Downing Street used misleading data from “right-wing think tank” to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers, newly released e-mails show
Late last year, Downing Street unveiled its updated Prevent strategy, requiring universities and colleges to “stop extremists radicalising students on campuses.”
Citing work by Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), Downing Street claimed that in 2014 there were “70 events involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.”
Honouring the former PM David Cameron’s pledge to “name and shame” institutions that host “hate speakers,” four universities were singled out: King’s College London, Kingston University, Queen Mary, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release
However, e-mails recently obtained via a public records request show that much of the data attributed to the EAU in the above press release – including information used to “name and shame” universities – was taken from a misleading July 2015 report by Student Rights, an arm of “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society.
“Striking similarities” between the press release and the Student Rights report were first highlighted in this October 1, 2015 Times Higher Education article by Jack Grove.
For instance, the Student Rights report “lists the four London universities mentioned by Downing Street in its own table of most-visited universities. It also includes a list of former students later convicted of terrorism-related offences – of whom eight are also mentioned in the press release.”
Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release
The appropriated data was used to put a favourable spin on the government’s controversial counter-terrorism measures in a supporting statement by David Cameron, who prefaced his comments about “making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish” with a caveat about not “oppressing free speech.”
But efforts to assuage concerns about the possible chilling effect on free speech failed to convince, and the PM’s arguments in favour of limiting speech faltered under scrutiny.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron
Via the Independent, two of the four universities “named and shamed” by Downing Street denied hosting any of the so-called “hate speakers” listed in the press release, calling into question the premise that British universities are “hotbeds” of terrorist activity.
There were also questions about the list of convicted former students, two of whom were supposedly radicalised during their studies.
Via Times Higher Education:
“Both reports cite the example of the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, even though an inquiry by University College London found no evidence to suggest that he was radicalised while a student there.”
Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release
“Roshonara Choudhry, who was jailed for life for stabbing Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010 shortly after dropping out of King’s College London, also appears in both documents. She admitted to having been radicalised by watching over a hundred hours of speeches on YouTube, and said she dropped out of King’s because she felt it to be ‘anti-Islamic.’”
So how did Downing Street get it so wrong?
As this “URGENT” September 16, 2015 e-mail shows, Downing Street’s press office was still in the process of collecting data the morning prior to publication.
Per this quick response to the above request to fact-check an early draft of the press release, the office was then urged to “amend the figures for numbers of events in 2014.”
It was suggested using the dubious Student Rights report in response to the office’s request for “case studies on extremists speaking on campuses.”¹
Downing Street has yet to substantiate its claim that in 2014 “at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses” – the only figure in the press release to have come from the EAU – with the Home Office refusing to provide a more detailed breakdown.
Assuming this figure is accurate, why did one of Downing Street’s internal fact-checkers request a correction? It seems that Downing Street was determined to find facts to fit its agenda, even ignoring calls to amend figures later used to smear British universities.
In doing so, it betrayed the supposedly “British values” of open debate, free speech and political dissent it originally claimed to protect.
To ban or not to ban?
Also contained in the e-mails is a “trial script” of the press release, plus an early draft of a scolding letter from Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson to former president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Megan Dunn.
As stated in the published version of the press release, the updated Prevent guidance requires universities to “ensure those espousing extremist views do not go unchallenged.”
This means that when a university suspects an external speaker of holding “extremist” views, they must not be allowed to speak unless the “risk” of allowing them to do so is “mitigated by challenging the speaker…with someone holding opposing opinions.”
Anti-Prevent demonstration held in 2015
Downing Street had originally pushed for a statutory ban on “extremist” speakers, including “non-violent extremists.” The plans were were reportedly scrapped in March last year over concerns about free speech.
However, as this “trial script” of the press release shows, Downing Street was still toying with the idea of a ban on “extremist” speakers right up until September 16, 2015, just five days before the updated guidance came into force.
In May this year, the government announced its intention to revive the proposed ban.
The plans were criticised by the police lead for Prevent Simon Cole, who warned that a ban risked creating a “thought police,” and suggested it was questionable whether the proposed legislation was even operationally enforceable.
Jo Johnson’s letter to the NUS
In the published version of the Jo Johnson letter, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) minister urged the NUS to end its “overt opposition” to Prevent, citing the “legal duty that will be placed on universities and colleges.”
However, per this early draft of the letter, Johnson chastised the NUS for its supposedly “inaccurate, outdated” and “misguided opinions,” which he claimed left no space for “balanced debate.”
Responding to the revised letter, Megan Dunn said that she was confused about why the government was so focused on the NUS, as “students’ unions are not public bodies and therefore not subject to the act.”
She added: “The NUS is a campaigning organisation, so our opposition to this agenda, based on both principled and practical concerns…is both valid and appropriate.”
Since the updated Prevent strategy was brought into force, it’s been reported that the British government’s “loose definition of extremism” is being used by other countries to crackdown on “non-violent” dissent.
Last month, the prisoner advocacy group CAGE published a startling report on the “junk science” underpinning the Prevent strategy’s assessment criteria for identifying “at-risk” individuals at the so-called “pre-criminal” stage of radicalisation.
The report prompted more than 140 academics and experts, including the renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, to sign an open letter voicing concern over the lack of “proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”
Last week, the Open Justice Society Initiative published its report recommending a “major government rethink” of the “badly-flawed” Prevent strategy, particularly on its use in the education and health system.
The report highlights “multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws, the foreseeable consequence of which is a serious risk of human rights violations” including “the right against discrimination, as well the right to freedom of expression, among other rights.”
¹At the time of this e-mail, information from the Student Rights report had already been added to the press release, although it’s unclear when.