Posts Tagged ‘The Times’

Article: Signs of disrespect

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

A sign of the times: brazen contempt for you and me
The Times, November 8, 2007
tube sign
After you read this you’ll see them everywhere – like a newly learnt word that crops up all over the place when previously you could swear you’d never seen it before.

Signs of disrespect (SODs) are found in all the worst public institutions. “D*n’t [email protected] !t out on our staff,” shouts one in lurid purple and yellow on the Underground. They are everywhere, from hospitals and council offices to the security queues at Heathrow and Gatwick.

When you see one of these bossy, passive-aggressive signs threatening the public with prosecution or arrest, you quickly know two things about the institution you’re dealing with:

1) They’re lax about punishing those who break the law. After all, action speaks for itself, only inaction needs PR.

2) Customer service is diabolical or non-existent. People are loath to resort to violence and generally do so only when all other avenues of protest are shut. These organisations have pushed people to their limits.

But instead of sprucing up their act (which would require effort and a change of attitude), these institutions menace the public into accepting their unacceptably poor standards.

Yes, it’s often said that the British are a nation of yobs. But what’s more striking is the sheep-like docility with which the average British customer accepts jaw-droppingly bad service. These institutions don’t know how lucky they have it: they can provide a shoddy service, treat the public like dirt (or potential criminals) and still take the moral high ground should the customer dare complain. But of course, there is no way to complain. These monopoly institutions specialise in faceless bureaucracy where no one is directly accountable or even contactable.

Wouldn’t it be better if these public bodies instead of displaying their brazen contempt for the public at large with their SODs actually dealt with the law-breaking minority? But they don’t. A study on violence against nurses published in 2003 by the National Audit Office found that NHS managers and the police failed to take the issue seriously. Although some police forces are prepared to prosecute offenders, the Royal College of Nursing told the report’s authors that too many are not. Putting up a sign is like putting sticking plaster on a broken arm.

What’s worse is that this slackness is accompanied by a huge power grab. Only the State can now enforce standards of behaviour and it jealously guards its power. The police certainly won’t bother to arrest a gang of terrorising thugs, but if you take any action yourself, see how quickly they appear. And rather than target the thugs, they’ll be more concerned with the person who usurped their role as enforcer.

Let me suggest a new advertising slogan; one that targets all these rotten institutions. Try this: “Don’t take it out on the public.”

A spy in the sky

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

I received an answer to my freedom of information request about the surveillance drone used at the V Festival. I’ll be posting the results of my investigation later today but in the meantime, here’s an article I wrote in today’s Times.

Don’t airily dismiss my protest at a spy in the sky

The Times, 4 Sept 2007

Two weekends ago at the V Festival, revellers were surprised to see a remote-controlled surveillance drone flying and filming overhead. Little to nothing was known beforehand about the drone’s use, and news reports after the fact shed little light on why or how its use was approved.

I put in a Freedom of Information Act request and discovered that the drone was part of a sales demo by a company called MW Power at the invitation of Staffordshire Police. What about the legality of the drone, I asked the police? They wondered why I was asking. Was I a competitor? Did I want to sell them a drone? It was unbelievable to the police, I suppose, that a citizen might be concerned about her privacy.

MW Power told me that more than half of Britain’s police forces have asked for a drone demo and many are finalising packages to buy the £30,000 kit – this without any public discussion about whether it is a useful way of combating crime.

Overarching surveillance infringes our privacy. So, for such an infringement to be justified, the police ought to have evidence to show its effectiveness. Instead, the police grab at invasive technologies without regard to the cost in terms of individual privacy or community trust. The police claim that drones will prevent thefts, but they can’t provide any proof. Shouldn’t such proof exist before the police throw taxpayer’s money into the sky?

Cops with helmet cameras, the DNA database, automatic numberplate recognition, CCTV – all these technologies have been slyly introduced: imagined future benefits are played up while the very tangible, immediate costs of lost privacy are airily discounted.

The Crown Prosecution Service, for example, has no figures on the success of CCTV in prosecuting crime. As for prevention, violent crime has doubled in the ten years since CCTV came to blanket the country. And yet Simon Byrne, the Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, still says: “People clamour for the feeling of safety which cameras give.”

I don’t. Far better to rely on real eyes in real human heads with real police officers backing them up.

But I’m told by Merseyside Police – the first force to buy a drone – that the flying spy has been “a great success and people feel they’ve reclaimed their parks”.

Has the drone’s footage been used as evidence to prosecute or arrest anyone? No. Not much of a success then.

If police forces were directly accountable to the people they serve, it’s doubtful that we would have agreed to such costly blanket surveillance – whether drones in the sky or cameras on every street corner – without the solid facts to persuade us of its necessity. But when the only person that the police have to please is the Home Secretary, then citizens’ rights are irrelevant.

Article: libel out of control

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Libel and freedom of information are intimately entwined. We cannot have true freedom of information if publishing such information is at the risk of being prosecuted. Such numerous and costly prosecutions have produced a chilling effect in this country where the knee-jerk reaction to controversial speech is censorship.

I should also mention that unlike the United States, the UK does not have an equivalent to the First Amendment that protects freedom of expression. Instead, we have numerous laws that prohibit various kinds of speech: blasphemy, incitement of religious and racial hatred, “promotion” of terrorism, etc. In addition, the American libel law puts the burden of proof squarely on the claimant while providing a public interest defence for the writer. This is not the case in England as I state below.

England, home of the mother of all injustices*
The Times, May 14, 2007
By Heather Brooke

The libel laws are an abomination. They favour rich, litigious bullies at the expense of free expression. Even a website for mothers to chatter on is fair game to this draconian law.

Last week mumsnet.com was forced to pay a five-figure sum for comments posted on its chat site. It stood by the comments but this law is such an ass that the burden of proof rests solely with the defendant.

Meanwhile, claimants can make their allegations free from evidential proof. Their opinion is all that counts. They do not have to prove the comments are false. They don’t even have to show any harm to their reputation. I can think of no other area in law in which an individual’s spurious opinion outweighs the greater public good of truth and justice.

The Mumsnet case makes clear how libel affects everyone, not just journalists or those working in the traditional media. More and more of us, thanks to the growing ubiquity of blogs, chat groups and web forums, are vulnerable to this nefarious law. And while big media groups have deep pockets, the individual hasn’t.

If the damages don’t get the writer, then legal costs certainly will. Most writers are not rich people and so they must settle. Result: vibrant debate is quashed, truth inevitably suffers. The law is so heavily weighted against freedom of expression that all writers (even those hosting blogs) are being urged to buy libel insurance; the freelance chapter of the National Union of Journalists is inundated with inquiries about its new policy.

No matter that the publishers of Mumsnet didn’t even write the comments that the author Gina Ford claimed defamed her. Under the Defamation Act 1996 nonauthors can be held liable if they fail to expeditiously remove comments someone thinks are defamatory. But how quick is quick? The Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts said that the comments were taken down after little more than 24 hours. Yet the vagueness of the law means she would have to go to court to prove this was a reasonable time period.

As a result we now have a culture where the default position is not free speech but censorship. After the 2001 case Godfrey v. Demon Internet Ltd, all internet service providers became vulnerable to libel lawsuits if they failed to immediately censor comments that a person claimed were defamatory. Whether or not the words are true is irrelevant.

England’s libel laws have never been about protecting individuals – at least not poor or helpless individuals. They are about protecting the rich and the powerful.

A fair law would be one in which the claimant has to prove falsity, harm and malicious intention, while providing a defence for truth, reasonable care and the public interest. Then both reputations and freedom of expression could be protected. Until then, mum’s the word.

* Note the live link no longer works as the Times has removed this article after a threat by Gina Ford. For archival purposes the previous location of this article was: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1784952.ece

Article: 266 ways the state can enter your home

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

I wrote my first big column for the Times today on the Centre for Policy Studies’ report on entry powers. As part of their study, I made several freedom of information requests to try and discover the extent to which some of these entry powers are used. As a postscript, Harriet, it transpires has expired, though her High Court case goes on…

Come on, open up in the name of the cow inspector
The Times, April 23, 2007
Heather Brooke on the alarming growth of the State’s right to enter your property

Harriet the Cow must have been surprised when at 9:30am on January 10 her peaceful field in Herefordshire was invaded by ten government officials and 12 police officers. This hit squad had erected a road block to seal off the area and used bolt-cutters to force their way into the enclosure. They had not asked permission to enter, nor did they need to. Under the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies Regulations 2006 – one of the State’s 266 statutory powers to enter private property – they were perfectly within their rights to force their way on to private land without the occupier’s consent and without a magistrate’s warrant.

Harriet, you see, had the misfortune to be on land where there had once been a BSE-infected cow and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had decided that she must be destroyed as a risk to the public. Harriet’s owners, David Price and Liz Davis, had argued that the nine-year-old Jersey cow was a pet, bought as a present for their son. They had documentation showing she did not have BSE nor was she ever going to be slaughtered for meat.

Harriet’s case is not so unusual. In a study published yesterday by the Centre for Policy Studies, Crossing the Threshold: 266 ways the State can enter your home, Harry Snook, a barrister, lays out for the first time the explosive growth in the State’s powers to enter private property forcefully and without permission. The old adage that an Englishman’s home is his castle is long dead.

Not content with spying on us as we walk the streets, drive our cars and go about our public business, the State is now intent on sticking its nose right into our living rooms. In the past few decades the number of new powers of entry becoming law has increased from fewer than ten in the 1950s to more than 60 in the 1990s. The laws are often vague, providing sweeping power to officials and little protection for private citizens.

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MPs seek to exempt themselves from own law

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

After being terribly lazy and not pitching any articles for a while, I am back in action with a piece in today’s Times.

What do MPs think they’ve got to hide?
The Times, Thunderer, April 19, 2007
By Heather Brooke

Tomorrow MPs will debate exempting themselves from their own law of openness. The prospect of escaping scrutiny from prying eyes is so tempting that MPs do not realise the colossal damage they are doing to their own reputations.

They are so shortsighted that all they can see is that they are fed up with questions from the press and the public who want to know the details of their expense claims for travel, staff, postage and “additional costs”, as well as who they are meeting – whether big businesses such as Tesco or special interest lobbying groups. Before the Freedom of Information Act 2000, MPs didn’t have to tell the public any of this. Now several rulings from the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal are forcing greater transparency.

I can see why MPs could succumb to the belief that it would be much easier to operate outside the public spotlight. All those awkward questions; all those pesky reporters; members of the public moaning; – it probably gets on their nerves. The danger is, though, that you don’t have to travel far down this road before you’ve forgotten the central tenet of democracy – government by and for the people.

That seems to be why a Private Member’s Bill that would exempt Parliament entirely from its own freedom of information law has sped through readings and committee stage like a hare. It reveals the extent of our MPs’ self-serving hypocrisy. It’s one law for the lawmakers and another for everyone else.

This Bill, introduced by David Maclean, the former Tory Chief Whip – and unopposed by the whips – will become law in the summer unless it is voted down or talked out. Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who has made himself unpopular in the House by leading the charge for more transparent expenses, isn’t confident that his colleagues will vote against the amendment to the Act and so will try to talk the Bill out tomorrow.

I hope for the sake of our legislators that he succeeds. If their activities, funded from the taxpayers’ purse, are shrouded in secrecy the result will increase public mistrust. Secrecy benefits only two types of people: the incompetent and the corrupt. It does not benefit the politician who works diligently on behalf of his or her constituents – and it most certainly does not benefit the public. Good governance can only ever be open governance.

If it reaches the statute book, this Bill will be a self-inflicted wound for politicians, who already are suffering from crumbling levels of public trust. Any MP that values his or her reputation should be outraged and ashamed that it was allowed to get this far. The people must be welcomed into the heart of our democracy; not have the door slammed in their face.

Freedom – only if we can get the information

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Freedom – only if we can get the information
The Times, Law, February 06, 2007
By Heather Brooke

Two years on and the Freedom of Information Act has been enough of a success to warrant its possible demise.

While it was always naive to think that politicians would welcome open government, recent proposals have surprised even sceptics. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has described the Government as “taking a scythe to its own Act”.

The proposals put forward by the Department for Constitutional Affairs blithely ignore the recommendations of its parliamentary select committee that endemic delay and poor enforcement are endangering the law’s effectiveness. Instead, the Government held secret meetings and hired a private consultancy headed by Sir Andrew Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, to make the case that the Freedom of Information Act is too expensive.

While these actions are bad news for democracy, they do at least show that the law was proving to be effective.

One of the strongest benefits of freedom of information (FoI) is that it has replaced propaganda and polemic with empirical evidence. Citizens now have a more factual and detailed understanding of problems facing local schools, councils, the criminal justice system, the NHS and, of course, central government. We know, despite constant rhetoric that the NHS is “better than ever”, that at least 13 NHS trusts are technically bankrupt, with no chance of meeting a legal obligation to balance their books. We know that prosecution rates vary across Britain in what amounts to a postcode lottery of justice, and that police increasingly use cautions for serious crimes such as rape and burglary.

We know the number of school pupils expelled for drugs and violence, how many of those on probation have committed violent crimes, which restaurants are failing their hygiene inspections and the details of many private finance contracts signed by public authorities. We have a list of post offices scheduled for closure, the surgery success rates of some surgeons and know that hospitals in England are each charging patients up to £1.5 million a year for parking.

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Thunderer: This Man Must Be Watched

Tuesday, October 31st, 2006

The Times and Sunday Times published a series of articles over the last few days taking a critical look at the work of the Information Commissioner. The flagship piece was an interview with Richard Thomas, the incumbent commissioner, which dealt mainly with scares about government surveillance and criminals gaining access to your bank account.

The Sunday Times leader article picked up on one disturbing issue Mr Thomas steered well clear of in his interview – the tendency for politicians and other powerful figures to hide behind the Data Protection Act, turning the investigation of their dodgy dealings by journalists into a prisonable offence.

My article in the Times ‘Thunderer’ column highlighted a particular weakness of the Information Commissioner: his dependence on the patronage of the Department of Constitutional Affairs:

This man must be watched
The Times, Thunderer October 30, 2006
By Heather Brooke

The man who stands between us and Big Brother has just woken to the fact that we live in a surveillance society. Not before time. But what can Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, do to give us back some personal privacy away from the State’s prying eyes?

Not a lot. Mr Thomas told The Times on Saturday that he’s worried about the Government’s plan for total information convergence – the central control of records on every single child, our health, run-ins with the police, our DNA, taxes and identity.

It can’t be long before these data are used to target people in myriad ways. Already we have seen the Terrorism Act used to intimidate and arrest those who speak out against Government. How much easier it will be for politicians once they know everything about us, down to our cellular structure.

Mr Thomas’s pronouncements are few and cloaked in that mealy-mouthed deference common to bureaucrats – but to pick on him is to kick a kitten. Weak laws, weakly enforced are only partly his fault.

How I’d love to see someone with chutzpah become the next Information Commissioner. Someone such as Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney-general, who takes his role as populist protector seriously, taking on all comers from Merrill Lynch to Enron. If he were to discover banks leaving bags of statements on the pavement he’d do more than unleash a fusty press release.

But of course, in England, our regulators are neutered. The people cannot have real power, only the semblance of power. Mr Thomas must always have one eye on his political paymasters, for his position is closer to patronage than independence. His budget and staffing salaries are controlled by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

That’s Cheeky Charlie Falconer’s department – the same man who wants to smother our new-born Freedom of Information Act. The Government has an interest in keeping the commissioner’s office weak. If it is underfunded and understaffed then it cannot hold the Government rigorously to account.

In Scotland the commissioner answers only to Parliament. So it should be in England. Without a fully independent information commissioner we can expect to find our privacy rights shredded at the expense of a Big Brother state.

Read all the articles:

Freedom of information is better value than most government

Friday, October 20th, 2006

In a week when the Government is claiming that £35 million spent on answering FOI requests is a reason for curbing our right to know, it’s worth considering where that cost comes from. Of course, the figure is puffed up for propaganda purposes. But, as Computer Weekly reports, ministers are also happy to retain expensive lawyers in order to prevent documents being released from the Gateway review on ID cards.

The review was funded with our taxes, and the government is spending more of our taxes to deny us the right to see the results of our largess.

The review puts the cost of introducing this unwelcome intrusion into our lives at £5.4 billion. Compare that figure, and the collossal amounts wasted by the National Health Service, the Inland Revenue, the Ministry of Defence, and a myriad of bungling, spendthrift projects undertaken with little public scrutiny and oversight, and it’s clear that our right to know, in order to expose and criticise this waste, is a small cost well worth paying.

Article: Journalists and wiretapping

Friday, August 11th, 2006

Living in a Stalinist blackout
The Times, Thunderer 11 August 2006
By Heather Brooke

The Information Commissioner thinks that journalists should be imprisoned for up to two years for paying private detectives to obtain information. This same commissioner took almost two years to fudge a decision on the release of the Attorney-General’s advice on the Iraq war – more than a year after it had been leaked. And that’s one of the more optimistic examples of how long it takes reporters to access official information legitimately.

No wonder British journalists resort to nefarious means to get information that in other countries is freely available. It amazes me that hacks manage to ferret out any hard news in such a Stalinist blackout.

If you think bugging phones is amoral or shady then think about the kind of society that restricts freedom to such an extent that this is the only way a member of the public – journalists have no more rights than you – can get his hands on information in a timely way.

How else can a reporter investigate the Royal Family when it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, virtually unaccountable to Parliament and all its staff must sign a fearsome gagging order? There is no legitimate way to get facts on the Royal Family. We don’t even know how much taxpayers’ money it sucks up. The cost of keeping the Queen as head of state was £36.7 million in 2005, according to the Keeper of the Privy Purse. But this omits the immense cost of security, tax breaks and income generated from assets deemed to be held for the nation, but that the nation cannot see, such as art in the Royal Collection.

Some say that the Royal Family ought not to be held to public account. Fine. But what about the police, courts and Whitehall? Surely we have a right to know what they are up to? Not so. Criminal and court records, arrest bookings and police incident reports are the bread and butter of American journalism. Such records are used to check facts and examine the truth of official rhetoric. In the UK, all this information is off-limits. Even getting a list of local council restaurant inspections can take almost a year. If such information is suppressed what hope is there for investigating more serious issues?

Don’t mistake the authorities’ crackdown as a matter for journalists alone. When those who are paid to dig out facts find it nigh impossible to do so legitimately, no one else stands a chance.

Article: Policing of protests

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

Tough on the causes of peace
The Times, Thunderer, 8 February 2006
by Heather Brooke

Forget all this namby-pamby peaceful protesting. The only way to grab a politician’s ear is to do so with force. That’s the loud and clear message from the authorities. The police record clearly shows they take a softly-softly approach towards religious extremists who threaten violence, but a sledgehammer approach when faced with peaceful protesters.

The Islamic protests last weekend in London have led to questions in Parliament about why the police failed to arrest those holding placards advocating mass murder. Meanwhile, the police have shown no delay in arresting peaceful protesters. According to Hansard, police have arrested 28 people protesting peacefully for taking part in “unauthorised demonstrations” in the “designated area” around Parliament since August 2005. The Met arrested 57 peaceful protesters outside an arms trade exhibition in September 2005. These protesters went so far as to dance in the street; a few climbed on top of a standing train.

You can see the mistake made by these deluded activists. They clung to the belief that the Government rewards those who play by the rules with a listening ear. But the Serious Organised Crime Act makes it an offence to protest peacefully outside Parliament. The Government sees no difference between dancing in the street and inciting beheading.

Peaceful protests are the steam valves for a democratic society, so by criminalising all protests, no matter how participants behave, the temptation is to say: “What the hell, let’s go for it!”

And this is exactly what has come to pass. Just look at Fathers4Justice. Hundreds of law-abiding families and lobbyists tried for years to reform the failing family justice system. Then suddenly a gang of thugs invades Parliament, throws condoms at the Prime Minister and posts letters of excrement to the head of the Family Court and before you know it – bam! The family courts are reformed.

This is a dangerous message for any government to send out to its people. For it is a drawn-out process to achieve change peacefully. Those treading the path must feel their efforts may be rewarded. Instead, the vast powers of the police to arrest are influenced by politics and political correctness. On one hand they are tough on the peaceful; on the other they are soft on the thugs who march under the banner of Islam.

If you are interested in protesting against the Westminster no protest zone, you might like to sign this pledge.