The Daily Mail investigates freedom of speech campaigners. It’s as crazy as it sounds.

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The Daily Mail is reportedly carrying out an investigation into organisations that criticise the UK government’s Prevent program. According to CAGE – an advocacy group targeted in the investigation – the newspaper is looking into a number of organisations, including the National Union of Students (NUS), in an attempt to “discredit” opposition to the controversial program.

Prevent is one of four elements in the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) that, in part,

responds to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views

The Counter Terrorism and Security bill, which codifies Prevent in law, passed last year in parliament. All public institutions, including universities, now have to comply with the Prevent statutory duty. In practice, this means it is an institution’s responsibility to monitor activity, including events and speakers, to ensure ‘extreme’ views are not promoted and then flag them up to the authorities when encountered.

The program’s potential impact on human rights has been strongly condemned. In an open letter in the Independent, hundreds of academics and public figures noted:

PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces.

Also, due to the UK government’s position that religious ideology is the primary cause of extremism – rather than the more comprehensive and academically-researched view that social, economic, and political factors are at play – there  has been criticism that it will inevitably focus its efforts on Islamic extremism. This idea was reaffirmed by Jahan Mahmood, the government’s terrorism adviser, who resigned because he believed that terrorism policing was causing radicalisation rather than preventing it.

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Speaking with investigative journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed, Mahmood states:

The problem at the moment is that Muslims are widely perceived as being synonymous with terrorism due to media stereotypes and the government’s own approach to the Prevent agenda

Instead of investigating such criticisms of Prevent, however, the Mail is much more interested in those who dare to question the program.

In the name of transparency, CAGE has published the full questionnaire they received from the Mail as part of the paper’s investigation. This asked the advocacy group 85 questions, to which they were given 24 hours to respond. And these focused largely on public events CAGE had attended and spoken at over the previous few months. The wording was provocative and clearly intended to paint the group as pro-extremism. But the repetition – or fixation – in the questions is interesting to note.

One of the most frequently repeated comments in the questions is:

The event appears to breach the legal duty for universities to facilitate the challenging of extremist beliefs

The implication here is that CAGE offered ‘extremist’ beliefs and that no opposing view was allowed to be voiced. In their response, CAGE provide a detailed argument to counter the idea that their views were ‘extremist’. But the very fact that the Daily Mail felt it was in a position to criticise others for biased views was laughable.

For example, did the paper provide room for a counter-illustration of their disgusting cartoon equating refugees with rats? Not exactly. It was left in the end for the Mail’s own readers to call it out on its shameful refugee-bashing coverage.

And did the Mail ensure its accusation that Jeremy Corbyn had “long-standing links with notorious holocaust denier” was balanced by the truth? Of course not, because what’s good for the goose is apparently not good for the propaganda.

This blatant hypocrisy is present in other elements of the questionnaire. The Mail incessantly questions CAGE’s funding arrangements for the events in question:

How was the event funded? Was any money paid to the University or Student Union by CAGE, or from the University or Student Union to CAGE?

Again, CAGE refutes this, explaining multiple times:

CAGE do not pay for any lectures at outside venues nor do we receive funds. We do this work to encourage better and more equal community relations.

Why the Mail is so interested in this is unclear. Is it trying to suggest a financial motive for CAGE in participating in the talks? Regardless, it is the norm for speakers and venues to receive fees for events, so even if this were happening there would be no scandal.

What is a scandal is that in 2006 the Information Commissioner’s Office published findings of the involvement of media organisations in “the illegal trade in confidential personal information”. The findings were a result of a police investigation, and they identified the Mail as being involved in 958 transactions for this illegally-sourced information. So if the Mail really wants to expose controversial financial dealings, they need only look in their own backyard.

Overall, the Mail’s current investigative exercise is doomed to fail. Why? Because if a serious analysis of any institutional pro-extremism bias is to take place, it needs to be done by an organisation not tainted by its own bias. Anything less is an exercise in futility, and could further exacerbate divisions in our society. Which may well be exactly what the Daily Mail wants.

Image via The Canary

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