New Statesman Ai Weiwei guest edit shortlisted for Amnesty Award

Ai Weiwei, Cheng Yizhong and the New Statesman nominated.

Amnesty International have announced the shortlist for their 2013 Media Awards, and the New Statesman has been nominated for a series of three articles published in our 22 October issue guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Amnesty’s Media Awards “recognize excellence in human rights reporting and acknowledge journalism’s significant contribution to the UK public’s awareness and understanding of human rights issues.”

Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist and a free speech advocate. He was previously detained by the Chinese government on charges of tax evasion and is still prevented from leaving the country. He is currently appealing a fine imposed by the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau for $1.85m.

The New Statesman’s editorial team spent six months working closely with Ai and his team in Beijing to produce an ambitious issue dedicated to China and its future. The three nominated articles are : “Fact have blood as evidence”, an interview Ai conducted with blind civil activist Chen Guangcheng; the “The Virus of Censorship”, in which newspaper editor Cheng Yizhong reveals how journalists in China are kept in a state of fear and endemic self-censorship through government manipulation and policing; and “Meet the 50 Cent Party”, which saw Ai Weiwei expose the underworld of state-sponsored commentators by interviewing an unnamed twenty six year old graduate who explained the process by which he is hired to influence the thoughts of ‘netizens’.

The issue was published bilingually, produced as a digital issue in Mandarin and a print edition in English.  With original content from Chinese journalists, authors, artists and musicians, the magazine was edited in a foreign language for the first time in its history. It was a rewarding challenge that our commissioning editor Sophie Elmhirst outlined eloquently in this post-production blog.

The New Statesman and Ai Weiwei also jointly launched a Twitter campaign which posed the question “what is the future of China?” to ordinary citizen and collated thousands of responses, a selection of which were published in the magazine.

Following publication, we urged readers to download and to share the issue, for free, across social networking websites in an attempt to breach “The Great Firewall”. Our deputy Helen Lewis reiterated our commitment to free, uncensored journalism in this blog post - which offers links to the magazine as a sharable torrent file, magnet link and PDF.  

These three features revealed a side of China rarely seen in the west, and would never have seen publication in their authors’ home country. This issue was an act of solidarity with like-minded writers on the other side of the world; a promise that we would do our part to give a home to their stories, so often stifled. In his leader for the issue, Ai wrote:

I chose to dedicate my issue of the magazine to China, its people, its history, its culture, its current situation and its future. My country has to recognise itself, which is a challenge to anybody at any stage in life.

…the only way we can be successful, in China and in life, is through greater communication and wider awareness, in constantly questioning our standards and our conditions. You, as readers, are part of this, you are active members of this family, and you can be proud of that. We should all be proud of that.

The New Statesman is nominated alongside Janine di Giovanni’s Seven Days in Syria, published by Granta, in the Consumer Magazine category.

The issue has also been shortlisted for the British Media Award’s Cross Media project.

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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.