We need to talk about how we talk about Prevent

The Prevent strategy can be improved through discussion, debate and greater engagement from all sides. However, before the strategy can be improved, we need to reform the way we talk about it.

Anthony Cornish
14 November 2016

The chancellor at the launch of a new security initiative. Picture by Chris Radburn PA Wire/PA Images

The chancellor at the launch of a new security initiative. Picture by Chris Radburn PA Wire/PA Images

Efforts to prevent vulnerable individuals from getting radicalised to an extremist ideology must be viewed as safeguarding. Radicalisation poses a modern threat to society and the people who are most likely to be targeted and fall victim to it deserve to be offered protection. It is often overlooked that the government’s Prevent initiative is fundamentally a safeguarding strategy designed to protect such vulnerable people. While there is little debate around the fact that Prevent can be improved, anti-Prevent critics must reform how they talk about the strategy before any effective changes can be made to it.

Perceptions of Prevent

Kindling the public interest, discussion about Prevent can be found in newsrooms, political arenas, school staffrooms, hospitals and more. Such is the scope and reach of the strategy. While opinion is divided on many points – in its impact, its ethics or its success – the anti-Prevent narrative has proven to be dominant, giving rise to a culture of criticism around the strategy. This is severely affecting how Prevent is perceived, undermining its ability to be delivered effectively, and preventing meaningful discussion on how to take the strategy forward from taking place.

Public scrutiny, debate and criticism are fundamental aspects of democracy enabling citizens to challenge issues that directly impact society. Radicalisation and government efforts to tackle it fall well within this remit. However, the polarisation of opinion with Prevent has caused the spaces for discussion to be increasingly hijacked by opponents. So stark has this division got that Muslims willing to work with Prevent have been labeled anti-Muslim extremists.

The voices expressing opposition to Prevent, in whatever capacity, have essentially become the loudest. “It’s very rare you hear a good news story about Prevent,” a coordinator once said to me. “It just doesn’t make the headlines.” Because of this, the positive stories about Prevent – and the Channel deradicalisation programme within it – are going untold. This uneven playing field as it may be described has been exploited, giving critical voices the upper hand when it comes to publicity and exposure.

In many ways, the government itself is partially to be blame. As Prevent is about safeguarding there are inevitably issues with confidentiality. However, greater transparency would lead to greater understanding of what the strategy is principally trying to do and indeed doing. This is something that must be addressed. The Times was recently granted exclusive access to Channel programme documents, which is a positive move that has the potential to answer calls for greater transparency.

Quantifying the success of Prevent has proven problematic due to the lack of transparency but also because of intrinsic difficulties when determining whether interventionist work itself is the main reason for stopping something from happening. Sir Peter Fahy, the former national Prevent lead, says, “It's very difficult to measure the success of a programme that’s about prevention because obviously the success rate here is that no bombs have gone off.”

Whether Prevent has been a main factor or not at all for relatively little terrorist activity in the UK compared to other countries is another matter for debate.

Just as with other areas of government policy, it is important to emphasise that criticism of Prevent should be encouraged provided it is balanced and fair. It should be viewed as a positive that there is such a diversity of voices willing to talk about it – this has the potential to help the government form the most effective counter-radicalisation strategy that addresses weaknesses and works for all stakeholders. Even supporters of Prevent and its most objective critics say that the strategy can, and should, be improved, whether in the training, making it more community-driven or in its transparency. However, criticising Prevent must be done responsibly and in a way that will benefit – not hinder – the ultimate aim of the strategy which is to protect vulnerable individuals from harmful ideologies.

Moral panic?

In 1991, the government introduced the Dangerous Dogs Act. Following a number of attacks on people around Britain, legislation was passed identifying four particularly “dangerous” breeds of dog. Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and Fila Brasileiro. Headlines such as The Sun’s ‘Dog Ate My Baby’s Head’ epitomized the atmosphere in society that led to the passing of the Act. This is often used as an example of a “moral panic”.

A moral panic can be defined as public alarm in response to a problem that threatens society’s moral standards. The sociologist Stanley Cohen, a pioneer in this field, argued that a moral panic occurs when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”. His 1972 work, Folk Devils and Moral Panic, focused on the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s and 1970s as an example of a situation where reality is exaggerated causing public anxiety about it to build. Other examples of moral panic in the UK revolved around video nasties in the 1980s and the war on drugs from the 1990s onward.

In any moral panic, the mass media plays a significant role. The unique position of power it commands in society gives it the ability not simply to spread, but even create, one. With reference to this, Professor Cohen writes that a moral panic is “presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media”. Reporting is often sensationalised.

Now, while the atmosphere around Prevent does not represent a moral panic on the same scale as experienced with Mods and Rockers, dangerous dogs or ecstasy, there are some compelling similarities. Framing opposition to Prevent within a moral panic model helps show the disproportionate negativity that exists around the strategy and how the media is complicit in shaping negative perceptions of it.

Firstly, a moral panic involves an issue that poses a perceived threat to society. With Prevent, lets take the claim that it indiscriminately targets Muslim communities. Despite this being a group representing roughly five per cent of the population, this is framed in a way that suggests the Prevent strategy threatens the moral order of society in doing so. In other words, in its perceived disproportionate targeting of a religious group, the Prevent strategy itself may be a threat to our liberal, inclusive democracy.

Secondly, there are similarities in the role that the media has played in times of moral panic and the role it has played in shaping perceptions of Prevent. Many column inches have been devoted to anti-Prevent stories and voices, depicting it as more of an Orwellian project than a safeguarding strategy. For example, Prevent has been dubbed ‘MI5 Islam’, based on the perception that it is about Muslim surveillance. It has been argued that Prevent “creates a systemic risk of violations of the right to freedom of expression, the right against discrimination and the right to privacy”. Others say it treats Muslim children primarily as terror suspects and opinion pieces have been published with titles such as ‘Prevent gives people permission to hate Muslims – it has no place in schools’. Many other examples can be found on the internet.

Headlines and claims such as these, in the absence of a counter-narrative, feed the belief that Prevent is bad for society. I am using the moral panic example as a way of stressing the hyperbolized nature of Prevent coverage and the disproportionate amount of exposure given to one argument.

A positive system of critique

It is perhaps easier to say how not to criticise Prevent than to say how to do so in a constructive way. Forming a positive system of critique – one that is based on valid claims, engenders meaningful discussion and provides solutions to existing problems – is vital to improving Prevent and the overall counter-radicalisation effort.

What would a positive system of critique look like?

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, exhibited some semblance of the kind of approach that should be taken with Prevent. Addressing the legitimate grievances of communities at the local level, he reaffirmed the importance of the government’s role in counter-radicalisation.

“It is frustrating for me to see a programme whose ideals are obviously good falling down on the delivery to the point where it is not trusted in the community where it principally applies,” he said.

There are various reasons why Prevent is “falling down on the delivery”. A major one, as Mr Anderson rightly points out, is in the way the strategy is perceived in some communities. In a Tweet following his radio appearance, Mr Anderson added, “Sadly, negative views on Prevent are shaping opinion.” The strategy’s image is at the centre of mistrust around it largely due the recycling of anecdotal stories which the anti-Prevent narrative thrives on. The story of Ifhat Smith and her son – the famous “eco-terrorism” case – is a good example of how anti-Prevent stories, however exaggerated, embellished or false they have been proven to be, have been allowed to spread.

Therefore, the first requirement for a positive system of critique would be greater responsibility when it comes to reporting on Prevent from the mass media. Failure to do so is directly linked to outcomes akin to moral panic as described above. Amid such claims and accusations, the fact that Prevent is a safeguarding strategy is lost and no attempt is made to present its intentions as humanitarian or positive in any way.

Second, calls to scrap Prevent without offering a viable alternative must be ended. Offering nothing by way of improving or replacing the strategy, this would leave a void in an area that needs to be filled, leaving thousands of vulnerable individuals that are referred through Prevent with little assistance. It makes for a quick and easy headline, fits an agenda, but also fails to acknowledge the pioneering role that the UK counter-radicalisation strategy has had in influencing other initiatives across Europe and in the United States. Any system of critique should be about improving the strategy, not ending it.

Third, radicalisation has grown as an academic field and engagement with work in this area should be increased. Today, extremists are employing new methods of recruitment by tapping into social media and the internet. There is a wealth of academia that is continuing to advance alongside these new developments and in order to understand how to address them effectively, there has to be more engagement with this work. This is a duty of government, in order to form the most effective responses to radicalisation, but also of critics, in order to form an informed approach to challenge the government’s strategy.

The Islamic advocacy group Cage has claimed that the “science” of Prevent was initially based on one single study. While the accuracy of Cage’s claims has been disputed, it raises the important point that engagement with experts is vital to improving counter-radicalisation initiatives.

Due to the Research Excellence Framework, which requires academics to prove the impact their work will have on areas such as policymaking, every study, report and piece of research provides recommendations. While engaging with communities to understand the impact Prevent has at the local level is of vital importance, we should also be interacting more with experts to foster a more effective debate.

The culture of criticism that has emerged around Prevent must be transformed into one that will lead to innovation in this area. An atmosphere where one narrative or opinion is dominant, with little room for an alternative is an unhealthy one whatever the circumstances. The Prevent strategy cannot be improved until we reform the way it is approached, addressed and perceived.

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