Article: Leveson fallout

December 17th, 2012 by heather

Pressing Matters
House Magazine, 6 December 2012

(Download the PDF)

It is deeply disturbing to read Brian Leveson’s recommendations on regulating the press at a time when police and security services are trying to legalise the broadest surveillance powers yet on ordinary citizens.

The Leveson Inquiry was “sparked by public revulsion about a single action – the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager”.  Yet the Communications Data Bill will give the state a legal right not simply to ‘hack’ voicemails, but rather to spy on all our communication – both telephone and internet – without judicial oversight. 

Regulating the press? The state spying on its citizens? These are not the hallmarks of a democracy. When the supposed torch-bearers of Enlightenment values fall under the spell of authoritarianism, we must worry not only for ourselves, but for the citizens of truly authoritarian countries. The West is in danger of abdicating its values and becoming a place where the stifling of a free press and universal surveillance of citizens is legitimised.

The Leveson report is a screaming in the wind by an Establishment who cannot believe how fast power is slipping from its grasp in the digital age. Watching the hearings I was reminded of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ with Leveson as Norma Desmond, waiting for his close up. 

Leveson is an exercise in delusion and denial. For the sad fact is that newspapers are dying. News is now online. Digital information does not respect national borders. If there is any jurisdiction it does respect it is that of the United States where most of the major technology companies operate and where there is a First Amendment protecting free speech and a free press. The judges, lawyers, the great and the good of Britain who once controlled what could be said, now cannot. In their pique, they are in danger of throwing away what still matters: our democratic values.

Leveson deals with inconvenient truths – such as the largely self-regulating internet – by ignoring it. The sheer bulk of the report symbolises bias towards a statist ideology where bigger is better and centralised state control best of all. That the Internet has become so fabulously successful precisely because it is not centrally regulated is again ignored. 

A few proposals are worth singling out. Leveson acknowledges the importance of whistleblowers in identifying and alerting us of corruption and injustice. But the ‘us’ he refers to are not the public. Even when he admits there is no authority within the police service that commands the trust of officers, he wants only a confidential channel. He proposes that employment or service contracts include a clause ‘to the effect that no disciplinary action would be taken against them as a result of a refusal to act in a manner which is contrary to the code of practice’. But this is limited only to journalists’ contracts. Why not public servants such as NHS staff where gagging clauses can be found that deter, undermine and penalise whistleblowers? They are dealing dealing with matters of life and death.

He claims the “Police Service as a whole has responded positively and proactively”, which is not what the journalists who investigated phone-hacking say. And if the police did fail to do their job, Leveson forgives that, too, because they had ‘perfectly reasonably decided to limit the prosecutions in 2006 not least because of their incredible workload that was a consequence of terrorism.’ No such real-world pressures – such as lack of public records, severe financial constraints even the collapse of the industry – are accepted for newspapers. 

He concludes that the press is too close to politicians and the police but entirely ignores why this is so. In Britain, there is simply no other way to get information without getting close to either. It is the secrecy of the system that has created the collusion and the information cartels. 

Despite all my efforts to investigate MPs’ expenses using the law, in the end it came down to an inside leak paid for with cash. Newspapers are pragmatic. They operate in the system as they find it. The only reason I was different is that I came from America where the records are public and there is less need for reporters to collude with the powerful to get information.

Video: Prince Charles, privacy and public lobbying

October 24th, 2012 by heather

Check out the Guardian’s Prince Charles page for the latest news on our unelected and unaccountable heir to the throne.

My TED talk goes live!

October 21st, 2012 by heather

See the video at the TED Site.

They’re at it again. MP expenses

October 21st, 2012 by heather

You couldn’t make it up. While the UK Transparency twitter feed was sending out gushing messages about Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s latest open government agenda, Speaker John Bercow, in cahoots with Tory MP Julian Lewis, was trying a rear-guard action to keep MPs’ expenses secret. 

You’d have thought Bercow might remember how his predecessor was brought low due to his obstinate stance on publishing expenses. But no. They’re at it again. Even a High Court ruling isn’t getting in their way. In 2008, MPs argued against my freedom of information request to disclose the full details of their second home allowance and address. They claimed such disclosure would endanger them. They had no proof. Just their own paranoid narcissism. Three of the nation’s top judges ruled in my favour saying that public accountability required the claims and addresses be published. Now some MPs are trying to subvert that ruling by stealth. The new broom, it seems, still has some sweeping to do. 

I had a few words to say about it on Sky News.

Events Autumn 2012

October 11th, 2012 by heather

A few upcoming events…

Friday 12 October 2012 – 8pm Wells Literary Festival
Wells, England

I’ll be speaking on the opening day of the Wells Literary Festival. For more information and to book tickets check out the Wells Festival website.

Monday 22 October 2012 – 7pm – Off the Shelf Festival of Words
Sheffield, England

I’ll be talking about the revolutionary aspect of digitising information and how it’s changing politics and power around the world at Off the Shelf. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Monday to Wednesday 29 – 31st October, 2012 – Power Reporting Conference
Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa

I’ll be speaking and doing hands-on teaching sessions at this conference, the leading investigative journalism conference in Africa. If you live anywhere nearby then I’d urge you to come along. There is a fantastic line-up of journalists who have done some stellar investigations both in Africa and abroad. For more information visit the Power Reporting website.

A rebuttal to the Leveson Inquiry circa 1938

July 11th, 2012 by heather

Perusing some old books in the London Library, I came across this statement on the English press. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1938.

But in England the links between government and newspapers are much more remote and subtle. The newspaper press is largely trustified – that is, controlled by rich men whose interests on the whole are bound up with conservatism. At the same time the commercial aspect of newspapers – reader-interest on the one hand and advertising on the other – make daily newspapers incline towards sensationalism, which means, towards opening their columns to anything which seems likely to increase circulation. And this sensationalism, bad as it is on the aesthetic and moral sides, does at least ensure a continuation of competition and rivalry in enterprise, which brings in its wake much of what we value as “freedom of expression of opinion.”

From “Propaganda” by Richard S. Lambert (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1938)

TED Global 2012: Radical Openness

June 26th, 2012 by heather

I’m speaking at the TED Global 2012 conference in Edinburgh on Thursday 26th June.

The theme of the conference is Radical Openness. Looking forward to hearing some interesting ideas!

UPDATE: While I don’t yet know when the talk will go online, there is a blog post about it on the TED website.

Event: Sydney Writers Festival 2012

May 16th, 2012 by heather

I’m speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival this week. Here are the debates I’m participating in:

  • Journalism 2.0 – Is journalism different in the digital age?

  • MYOB – Does it matter that we have surrendered our privacy to Google and social media sites?
  • You Must Have Something to Hide – Where should we, as a society, should draw the line between public and private?
  • Imagined Futures – Europe is in trouble. Can it be saved?

Look forward to seeing some of you there!

Video: Discussing FOI on Newsnight

April 9th, 2012 by heather

Newsnight reporter Allegra Stratton reported on the April 5th show (I’m looking for a link to this package) that the Government is planning to introduce fees for making Freedom of Information requests.

We’ve been here before (back in 2004/05) when the law was first introduced. No surprise that politicians who were once in favour of FOI when in opposition suddenly lose their appetite for the people’s right to know once in power. It usually takes about 12 months, so this government is doing well to last as long as it has.

I am of the opinion that it’s unlikely for these moves to succeed. We are still awaiting the report from Parliament’s post-judicial scrutiny on Freedom of Information. And do politicians and bureaucrats really want to come out against FOI at a time when cuts are being made and FOI has shown itself to be one of the most effective (and cost-effective) ways to cut waste, inefficiency and corruption? Making it harder for the citizens to get answers on how public money is spent is going to be a public relations disaster, so I hope sane heads prevail in Parliament.

Above, I am discussing the issue with Jonathan Baume, head of the First Division Association (FDA), the union for senior civil servants:

Article: State Spying needs to be shown the back door

April 9th, 2012 by heather

This is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for The Times last week about the UK Government’s proposal for industrial internet surveillance: the ‘snooper’s charter’. The following day, the Government announced it would NOT be putting the bill forward in the Queen’s speech but it still remains very much a live issue.

Don’t let the State spy on us by the back door
The Times, April 3, 2012

Proposed new laws would give powerful officials instant access to people’s internet data

It used to be that running a police state required a tremendous outlay of resources, from hiring watchers and informants to the central collection and storage of paper files. As we move our lives on to digital networks, we create a handy one-stop shop for the nosy official.

It is simple for governments to eavesdrop on our digital communications. They don’t have to store the data; they just go to where it’s collected – internet service providers (ISPs), social networks and telecoms companies. One simple step takes the State’s ability to spy on its citizens to a whole new level.

[We may hope our democratic principles would protect us from the sort of industrial internet surveillance practiced in China, Iran and other autocratic states. However, this government’s proposal revealed yesterday reveals a plan to rival China.]

Intelligence agents can already tap into our online communication and data where there are reasonable grounds for doing so. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), extended in 2003, allows not only the police, intelligence services and Revenue & Customs officials, but many other organisations, including local councils, to access telephone records, e-mail and internet activity.
That we have no idea how often they do it or for what purpose is an indication of the lack of supervision in this area.

There are three officials in charge: Read the rest of this entry »