Archive for the ‘Silent State’ Category

Anonymity and the Arms Trade

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

The UK’s role in selling arms to the Middle East is again in the spotlight. This excerpt from ‘The Silent State’ published this week in Open Rights Group’s online magazine goes into some of the reasons why having a public debate in Britain about our arms industry is nearly impossible due to a chronic lack of information.

While the state likes to keep all private citizens under surveillance, getting a staff directory of public officials is still all but impossible. The excerpt below from Chapter 4 of the book, tells the story of one reporter’s battle – the Guardian’s Rob Evans – for the staff directory of the department charged with granting arms export licenses.

Anonymity & the arms trade
Rob Evans wanted the staff directory of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a hived-off part of the Ministry of Defence, which spends taxpayer money helping UK arms companies (predominantly BAE Systems) win contracts for the export of armaments. He wanted it for several reasons.

‘We were hearing a lot of allegations about corruption within DESO in relation to the arms industry,’ Rob told me. ‘The problem was you had to find out if the employee alleged to be accepting bribes from an arms company actually worked for DESO. There was no way to tell. In the absence of a staff directory we had to resort to, well, subterfuge. It was done in the public interest but in my view that’s wrong. Why should we have had to resort to subterfuge? All public officials should be named.’

The Data Protection Act is often used in the most ludicrous ways: reporters’ bylines blacked out and ministers’ names censored. If you’re a public official then suddenly your privacy rights are sacrosanct. DESO and the Ministry of Defence were none too keen to provide Rob with a copy of the directory, so from his desk at Guardian newspapers he filed a freedom-of-information request in January 2005.

The directory lists staff names, job titles, work addresses, work telephone numbers and email addresses. In February he received a ‘redacted’ or, in plain English, censored version. And when I say censored I mean heavily. You’ve likely seen the ‘redacted’ MPs’ expenses, but imagine something even more gratuitous. What Rob received was a staff directory with all the names of staff together with all their contact details removed. Even the main switchboard number was blacked out! Only titles remained and for staff based in Saudi Arabia even these were excised. As a staff directory it was pretty much useless, particularly if your purpose was to track staff movement through the revolving door that exists between DESO and the arms industry and vice versa.

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Silent State manifesto goes mainstream

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

It’s not every day an author gets to hear her manifesto coming from the mouth of the incoming Deputy Prime Minister. That happened today when Nick Clegg virtually read out the conclusion of The Silent State (Manifesto for a New Democracy) as his Big Society speech.

Read the full text of the speech here. If you want to know in detail what’s going to be on the reform agenda clearly you need to read The Silent State!

Of course, what matters is action and we need to see a timetable for specific changes and reform. But if this rhetoric is anything to go by (and believe me I’m ever the sceptic) then action is expected before the summer recess. I am as full of political disillusionment as anyone and I have to say – this speech gave me hope. For the first time in a very long while.

Here are a few of today’s highlights:

Silent State: Trust the people. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be the people to whom they are accountable, directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.
Nick Clegg: My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families. That you know better than I do about how to run your life, your community, the services you use. So this government is going to trust people.

Silent State: We should give no more power to the state without the state giving something to us.
Nick Clegg: We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.

SS: Society has an interest in encouraging the efficient use and enforcement of freedom of information and making official information freely available to the public who paid for its creation and in whose name it is gathered.
NC: We will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent.

SS: Surveillance doesn’t make us safer. It turns citizens into suspects.
NC: Taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safe.

SS: Make voting count
NC: New politics needs fairer votes.

Some other notable points taking up the Silent State philosophy:
‘We will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands.’
On Lobbying: ‘that activity needs to be regulated properly and made transparent. Which we’ll do, for example, by introducing a a statutory register of lobbyists.’

All good stuff and a promising start to creating a more efficient and egalitarian democracy. I’m out to celebrate!

Silent State at number 28

Monday, April 26th, 2010

The Silent State made it into the bestseller list last week getting to Number 28 in the official Nielson non-fiction chart. Hooray! It was also in Amazon’s top 100 books for the first two weeks of publication and is still hovering between 100 and 150. The publisher tells me we are now in the third re-print. It’s quite a thrill to be a serious book nudging aside various chefs and celebs, even for a brief time. Still a long way to go before I give Ben Goldacre a run for his money.

Privacy guide for parents

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Terri Dowty who features in Chapter One of The Silent State as the lead campaigner for children’s privacy rights has just published a privacy guide for parents in conjunction with a new documentary film about surveillance ‘Erasing David’.

You’ll likely be surprised at the amount of data being collected on kids. Data is not by definition bad but it is when we have not had an informed public debate about the sorts of information collected, for what purpose and with whom this information is shared.

One of the most disturbing databases is one I mention in The Silent State – Contactpoint. This is a new, national government database containing the contact details of every child from birth to 18 plus a list of every service that the child is using. It is designed to allow practitioners to contact each other directly to discuss your child, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, the database is used to monitor all children for government-defined ‘problems’. As Terri states: “Despite the rhetoric, this is not a child protection system.” Will you know what data is being stored on your child in this database?
No. Children are automatically entered on to the database at birth.

Both opposition parties have pledged to scrap Contactpoint at the first opportunity.

You can download the privacy guide for parents here (pdf).

Silent State makes most-reviewed list

Friday, April 16th, 2010

According to the Bookseller magazine The Silent State was one of the most reviewed books:

1. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman (Canongate 9781847678256, £14.99, 29th March)
2. The Sultan of Zanzibar by Martyn Downer (Black Spring,9780948238437, £16.99, 1st April)
3. Contested Will by James Shapiro (Faber 9780571235766, £20, 1st April)
4. The Silent State by Heather Brooke (William Heinemann 9780434020263, £12.99, 1st April)
5. Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling (Profile 9781861978288, £15, 25th March)
6. Red Tory by Philip Blond (Faber 9780571251674, £12.99, 2nd April)
7. Back from the Brink by Peter Snowdon (HarperPress 9780007307258, £14.99, 4th March)
8. Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape 9780224090094, £17.99, 25th March)
9. Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt (Allen Lane 9781846143595, £20, 25th March)
10. So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins 9780007271078, £15, 4th March)

I’ll be posting the reviews shortly.

Secrets and Surveillance

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Speaking on Secrets and Surveillance at the RSA, London on 15 April 2010, followed by questions.


Speaking on surveillance at RSA 15th April

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

I’ll be speaking at the RSA about “Secrets, Surveillance and the state of British Democracy” at 1pm on 15th April 2010. The event is chaired by Matthew Taylor the RSA’s chief executive.

This event is already FULLY BOOKED but you can join the waiting list.

More information here.

Heather on HARDtalk

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

BBC iPlayer: HARDtalk

Britain’s political establishment is still recovering from last year’s scandal surrounding Members of Parliament and their expenses. As accounts of lawmakers’ claims were revealed in the press, public anger grew and their popularity nosedived.

Heather Brooke is the journalist and campaigner whose investigations exposed the opaqueness of the expenses system. She talks to Sarah Montague about the culture of secrecy in Britain and the importance of making public information more accessible.

Parliament calls for investigation into Pravda rags

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

In Chapter Two of The Silent State I write about the decline of local journalism and the simultaneous rise in local council freesheets – or ‘pravda rags’ as I call them.

These propaganda sheets have largely come into existence since the 1990s with 88% not existing prior to this time. Concurrent with this subsidised propaganda, nearly one quarter (401 regional and local) independent newspapers have closed down.

This is disastrous for local democracy as it means there is no longer an independent journalist scrutinising the council. As I state in the book, transparency and direct, individual accountability is what keeps those in power honest so we must be very worried that many councils are now operating without either.

It seems MPs are listening and today The Times reported that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee believes council “freesheets” should be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading.

The committee criticised the freesheets, saying it was “unacceptable” that they often posed as local newspapers and acted “as a vehicle for political propaganda”.

Hear hear!