to deliver moral lectures at all.

In an age of declining press influence, the Daily Mail's success in forcing its story on the "links" between Labour figures and a paedophile rights group (which is not a new one) onto the national news is a reminder of how Fleet Street can still set the agenda. Labour's initial response to the Mail's splash last Thursday, which branded Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt "apologists for paedophilia" over their alleged support for the now-defunct Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the 1970s, was to ignore it (in common with the rest of the media). But after the Mail led twice more on the story, and columnists in other papers, including the Observer and the Sunday Mirror argued that there were questions to answer, the party broke its silence yesterday. 

In response to a question from Sky News, Ed Miliband said of Harman, who, as the party's deputy leader, is the most senior figure targeted: "I have known her for 20 years. I do not set any store by these allegations. I know she has a long and proud record of being on the right side of all of these issues." This was followed by a lengthy statement by Harman herself and one from Dromey, her husband and the shadow policing minister (Hewitt has remained silent). Then, last night, in the most public intervention from any Labour figure yet, Harman gave an interview to Newsnight (which you can watch in full above) devoted to the story.

While rebutting the central charge that she was a supporter of PIE during her time as legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (the predecessor group to Liberty), and the claim that she sought to water down a ban on child pornography, Harman also moved from defence to attack. She declared of the Mail:

It is ironic that they're accusing me of supporting indecency in relation to children when they themselves are not above producing photographs of very young girls, titivating [sic] photographs in bikinis, so, you know, I stand by what I was doing at NCCL and I stand by what I was doing all the way through.

And added: "If there's anybody, over the years, who has supported indecency, it is much more the Daily Mail than it is me - and that's the frank truth of it."

After the Mail's disastrous attempt to smear Ralph Miliband as "the man who hated Britain" (which Labour believes explains the paper's current vitriol), the party's figures are more confident than ever in questioning its moral legitimacy and Harman (invariably referred to as "Harperson" in its pages) has more reason than most to challenge its authority. In his recent profile of Paul Dacre for the NS, Peter Wilby published this memorable charge sheet: 

This year, the Mail reported that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax; that asylum-seekers had “targeted” Scotland; that disabled babies were being euthanised under the Liverpool Care Pathway; that a Kenyan asylum-seeker had committed murders in his home country; that 878,000 recipients of Employment Support Allowance had stopped claiming “rather than face a fresh medical”; that a Portsmouth primary school had denied pupils water on the hottest day of the year because it was Ramadan; that wolves would soon return to Britain; that nearly half the electricity produced by windfarms was discarded. All these reports were false.

But Harman's fightback was marred by her failure to express explicit regret for the rules which allowed PIE to affiliate itself to the National Council for Civil Liberties (which is not, of course, the same thing as the NCCL endorsing the group). Rather than simply conceding that the NCCL was wrong to allow itself to be infilitrated in this manner (as Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti has previously done), Harman embarked on a convoluted explanation of the relationship. She said: "They paid their money to NCCL and, at the time...well, NCCL takes money from any organisation which was a lawful organisation and any individual."

She went on to reassure viewers that the group held no sway in the NCCL but failed to simply declare that it was wrong for the potential to exist at all. This morning, Harman corrected that omission, with an aide stating: "She regrets the existence of PIE and of course she regrets any organisations' involvement with them including the NCCL. But she does not regret joining the NCCL. By the time she arrived, (PIE) were very much under the radar."

Harman's reluctance to issue anything resembling an "apology" was understandable. It risked being seen as an admission of guilt and as a validation of the Mail's smears. After banking her "apology", the Mail would next demand her resignation. But while now expressing appropriate regret for the NCCL's past laxity, Harman is, crucially, not retreating from the battlefield. She stands by her accusation that the Mail publishes "indecent photos" and "will not take lectures from them". On this point, she is entirely right. Rather than merely challenging the message, it is essential to challenge the messenger too. The Mail's deeds, both past and present (from "Hurrah to the Blackshirts" to "The man who hated Britain"), mean it is standing on the thinnest moral ground. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.