- Update 29/8/2018: See section headed Swapping fracking at the bottom of this post.
A report published today on social cohesion in Greater Manchester has been rewritten this evening after it emerged that a case study falsely accused anti-fracking activists of “grooming” a 14-year-old boy.
The first version of the report, commissioned after the Manchester Arena bombing, said the boy was referred to Channel, part of the government’s anti-extremist Prevent programme. His school was said to have been concerned about what were described as his “extreme beliefs” around fracking.
The boy, named Aaron, was said to have been targeted aggressively via social media after signing an online petition. The case study said he was encouraged to participate in local protests and was on “the periphery of engaging in criminal behaviour”. He engaged with local activists through the dark web, it added.
But this evening, a revised version of the 124-page report, titled A Shared Future, has removed all reference to anti-fracking campaigners.
A statement from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said:
“The A Shared Future report contains a number of case studies where some details have been changed to protect the identities of those involved. This is standard practice where sensitive information is being used in a report.
“However, in one of these case studies – Case Study J – a factual detail has been altered which should not have been.
“The case study mistakenly said that concerns were raised around fracking. They were actually raised around a form of environmental extremism – but it had nothing to do with fracking.
“Although this change was made with the good intention of protecting the individual’s identity, ultimately if was the wrong thing to do. We apologise for this error.
“Because of a genuine fear that this vulnerable child cold be identified, we cannot give more specific details about the type of extremism.”
The report, commissioned by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, was designed to improve social cohesion across the region. The conclusion included a recommendation to submit it as the Greater Manchester response to the Government’s Green Paper consultation on the Integrated Communities Strategy.
The Green Party peer, Baroness Jones, told The Guardian:
“To potentially drag the name of fracking activists through the mud like this is totally unacceptable. We should not stand by and watch while environmental campaigners are discredited in this way.
“Disguising the identity of a vulnerable young person and ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place is of course very important, but we must also make sure we are not wrongly implicating activists in this fashion.”
Anti-fracking campaigners reacted angrily in 2016 when opposition to fracking was listed alongside terrorist organisations, including the IRA, Al Quaeda, the PKK and ISIL, in official counter-extremism documents.
The police monitoring group, Netpol, recently won a case in its challenge to establish how many anti-fracking campaigners have been referred to Channel. Five police forces refused to respond to a question asked in Freedom of Information requests, citing “national security”.
But in June, a tribunal ruled that police could not use this reason and ordered the police forces to respond to the requests. Netpol said today that it was still waiting.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed some details of how the case study falsely accused anti-fracking activists of “grooming” the teenager.
According to correspondence released in response, the author of the report (name redacted) was concerned that the original case study might identify the teenager.
Eleven days before the report was released, the author, employed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, contacted someone (name also redacted) who knew the teenager and asked for advice.
The contact replied the following day:
“People working in [redacted] could easily work out who this is as it was such an unusual – [redacted].
“I wonder if the subject matter being changed might help. [redacted]
“Would it work to changing it to something like ‘anti-fracking’ or something like that? The methodologies of grooming and being ‘pulled into that world etc would be the same but it would be harder for someone reading it to make the connection to the real case of both the [redacted] matter were different.”
The report author replied within seven minutes with a new version of the case study. The author wrote:
“Thank you for your quick response. I completely share your concerns. Your idea around changing the motivation is a good one – I have changed to anti-fracking (please see below), what are your thoughts on the edit?”
Within 16 minutes the contact replied:
“Yes that feels more comfortable and less identifiable.”
The contact suggested another change to the case study text, suggesting that the teenager became known to activists by attending a local protest or signing a petition”.
The FOI request was made by John Hobson, a Lancashire anti-fracking campaigner. He has asked the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to reconsider its decision not to identify the report author.