Brian Cox and Robin Ince to guest-edit the Christmas issue of the New Statesman

A special edition on evidence, out Wednesday 19 December.

Next week will see a special issue of the New Statesman, featuring contributions from Ricky Gervais, Alan Moore, Mark Gatiss, Phill Jupitus, Alexander McCall Smith, Ben Miller, Maggie Philbin, Laura Bates, Tom Humberstone, Natalie Haynes, Josie Long, Ralph Steadman, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Mehdi Hasan, Jim Al-Khalili and an exclusive interview with David Attenborough.

Inside the 100-page double issue, Brian Cox and Robin Ince address the question of evidence – Why do we need it? How can we evaluate it?

They speak to some of the brightest thinkers in the world of science, investigate the year’s discoveries and bid farewell to Voyager-1 as it leaves the solar system. Inside, Mark Gatiss discusses ghost stories, Alexander McCall Smith writes a short story, Ralph Steadman draws the Large Hadron Collider and Alan Moore demolishes the very concept of evidence.

There are also cartoons from Phill Jupitus and Tom Humberstone, a galaxy of space images and faith leaders addressing the conflict between religious belief and science . . . and Ricky Gervais talking about atheism.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, said:

“Brian and Robin will be familiar to millions as champions of science, through their join Radio 4 programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, and their separate endeavours. Robin’s Nine Lessons have become a Christmas institution, and Brian’s programmes have brought physics into the nation’s living rooms.

“As David Attenborough says in his interview with them, to be a full citizen in the modern world, it is vital to understand science and technology. We are delighted to devote a whole issue to the cause. This special issue is full of wonder and surprise.”

Robin Ince and Brian Cox said:

“One of the delights of working on Infinite Monkey Cage is the variety of ideas trawled through in the green room beforehand and the pub afterwards. 

“So when asked to hijack a magazine and fill it with our worldview and the views of others we like, obviously our monstrous egos demanded that we say yes.”

The issue will be on sale in London on Wednesday 19 December and in the rest of the country from Thursday 20 December. International buyers can obtain copies on our website at www.newstatesman.com. It will be on sale for two weeks, with the next issue out on Thursday, 3 January.

Other New Statesman guest editors have included Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins, Jemima Khan, David Miliband and Ai Weiwei.

Brian Cox and Robin Ince. Photo: Muir Vidler for 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.