11 Surprising Revelations in the Daily Mail's anti-Leveson hatchet job

Prepare to be amazed by the state of the FT's loos.

Today's Mail has gone all guns blazing against the Leveson inquiry, unveiling a "quasi-masonic" conspiracy of interconnected individuals (what others might call "the media") hell-bent on muzzling the free press. Over a dozen pages, it outlines a shadowy nexus around David Bell, who is one of the Leveson inquiry's assessors, his friend Julia Middleton, the Media Standards Trust and a group called Common Purpose.

Here are 11 of the most surprising pieces of evidence brought to support the Mail's case.

1. It's an EU conspiracy! No, it's a New Labour conspiracy!

Lib Dem donor and one-time SDP activist Bell is a former chairman of the Financial Times, at the time Fleet Street's most zealous supporter of the European Union. Bell is also a former director of the FT's parent company Pearson, which was a financial backer of New Labour. 

2. Many journalists have worked at more than one media organisation in the course of their careers

Ian Hargreaves is a former Ofcom board member and one of the best-connected figures in the liberal Establishment. A founder with Julia Middleton of the New Labour think-tank Demos, Hargreaves was deputy editor at Sir David Bell's Financial Times (Robert Peston was political editor), editor of the Independent and New Statesman, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC and is now Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University. On the Media Standards Trust website he is listed as a 'supporter' of the Hacked Off campaign.

3. These are some pretty scary people we're talking about:

Mother-of-five Middleton is the founder, chief executive and presiding guru of Common Purpose. She has been described as 'messianic' in her crusade to improve standards in corporate and public life.

4. The Guardian's Milly Dowler hacking splash was all untrue, except the bit we haven't mentioned that wasn't

In July 2011, a nuclear bomb was dropped on Britain’s newspaper industry: The Guardian alleged that the News of the World had deleted messages from murder victim Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, giving her parents ‘false hope’ that she was still alive. Despite the fact that we now know The Guardian story — which followed others detailing the hacking of messages left on celebrities’ phones — was almost certainly untrue, this was the tipping point. [source]

There is some sleight of hand here. In fact, the Guardian's splash that day led on the allegation that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The idea of deletions was mentioned in the sub-headline. It is now believed by the police that it is impossible to tell what, or who, caused the deletions. Nonetheless, it is not disputed that the paper hacked the phone of a dead girl in the hope of getting a story.

5. Johann Hari is David Bell's fault

Bell and Middleton set up the Media Standards Trust, a lobby group which presented a huge amount of evidence to the Inquiry. The Media Standards Trust, whose chairman was Bell, gave its 'prestigious' Orwell Prize for political writing to a journalist who turned out to have made up parts of his 'award-winning' articles. [source]

6. David Bell is conscientious

It's always the hard-working ones. Richard Pendlebury writes:

But while some of the Leveson assessors have patchy attendance records at the Inquiry, Sir David — whose unbridled eagerness to join the judge in his private rooms when the sittings rise has been remarked upon by observers — seems to have barely missed a day of the public hearings that began almost a year ago.

7. The FT has unisex executive loos

Writing in the New Statesman (bugger, are we part of this semi-masonic conspiracy? Do we need to buy robes?), Robert Peston of the BBC describes a "soiree" held by Middleton:

"Almost all her meetings end up with a collective wail about the irresponsibility and excessive power of the media. . . .Meanwhile, the discovery of the evening for me was that Pearson's executive washroom is unisex, a la Ally McBeal. What is Marjorie Scardino, Pearson's personable chief executive, thinking of?"

The Mail's feature writer, Richard Pendlebury, segues this into:

Peston was unnervingly prescient about one thing. Something has come of that soiree seven years ago.

Go on.

8. From Chris Bryant's underpants to Jean Charles de Menezes in one easy step

Another Common Purpose luminary is Chris Bryant MP — exposed by the press for posing in his underpants on internet dating sites. Bryant, who has led the charge against Rupert Murdoch in the Commons and was a Leveson witness, was Common Purpose's London manager for two years.

Among the senior police officers who are also Common Purpose graduates is Cressida Dick, who was savaged by the press for her leading role in the 2005 shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in a London Underground carriage.

9. We're not like those mad conspiracy theorists!

For a number of years Common Purpose has attracted the obsessive attention of the more outré internet conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, as well as bloggers on the far Right. This has provided a convenient smokescreen against a more rational investigation.

10. That Hugh Grant's pretty shifty, eh? I mean, look at his face

11. I Knew Lesbians Would Be Involved Somehow

The panel included three New Labour peers, including Baroness Helena Kennedy QC — one of Middleton’s top ten ‘inspirational leaders’ and an MST trustee (now acting Chair) — and Dame Suzi Leather, the ‘Quango Queen’ who took flak from the press for championing IVF treatment for lesbians and who was interviewed by Julia Middleton for a film which appeared on the Common Purpose website.

PS. Ssh! No one mention our shadowy nexus

Tragically, there was no space to mention that the Daily Mail is edited by Paul Dacre, who is chairman of the Code of Practice committee, which governs the workings of the current press regulator, the PCC. 

Dacre once sat on a subway train near Sid Vicious, incidentally. Does that make him responsible for punk music?

Paul Dacre. Photo: Getty Images
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.