Say it like it is: The Sun and last year’s prison riots

On 16th December last year, rioting broke out in HMP Birmingham. The incident, ‘which lasted for more than 12 hours’, is one of a spate of riots in other prisons across the country, with similar disruption occurring at HMP Swaleside on 22/12/16 and HMP Bedford last November.[1] Amongst a fairly balanced assessment of these events across all other major news publications, The Sun’s sensationalist coverage of disorder in UK prisons in December last year encourages popular support for a failing and needlessly punitive prison estate, perpetuating grave inadequacies in our justice system. Such reportage achieves this by extricating the Ministry of Justice of blame for prison disorder and unfairly vilifying the prison population.

Reporting on riot at HMP Birmingham, The Sun described the prison as ‘LOUT OF CONTROL’, referring to rioting prisoners as ‘tooled-up lags’.[2] The same The Sun headline flippantly states that the riot took place because of a ‘broken telly’.[3]

By focusing solely on the immediate causes of this riot and using pejorative terms such as ‘lout’ and ‘lag’, The Sun have presented their readership with a grave misunderstanding of the deeper-lying causes of last December’s disorder. Instead of putting the riot down to the mindless violence of ‘louts’ angry about a ‘broken telly’, The Sun should investigate the chronic underfunding and overcrowding of UK prisons, which is widely known to be the root cause of the riots. Due to lack of staff and rocketing prison numbers, prisoners have little opportunity to engage in meaningful activity such as academic study or training during their sentences, with many locked in overpopulated cells for 23 hours a day. In The Telegraph, Diane Abbott went so far as to say that such conditions made such rioting inevitable, describing the British prison system as ‘a timebomb’.[4]

Such irresponsible journalism fuels misconceptions of UK’s prisons and prisoners to the public. Despite a brief mention of understaffing and the very end of the article, one need look no further than the comments section to see the pernicious effects of how The Sun has framed the riot, with some readers calling for a return of the death penalty and deeming the UK’s prisons ‘holiday camps’.[5]

This climate of hostility towards prisoners generated by sensationalist journalism serves to fuel the political will to lock more and more people up in understaffed UK prisons, as well as garnering public support for a more punitive criminal justice system. Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, has dubbed UK prison policy a longstanding ‘authoritarian arms race’ between Labour and Conservatives; each party trying, until Chakrabarti’s statement, to be “tougher” on crime than the other.[6] This shift toward a punitive prison system in recent decades has seen the prison population increase beyond the means of its facilities and has made prisons unsafe, with rates of violence towards prison staff, prisoners and suicides high and rising. These effects bring about the most salient causes of rioting.

The power of “fake news” to shape public opinion in the US presidential election has shown us that the need for responsible and measured journalism has never been greater. It is high time that the public learned the unadulterated truth about the state of the country’s prisons. A better-informed public would work to put an end to the shameful conditions that precipitated these riots instead of encouraging punitive justice policies.

William Farmer studies MA Conflict, Security and Development at KCL. He writes about criminal justice policy and African politics.




[3] Ibid.




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Notes from a Participant: Future of Bioscience? Post-Brexit Reality

The event hosted jointly by King’s Think Tank and KCL Bioscience Student’s Association entitled “Future of Biosciences? – Post-Brexit Reality” invited two expert panellists from distinct fields within the Biosciences to share with the audience about how they perceive the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU.

The first panellist, Sir Robert Lechler, Vice President and Executive Director of King’s Health Partners, spoke from the point of view of academia. After presenting about the current excellence of the UK in the Biosciences, he summarised his  concerns under “4Ps”. Dr Virginia Acha, Executive Director Research, Medical and Innovation at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, introduced current actions taken to address these upcoming issues.

Their opinion on the challenges of Brexit often converged, borrowing the “4Ps” from Sir Robert Lechler:

  • Pound (money, trade and funding): funding for research, but also the supply chain for patients and medicine could be affected.
  • Permission (Regulations): the relationship between the EMA and the UK Regulatory bodies will be altered, with most probably alignment.
  • Partnerships (Research): a key point is how to maintain partnerships in research with potentially new borders.
  • People: access to talents was presented as the most important issue from both panellists.

Both panellists gave a clear picture of the context and current state of affairs from each of their fields, which allowed constructive discussion when it came to questions. The inputs from the audience were indeed stimulating for both the panellists, and highlighted different perspectives on Brexit for everyone in the venue.

The fact that concerns surrounding Brexit are similar for both academics and practitioners in the industry is interesting, and the discussion today made us realise how close the two are in the Biosciences. Participants were made aware that access to academia does have a strong impact on industry, particularly through partnerships in Bioscience research. For students (especially those from the EU), this challenge also sheds new light on their future career prospects.

Sophie-Asako Xerri is an undergraduate student at the School of Bioscience Education, King’s College London.

Solving Britain’s Productivity Problem

On 2nd December, Virgin Trains East Coast announced that in 2017 it intended to increase rail fares on average by 4.9%. Although season and off-peak return fares, which are government-set, are to rise by 1.9%, the fares that Virgin control will rise by an average of 5.5%.[1] With such high increases in the cost of rail travel, which no doubt will hinder the geographical mobility of Britain’s workforce, transport is only one of several problems that hold back Britain’s productivity.

An economy’s productivity is of crucial importance in underpinning a country’s prosperity and international competitiveness. A lack of productivity means the cost of producing goods and services is higher than otherwise it would be, meaning the price of its exports are higher than they could be. This contributes to Britain’s unsustainably high current account deficit. The UK’s deficit with the rest of the world in 2016 rests at around seven per cent of GDP.[2]Paying for the current account deficit usually entails eating into the UK’s financial account (for example, the dividends British investors earn from asset portfolios based abroad) or, alternatively, borrowing from foreign creditors. In either instance, inevitably the country is made poorer in the long-term. Furthermore, low productivity depresses real wages, so that UK workers work longer hours for less pay than their counterparts elsewhere. In his fairly recent autumn statement, the chancellor, Philip Hammond commented it takes a German worker four days to produce what a UK worker does in five.[3] Britain’s productivity problem is therefore chronic, something that potentially may become considerably more severe in the wake of Brexit, especially if negotiations with the remaining European Union members sour and a trade-off takes place with greater border control is prioritised at the expense of single market access.

How do the UK’s policymakers fix Britain’s productivity plight? One obvious policy prescription might be to increase government spending on infrastructure. Indeed, much of this is planned for the following few years, with £23 billion set aside in the autumn statement for improving physical infrastructure, including on rather mundane aspects of transport, such as new railway signalling, increasing internet connections and filling in potholes.[4] These plans may improve productivity to some extent, if, for example, it allows workers to move more quickly and easily to work or (in the case of internet connectivity) allows for information to flow between businesses.

However, this is a tried-and-tested policy, repeated ad nauseam. To some extent, its impact will be limited, due in part to the fact that the sums proposed are meagre. With the state expected to borrow £122 billion more over the next five years thanks to Brexit, the amounts invested in infrastructure are likely to continue to be small.[5] Furthermore, as the development economist Ha-Joon Chang points out, the impact technological change has  on productivity in the Western world is less substantial than it was a century ago. [6] This means industrialised economies will benefit less from improvements in their physical infrastructure than countries which continue to be developing and industrialising.

What is instead needed is a fundamental change in corporate culture, one that is not only driven by the pursuit of private profit, but one that reflects the various interests of several stakeholders. When Theresa May became prime minister, she promised that Britain’s corporate culture would change for the better, with consumer and worker representatives on company boards influencing their decision-making. Yet, it seems that this promise is already being backtracked on; May commented in late November that for some companies it may be better for workers and consumers to partake in advisory panels separate from company boards rather than have representatives directly influencing executive decisions.[7] This is a mistake. Participation of several different stakeholders in corporate decision-making other than owners and managers minimises the risk of conflict over the deal workers, suppliers and customers get from the businesses that affect their lives daily.[8] This will only promote productivity with fewer strikes and secure supply chains. What is more, it may reduce the damaging levels of economic inequality in British society today. As workers are in a position to demand better pay and conditions thanks to their increased ability to be more vocal, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots will surely shrink. With this, as the sociologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out, levels of productivity in this country will dramatically improve through a myriad of factors, from better physical and mental health to greater social mobility to lower crime rates.[9]

Moving away from our current model of corporate governance to one that meets the needs and interests of the several groups that are affected by company decisions everyday would prove to be beneficial to the UK economy, raising it from its current lull in productivity. It would certainly have a bigger impact than a cheaper rail ticket.

Nick Naylor is a final year undergraduate in History at King’s College London, and has previously contributed to the King’s Think Tank publication The Spectrum.


[1] Gwyn Topham,Rail fare rises driven by hikes on Virgin Trains East Coast’, The Guardian, 2nd December 2016.

[2] Larry Elliott ‘Fixing a Hole: how to solve the chronic UK current account deficit’, The Guardian, 18th September 2016.

[3] Graham Ruddick, ‘Low productivity, an enduring and growing drag on the UK economy’, The Guardian, 23rd November 2016.

[4] ‘The Brexit Budget’, The Economist, 26th November-2nd December 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (2010), 31-40.

[7] Anushka Asthana and Peter Walker, ‘Theresa May: I won’t force companies to appoint workers to their boards’, The Guardian, 21st November 2016.

[8] Andrew Gamble and Gavin Kelly, ‘Stakeholder capitalism and one nation socialism’, Renewal volume 4, number 1 (1996), 23-32.

[9] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (2009).

Counter-terrorism and education: The PREVENT Strategy as the lesser of two evils?

After 9/11, the terrible 7/7 bombings in London and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the so-called ‘war on terror’ is raging on. Faced with pressures to effectively protect and safeguard the population from terrorist groups, in 2003 the British government introduced a new counter-terrorism strategy called PREVENT.

While involving a wide range of sectors, including education, criminal justice and charities, the PREVENT strategy tries to minimise risks of radicalisation by identifying and engaging with people believed to be at risk of getting drawn towards violent extremism. Indeed, given the inevitable necessity to constrain civil liberties in order to ensure the nation’s security, policies such as PREVENT could be viewed as the lesser of two evils. However, to what extent is it even possible to identify people who might be at risk of becoming involved in terrorism without turning Britain into a police state characterised by the arbitrary use of power and persecutions? How effective has PREVENT really been?

In fact, by focusing on ‘radical’ ideas as being the root motivation of terrorism, PREVENT tends to overlook the real causes of political violence. Various sources have tried to come to terms with the significance of terrorist attacks. Psychological inspired analyses, for instance, seek to explain motivations for terrorism in terms of personality types, mental illness or psychological deviance. Others point to demographic and socio-economic factors in order to determine the causes of political violence. Irrespective of what factors lie at the heart of people’s engagement in terrorism, it is essential to note that, unlike the government’s belief, it is not the power of ideology which causes the violence in the first place. Meaning, while the language of violent jihad may well borrow its vocabulary from Islamic theology to create a useful marker of shared identity and legitimise the involvement of people in terrorist attacks, religious ideology does not cause the action.

On the contrary, as stated by Dr Rizwaan Sabir, Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, research has shown that terrorism and political violence usually prosper in closed and repressive systems of power. Thus, a lack of political inclusiveness in states, enhanced through a sense of relative depravation and lack of upward mobility within society, might be identified as one of the main drivers of the creation of an environment conducive to terrorism. In accordance with this perspective, Dr Sabir argues that the greatest flaw of PREVENT can be found in its over-collection of information and exaggerated use of intelligence. By placing a legal duty on members of staff to refer and report individuals who might become involved in terrorism or other acts of political violence, the PREVENT strategy is failing to minimise risks of terrorist attacks by trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

In fact, highlighting its tendency to contribute to a climate of fear, Dr Sabir refers to PREVENT as being highly counterproductive. While creating an environment in which religion, especially Islam, becomes a taboo topic, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has shut down any possibility of debate and discussion. As emphasised by Rob Faure Walker, former teacher in East London and Researcher at the Institute of Education, focusing on counter-terrorism in schools, PREVENT casts teachers as ‘informants’, forcing pupils to stop openly practicing their religion and engaging in political debates out of fear of being reported.

Hence, instead of improving communication between the Muslim community and members of the government, the attempts to safeguard people from terrorist attacks have led to greater polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims in British society. In fact, by impeding the possibility of critically reflecting on conflicting views, PREVENT does not only help to maintain stereotypes of Muslims perpetuated in the media; it also exacerbates feeling of social exclusion and thus creates the very conditions that make terrorism more likely.

Thus, with PREVENT doing more harm than good, we might ask ourselves, what can be done in order to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism? Can we actually teach peace?

As emphasised by Mr Faure Walker, in order to win the fight against terrorism, we’ll have to open education up to critical debate and empower pupils with the necessary tools to successfully challenge the existing dogma. In other words, rather than promoting violent subjectivities in discourses of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’, the only way to prevent people from becoming involved in acts of political violence is by providing them with the capacity for self-reflection and critical evaluation of cultural differences. It is thus through its ability to teach people how to embrace cultural diversity that education can contribute to a more harmonious society.

Marina Zabelina and Anne Siebenaler are editors of the Education Policy Centre, King’s Think Tank.