Tabloid values: BBC news crew stand in front of the Charters Estate, where Cliff Richard owns a flat, 14 August. Photo: Getty
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The BBC on a Cliff edge, a bad ad for Israel, and a very British plum

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

I first noticed the BBC’s embrace of tabloid values in July 1992, when the corporation’s main evening bulletin led with the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common. The blood-soaked body of a young, blonde mother found on a summer afternoon with her two-year-old son beside her is the stuff of tabloid editors’ dreams. But it had no wider significance and I think the national broadcaster should be more upmarket, more thoughtful and, if you like, duller than that.

Now, nobody is surprised when the BBC sends a helicopter to cover a police raid on the Berkshire home of a pop star, apparently on suspicion that he sexually assaulted a minor in 1985. Arguments about who tipped off whom are beside the main points. First, the BBC shouldn’t be covering stories of this kind in such a way; second, suspects should not normally be named before they are arrested and charged, a point that was made robustly by Lord Justice Leveson and reiterated by guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The drama surrounding the raid will lead many to presume Cliff Richard’s guilt. The claim that such publicity encourages more victims to come forward is piffle. Given Richard’s celebrity, straightforward factual stories detailing any charges against him – if they are ever made – would be enough. After all, hundreds of non-celebrity sex offenders are successfully prosecuted every year without any publicity. Overdramatising the case seems likely to encourage fantasists and gold-diggers.

The more fuss is made about searches, arrests and so on, the less chance there is of a fair trial and the greater the injustice to the suspect if he turns out to be innocent. Yet, for years, downmarket newspapers have got away with ignoring these simple principles. The BBC should observe higher standards. (And no, I don’t like the music, either.)

Full-page blunder

The Guardian has been deluged with protests about its decision to run a full-page pro-Israel advertisement accusing Hamas of “child sacrifice”, which the “Jews rejected . . . 3,500 years ago”. The paper’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, agrees that the advertisement should not have run. I wonder. The “blood libel”, as Elliott points out, is the oldest and nastiest of all anti-Semitic tropes. It is extraordinary that the American organisation that placed the advertisement, This World, which claims to promote “universal Jewish values”, should revive such an accusation in order to turn it against others. It legitimises the discourse adopted by the more extreme opponents of Israel, who accuse Israel’s leaders of a new holocaust, describe Gaza as a concentration camp and compare the treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.

In other words, Israel’s supporters have shot themselves in the foot. If people want to do that and pay me for letting them do it, I would say, like Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, “Be my guest.”

Race to the top?

I was always a sceptic about Barack Obama, seeing him as a shallow yuppie blessed with a gift for making inspirational speeches. I never expected significant change. So it has proved. Ferguson, Missouri, where the National Guard was called in after several nights of unrest over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, has a predominantly black population but an almost wholly white police force and council. Putting a mixed-race head of state, whose domestic writ is severely constrained, on top of a white power structure makes no difference at all.

When Obama was elected, British commentators – in a version of what Australians call “the colonial cultural cringe” – praised the “advanced” attitudes of the US to minorities, comparing them unfavourably with Britain’s. This ignores how black people have lived in America in significant numbers roughly six times as long as in Britain and how levels of segregation there are far higher than in any of our cities. Don’t be fooled. Obama is just decoration.

Feasting on sunshine

“Greengages traditionally come from France and Spain,” advises the Daily Mail, salivating over news that Marks & Spencer will be stocking some grown in Kent at £2.50 a punnet. Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we have been virtually living on greengages, grown on a single tree in our garden, for the past fortnight. They are uniquely delicious and, at their best, prompt fantasies about feasting on sunshine.

I see no reason why greengages shouldn’t be grown in southern England in large quantities. How have we reached a situation whereby something we can perfectly well grow here – and have done so from the 18th century onwards – is treated as though it were a pineapple or an Hojiblanca olive, which must be imported? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Photo: Getty
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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.