Theresa May’s plans to tackle extremism face backlash
Theresa May proposals to clamp down on extremism came under fireon Monday as the Liberal Democrats warned against a “kneejerk response” to the hacking to death of a soldier in a London street and the broadcast regulator, Ofcom, said its powers were sufficient to tackle extremism on television and the internet.
Senior Lib Dem sources indicated that they were unconvinced by the need for fresh legislation in the wake of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby last week. On Sunday the home secretary proposed that Ofcom and other public authorities be given fresh powers in an attempt to dampen the impact of radical Islam.
Nick Clegg’s “instinct is community solidarity rather than reaching for the statute book”, the insider said, adding that the government “cannot rush into kneejerk response” and should not repeat the mistake the party believes Labour made after the terrorist attacks in 2005, when the previous government proposed measures that did not stand the test of time.
Among the measures ministers are considering are a lower threshold for banning extremist groups and handing Ofcom powers to engage in pre-emptive censorship of internet sites to block extremist content, as well as new powers to stop broadcast interviews with extremists.
On the specifics of a broadcast ban, the Lib Dem source said the measure had “rather worrying echoes of what happened to the IRA in the 1980s”. Then the Thatcher government banned the voice of IRA and Sinn Féin leaders being heard, though their words could be voiced by an actor, in a measure that was ultimately derided.
Ofcom partly echoed those concerns, suggesting in a statement that existing rules to tackle the broadcasting of extreme religious views on television were working. “Ofcom enforces rules designed to protect audiences from harm from religious extremism broadcast on TV and radio. We have recently taken action against a number of channels for breaking these rules,” a spokesman said, referring to a series of Ofcom judgments criticising minority channels that have broadcast comments justifying murder in the name of Islam.
Counterterrorism officers investigating the case made their 10th arrest since the attack last Wednesday, with armed officers stopping a 50-year-old man in daylight in the street on suspicion of conspiracy to murder in a plot to kill Drummer Rigby. The arrest happened in Welling, Kent, and a search was being carried out at a south-east London address.
Detectives continue to wait for doctors to declare the two main suspects to be medically fit to be questioned. Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, remain in stable condition in separate hospitals after police fired a total of eight shots at them.
There were also signs of growing community tensions when a mosque in Grimsby was hit by a suspected arson attack. In central London a few hundred people under the banner of the English Defence League held a noisy protest outside Downing Street, which ended with bottles thrown and 13 arrests made.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, accused May of undermining the Prevent strategy that Labour set up to tackle extremism. “Confronting the murderous narrative from preachers of hate needs more effort. Prevent funding for local councils and the police has been reduced by more than many other programmes over the last few years,” Cooper said.
Labour also played down a suggestion from Lord Howard, the former Tory leader, that the party should join forces with the Tories to push through the communications data bill – the so-called “snooper’s charter” – extending internet surveillance in the face of continuing opposition from the Lib Dems. A Labour source said that, although the party in principle accepted the need for legislation in this area, the plans drawn up so far by the Home Office were unacceptable to Labour because they were technically flawed and because they did not contain enough safeguards.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, also criticised May’s proposals as unnecessary, arguing that the law banning incitement to violence was already “perfectly clear” and that it was better to challenge extremist views than to ban them. “If someone just has disgusting, extremist views, I think we have to be really careful about saying we are going to ban them rather than taking them on, which is what we do in democracies.”
She also said that the extension of the internet made confronting extremism, rather than banning it, all the more important. “We are used to the idea of broadcasters acting with taste and decency in a traditional technological environment when there are only a few broadcasters and they are licensed,” she said.
“We now live in the world of the internet, and you cannot operate taste and decency rules across the internet. So there is no choice but to take on the extremism with argument.”