"I will spoil my paper if I don’t think any party’s right for me". Photo: Rama Knight
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Jamal Edwards: "If hundreds of thousands of kids registered, that could sway the election"

The media entrepreneur Jamal Edwards on politics, his past, and why young people should make sure they register to vote – even if it's to spoil their ballot papers.

Jamal Edwards is the 24-year-old media entrepreneur and self-made multimillionaire who grew up on an Acton council estate. After a few years of amateur film-making, having received a video camera for Christmas when he was 15, he founded the broadcasting company SBTV, which makes music videos and puts them on YouTube. The videos attract a huge number of hits, which make it a highly lucrative business model, gaining its fortune from advertising revenues.

Already a high-profile figure in the entertainment industry, Edwards is fast becoming well-known for his involvement in politics. He backs the campaign Bite the Ballot, which has been raising awareness of its mission to get more young people on the electoral register before the general election next year via the recent YouTube "Leaders Live" debates.

I met him at Google HQ in London on 12 May this year, when he was working with YouTube on some videos ahead of the European and local elections that month.

 

Anoosh Chakelian: You've been involved in politics for quite a while, haven't you?

Jamal Edwards: I haven’t made it known, but I’ve sort of had a little dibble and dabble for quite a few years. The first politics I was involved in were the Spirit of London Awards, when I went to 10 Downing Street and interviewed David Cameron. That was my first experience of it.

AC: I’ve seen that interview...

JE: I hate it!

AC: Why do you hate it?

JE: I don't know, it’s just – wait, no, I did one with Ed Miliband, that’s the one I didn’t like. I was young. I had like ten chains on, Beats by Dre around my neck. I wasn’t articulating myself clearly. But it was all right, it was a good experience.

AC: What did you think of Cameron and Miliband?

JE: I don’t know what to think. David Cameron was a bit more controlled. They had to see the questions before I asked them, they took some of the questions out. I don’t know what to say. Ed Miliband, even though we had to stop the interview because time was going over, Ed still carried it on and let me ask my questions. I think I still had to show them my questions, which is a bit controlling. But other than that, I guess they’re just two decent people. I don’t know what to say about them! I’d like to do it again.

AC: Why did you want to interview them in the first place?

JE: I thought I could’ve had a chance to bridge that gap [between politicians and young people]. I don’t really see any interviews with them where young people consume content. They may go and do interviews on the BBC or ITV, but who’s watching those news programmes? So I wanted to put them on my platform where a lot of young people are watching the content, for them to voice their opinions.

AC: Is there a problem in this country with young people not connecting with politics?

JE: Yes, 100 per cent. It’s either due to the jargon that they’re using, or it’s not very accessible for young people to consume it. Some people are though. There are some people who are very switched on and they get it, but there are other people who say, “forget it, they don’t care about us, they’re in another world to us”. So a lot of it is segregated.

AC: What can politicians do to appeal more to young people? Is it even their responsibility to do so?

JE: Yes and no. It’s a bit of a difficult one. If they had an open, free-for-all platform, where they would answer your questions truthfully and honestly, and you can send them questions and they answer it, that I think sort of breaks down the barrier. Because then if you get a load of young people going on to those platforms and wanting to speak to them, wanting to hear answers, then that would be a great thing. Then young people will feel like they’re listening to them. They might think, “oh, they’re not going to take it on board”, but at least they’ve had the opportunity to ask their questions.

AC: You clearly think this is important, considering your backing for Bite the Ballot...

JE: I think it’s important, because there was that saying... I’m not going to say it because it sounds cringe...

AC: Go on.

JE: It’s the Gandhi saying: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I feel like where I live there are different social groups on my estate: there are people who are on the wrong path, doing mad stuff, and then there are people who want to change and get out of my area. And there are the people who are out of the area, doing their own thing. I see the people who are on the edge, they don’t necessarily want to be there, doing that mad stuff, getting in trouble with the police, being in and out of prison, but they want to be successful in their life. They want to change, they want to be the change. So that’s what got me into politics. And to learn about it, because I don’t really feel like I learnt about it in school. So I feel like I can learn now.

AC: Do you feel that when you were growing up, you could have gone down one of those routes that you’ve just described?

JE: Yeah, I think anyone can go either way. I always had a really short attention span, so I was always getting in trouble for that! But I feel like I hung around with loads of different people, and so had loads of different cultures of life, whereas some people only have one culture of life, and that’s it. So I feel like it could’ve gone either way. There are things that happened that kept me on the straight path.

AC: Like what?

JE: Like minor little troubles. Just troublesome things. What kids do! I remember silly things like throwing a rock and smashing a window. Stupid stuff like that.

AC: Do you still live where you grew up?

JE: No, I live down the road, but I still go and visit it a lot. I still go and visit it all the time. All my friends still live there as well. Bits and bobs.

AC: And what’s their reaction to your involvement in politics, and your success generally?

JE: My real life friends think it’s a good thing. But there’s a bad thing with the internet – a lot of people will talk on the internet but not really mean what they’re saying. A lot of my real friends understand it, but the people on the internet are like: “Why are you doing this? You’ve sold your soul to the devil! You’ve done this, you’ve done that!” Those are the digital kids. They’re born on the internet. So they find out their facts from the internet. If they see something about politics on the internet, or about the Illuminati, or a secret society, they’re going to believe that for gospel. Whereas my real friends who are my age don’t believe in that rubbish. They just think, “oh, they [politicians] can’t help us, they don’t believe in us”. So you’ve got the digital kid and the real-life people.

AC: What are you hoping to achieve in the future, in terms of politics?

JE: I hope to make myself much more educated in politics so that I can make an informed decision, and I hope to be so educated that when anyone comes and quizzes me I can tell them the rights and wrongs, and show them the way, that it’s not all about negativity, and educate them as well.

AC: Who will you be voting for in the upcoming election?

JE: I’m not going to vote for anyone. I don’t feel like there’s anyone out there. I don’t know anything about it.

[At this point, Bite the Ballot's director Michael Sani steps in and reminds him to “mention the fact that you’ll do a protest vote".]

I know, I know, I know. I’m educating myself. So if anything, I will spoil my paper if I don’t think any party’s right for me.

AC: But you will go to the ballot box?

JE: I will school myself on what each party can bring for me, and if it doesn’t, if I don’t think it’s good for me, then I just won’t get involved. I’ll spoil my paper. That’s what I tell a lot of people to do as well, at least if you’re registered to vote, you’re a vote worth winning. But if you’re not registered at all, then who cares? You’re a no one. But if you had hundreds and thousands of kids spoiling their ballot paper, then obviously someone would think, “wait, hold up”. If someone made policies towards those hundreds of thousands of people, that could sway the vote of who could win the election.

The next Leaders Live debate will be with Nick Clegg at 7pm, 16 December

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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.