Community engagement expert calls for balanced reporting in counter-terrorism debate

The Prevent programme - part of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy aimed at preventing extremism - is being blighted by unbalanced reporting, according to one of Britain's leading experts on deradicalisation.

Pinakin Patel MBE is chair of the London Prevent Network
Pinakin Patel MBE is chair of the London Prevent Network

Pinakin Patel MBE leads the Prevent programme at London's Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea councils.

He is also chair of the London Prevent Network and was awarded an MBE in December 2018 for his work on community cohesion and preventing radicalisation.

Patel's criticism of the way in which Prevent is being communicated by the media was prompted by the news that the government is to review the programme.

Controversial approach

Prevent includes a statutory duty for local authorities and public-sector bodies such as the police, NHS and schools to look out for signs of individuals who may be at risk of turning to extremism.

Over the past few years, the programme has been the subject of numerous headlines attacking the approach as heavy-handed, including stories about teachers treating primary school children as potential terrorists.

Independent review

Amid continuing criticism of the programme, last month Ben Wallace, the security minister, announced plans for an independent review of Prevent. The review is due to take place later this year.

Making the announcement, Wallace accused detractors of Prevent of using "distortion and spin" and challenged them to provide "solid evidence of their allegations".

In a response that will be submitted to the review, Patel said: "[It] provides an opportunity to discuss Prevent fully and critically, differentiating hearsay from fact while even-handedly highlighting Prevent’s successes and any areas for improvement."

It is a "unique opportunity that should not be wasted", he added. "Lazy attacks on this complex and sensitive area of work will help no one."

'Misguided and misinformed'

Recent coverage of the Prevent programme has featured stories that "either fail to provide balance to their stories or repeat some of the misinformation which has long plagued Prevent", Patel said.

He cited a story in The Guardian last month, which carried the headline: "'My son was terrified': how Prevent alienates UK Muslims".

The article included claims that a 13-year-old had been asked whether he liked ISIS after he said "eco-terrorist" in class.

Patel commented: "Discussion of the so-called 'eco-terrorism' case, for one, could have mentioned the fact that the mother’s case against the school was dismissed in court as 'totally without merit'.

"Many articles also refer to a duty to report concerns, even though this is simply not something which features in the Prevent Duty," he added.

"Misguided or incomplete" reporting makes the task of community organisations and local authorities working on the Prevent programme "much harder by requiring them to address these misconceptions," Patel warned. "It also diverts the conversation away from concerns for which there is a real need for more discussion."

While he welcomes an "open dialogue" about Prevent, in which the media has a "key role" to play, Patel said that "unbalanced and misinformed reporting does not do justice to the opportunity which the independent review presents."

He concluded: "Any review of Prevent will need to be nuanced and upcoming discussions should not have factual inaccuracies or half-truths as their building blocks."

Government response

Security Minister Ben Wallace said: "Prevent is fundamentally about safeguarding and supporting vulnerable individuals to stop them becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The programme has seen more than 1,200 people successfully supported by tailored mentoring and support provided through Channel."

He added: "The various instances where misleading or inaccurate media reports about Prevent have been published serve to undermine trust in the important work of the programme and deter people from seeking help and support."

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