Campaigners should not be given a veto over the Prevent Reviewer

March 22, 2021

Should groups of campaigners have a veto over certain public appointments? Presumably, most of us would say no. Yet this is effectively what is now being attempted as part of a boycott campaign opposing the appointment of William Shawcross as independent reviewer of Prevent; the national counter-radicalisation programme.

Reporting on an open letter by those announcing they will boycott the review, the Guardian ran the headline “Hundreds of Islamic groups boycott Prevent review over choice of chair”. The statement from the boycotters declares that, “William Shawcross has a track record of hostility to Islam and Muslims”, and asserts that “if Muslim organisations engage with this review, it strengthens its legitimacy and its power to recommend policies more harmful to the community.”

The claim about Shawcross’ “track record” appears to rest on a handful of quotes taken out of context – in particular, two short lines plucked from a lecture delivered in 2012 which allegedly reveals a hostile view about the future of Muslims and Europe. Conveniently divorced from the immediately preceding and succeeding lines, the quote as presented does more to cloud than to clarify Shawcross’ views on the subject.

Observers will recall that Shawcross is not the first to be appointed to this role, only to come under attack from activists. In 2019, Lord Carlile QC briefly took the job, only for the Government to face a legal challenge claiming that the process behind the appointment had not been sufficiently independent. Now, apparently unable to challenge this appointment on procedural grounds, campaigners appear to object simply on the basis that they oppose what they loudly claim to be the appointee’s views—as they interpret them. Perhaps they hope that if they scream loudly enough, yet another Prevent reviewer will be forced out.

If this is the intention, then it looks as if certain groups now effectively seek a veto over those public appointments that they believe effect their partisan interests. Such a departure from the normal procedures of public appointments would be a novel and dangerous path to go down. Which is why those in Government should resist any temptation to cave in.

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable that there should be proper scrutiny of anyone appointed to such a sensitive public role. That those unhappy about the appointment will make themselves heard in the press is also perhaps to be expected. But if The Guardian, which after all prides itself on its fearless and independent journalism, is going to give prominence to those voicing discontent, we might also expect it to tell us a little about who they are – and perhaps examine their own track records.

So who exactly are Shawcross’ detractors?

Even a cursory glance down the list of names and organisations reveals a rather mixed bag. And in that mix can be found some of the most prominent Islamists operating in the UK today, several of them known for their record of overt extremism. Given that the subject at hand concerns extremism and radicalisation, this is surely relevant to the story. Had this been an open letter on another subject, and the signatories included numerous Far Right figures, wouldn’t one expect the Guardian to take issue with that – assuming they chose to give such a letter any coverage at all?

The list of those joining the boycott includes individuals who were confirmed in court to have legitimised attacks on British troops in Iraq, and to have urged students at a UK university to travel overseas to wage Jihad. There are representatives of an organisation whose director has justified suicide bombings, a cleric who has demonised minority Ahmadi Muslims, and an academic who, having been suspended from the Labour party, is now under investigation by his own university over allegations of anti-Semitism towards students. Another organisation represented on the list of signatories became infamous in recent years for organising rallies featuring the promotion of the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Would readers not expect to be made aware of such facts in coverage of this story? Prevent seeks to stop people from being drawn into terrorism, so it is probably relevant when some of those calling for a boycott of the Prevent review are known to have such troubling views on terrorism.

If these are the kind of people now seeking to veto the appointment of William Shawcross, just as campaigners sought to veto the appointment of Lord Carlile before him, then perhaps someone needs to ask what kind of Prevent reviewer would be acceptable to these activists. In some cases, we are entitled to suspect that the only reviewer they would endorse is one committed to seeing the scheme scrapped altogether.

That isn’t to deny that some of those who signed this letter will have done so in good faith, perhaps without all of the facts about Shawcross and Prevent in front of them. Yet in a sense, this only highlights the need for an enhanced scheme like Prevent that can effectively push back against Islamist disinformation campaigns that seek to turn British Muslims against national counter-radicalisation efforts that exist for everyone’s benefit.

William Shawcross was appointed as part of a properly independent process. His leadership of the Charity Commission in its efforts to counter extremist exploitation of the charitable sector, and his long record of involvement in human rights campaigns, make him more than qualified for this role. It should be obvious that most people would rather live in a country in which candidates for public positions like him are chosen through a proper and rigorous process designed to produce success, rather than on the basis of their appeal to those with an interest in their failure.

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