Game of Thrones

Some people are for­tu­nate enough to be born into the right fam­ily. Oth­ers have to find their own way.”

I can’t help but be fas­cin­ated by Jill Abramson’s tat­too. The ‘T’ of the New York Times inked into her skin. It’s like Car­son, the but­ler in Down­ton Abbey, reveal­ing that he has the Earl of Grantham’s armorial bear­ings embroidered on his boxers.

Eng­land still has its Down­ton Abbeys. These days people pay to look round at week­ends. Cab­in­ets do not retire to them at week­ends for shoot­ing parties. There are no staff, no fam­ily to serve. All to the good. But will New York still have its Times?

For the Car­sons (and per­haps the Abramsons), the idea of these won­der­ful polit­ical edi­fices no longer being cent­ral to a way of life, no longer hav­ing cul­ture (below stairs, above stairs; busi­ness and edit­or­ial) is ana­thema. Whilst the rest of us migrate to Quartz or BuzzFeed or Vice, the staff at the New York Times still care about journalism’s equi­val­ent of the right way to lay out the sil­ver and the cor­rect glass for port.

Abramson’s tat­too tells you so much too about the way journ­al­ists — and people — con­struct their iden­tity. The way we endow organ­isa­tions with val­ues, sub­or­din­ate ourselves to their cul­tures. For all the talk of indi­vidual journ­al­ists as brands, here is a journ­al­ist brand­ing her­self and remain­ing res­ol­utely inter­ested in the task she is paid to do (find­ing things out, hold­ing the power­ful to account, sound­ing off to read­ers), whilst stead­fastly res­ist­ing the idea that she simply works for a grand but fad­ing fam­ily business.

Forced into the bloody busi­ness of mak­ing journ­al­ism pay, Abramson reacted like a neg­lected cir­cus lion eye­ing a new tamer. The spec­tacle con­trasts pity at the hum­bling of a great beast with fear for any­one forced to make money by stick­ing their heads in such a hungry mouth.

But Ms Abramson’s edit­or­ship has cer­tainly roared. A China edi­tion launch. This. A new Chief Exec­ut­ive. This. To raise the bar from pop­u­lar to clas­sical drama, she has delivered the full Anti­gone — a super­fluity of right — and if it is Claudius rather than Creon that she faces, well — never under­es­tim­ate a Claudius.

Abramson, who I met under the bland­est of cir­cum­stances a couple of times, appears to have been a con­nois­seur of good journ­al­ism. Whatever her mer­its, she cer­tainly wasn’t polit­ical enough to survive.

Journ­al­ists are fond of believ­ing that know­ledge is power. Game of Thrones view­ers might recall Cer­sei Lannister’s scene with Lit­tlefinger. In a gender reversal for the New York Timesmise-en-scèné’, she is from the rul­ing fam­ily, and he is the self-made man. When he over-reaches to remind her of the frailty of prom­in­ent fam­il­ies, she has her guards seize him. A dag­ger is pressed to his jug­u­lar. It’s not know­ledge that is power, she reminds him, “Power is power.”



St Luke’s Ter­race, Cob­holm on Google Streetview

I was born in the front bed­room of the two bed­room house my grand­par­ents ren­ted from the coun­cil. It was Feb­ru­ary 1965, The Kinks at num­ber one for homes with record play­ers and without teen­age moth­ers. A year later, my brother was born in the same room.

The front bed­room was for being born in, the back bed­room was for dying in. At any rate, the back bed­room was the room in which, three dec­ades later, my grandfather’s can­cer killed him.

St Luke’s Ter­race in Cob­holm was a poor place all my grand­par­ents’ lives. It was a poverty that pools coupons crossed off, a poverty unanswered in the weekly knock of insur­ance col­lect­ors, clean and hard and smelling of coal tar soap.

It wintered as grey fog without and grey smoke within, cigar­ettes and chim­neys back to back, lines of black mould on steel win­dow frames and the syr­upy vapour of the malt­ings. It was a poverty of spirit without com­pan­ion­ship, except the radio. Too poor for pubs or clubs, too proud for church or chapel congregations.

My grand­par­ents, like my father, are dead now. What has half a cen­tury of pro­gress done for this place and the people that are like them — now liv­ing? No more coal fires, no more malt­ings, PVC win­dow frames. Half a cen­tury of progress…

Here are the words of the ACORN survey:

This cat­egory con­tains the most deprived areas of large and small towns and cit­ies across the UK. House­hold incomes are low, nearly always below the national aver­age. The level of people hav­ing dif­fi­culties with debt or hav­ing been refused credit approaches double the national aver­age. The num­bers claim­ing Jobseeker’s Allow­ance and other bene­fits is well above the national aver­age. Levels of qual­i­fic­a­tions are low and those in work are likely to be employed in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations.

The hous­ing is a mix of low rise estates, with ter­raced and semi-detached houses, and pur­pose built flats, includ­ing high rise blocks. Prop­er­ties tend to be small and there may be over­crowding. Over half of the hous­ing is ren­ted from the local coun­cil or a hous­ing asso­ci­ation. There is some private rent­ing. The rel­at­ively small pro­por­tion of the hous­ing is owner occu­pied is gen­er­ally of low value. Where val­ues are influ­enced by higher urban prop­erty prices these are still lower value rel­at­ive to the location.

There are a large num­ber of single adult house­holds, includ­ing many single pen­sion­ers, lone par­ents, sep­ar­ated and divorced people. There are higher levels of health prob­lems in some areas.

These are the people who are find­ing life the hard­est and exper­i­en­cing the most dif­fi­cult social and fin­an­cial conditions.

These are the people…


The deten­tion of Glenn Greenwald’s part­ner does not raise any issues over the use of cur­rent anti-terrorism legis­la­tion to tar­get journ­al­ism. The law says:

A per­son com­mits an offence if—
(a) he col­lects or makes a record of inform­a­tion of a kind likely to be use­ful to a per­son com­mit­ting or pre­par­ing an act of ter­ror­ism, or
(b) he pos­sesses a doc­u­ment or record con­tain­ing inform­a­tion of that kind.


An examin­ing officer may exam­ine goods…for the pur­pose of determ­in­ing whether they have been used in the com­mis­sion, pre­par­a­tion or instig­a­tion of acts of terrorism

So flu research­ers and train spot­ters beware, in fact almost any­one doing any­thing a ter­ror­ist might find use­ful should be care­ful — and who knows what ter­ror­ists find use­ful? And even ask­ing such a ques­tion, let alone research­ing it, might turn up inform­a­tion which said ter­ror­ists may indeed find useful.

Bad laws may well appear absurd, but they are laws non­ethe­less, and they can lead dir­ectly to jail. But the issue here is not law, or act­ing in solid­ar­ity with an embar­rassed ally, but powers that are on the brink of des­troy­ing the ‘watch­dog’ func­tion of journ­al­ism, and a soci­ety where a legis­lature with the resources of the 19C attempts to over­see a secret exec­ut­ive with the powers of the 21C.

When it comes to Edward Snowden, the secur­ity ser­vices clearly feel that they, and not journ­al­ists or MPs, are in the best pos­i­tion to decide on what ele­ments of his rev­el­a­tions con­sti­tute a threat.

Guard­ian editor Alan Rus­bridger, who pub­lished them, was told by one intel­li­gence officer over­see­ing the destruc­tion of a secret-stuffed laptop: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.” The lit­er­ary equi­val­ent of “Noth­ing to see here. Please move along.”

Clearly the scope of the ter­ror­ist threat is per­ceived to be any evid­en­tial ques­tion­ing of the secur­ity ser­vices’ rela­tion­ships with other powers and agen­cies, or any factually-based chal­lenge to the mech­an­isms through which they mon­itor and inter­fere with lives.

The clar­ity ends rather abruptly. The evid­ence and facts required to make such chal­lenges are — by the very nature of the activ­ity — secret and there­fore must likely be obtained or held illegally.

To make mat­ters mud­dier, the argu­ment has to be con­duc­ted largely by proxy.

No one speaks dir­ectly for the secur­ity ser­vices, or if they leak on their behalf, their simple mes­sage is that the pub­lic — and the press — must trust them: that the over­sight mech­an­isms which gov­ern them are more than suf­fi­cient; the powers under which they oper­ate barely adequate.

This is hardly a unique pos­i­tion. Many of us feel that we should have more free­dom to act, fewer restric­tions on our beha­viour, more resources at our dis­posal. As Lord Leveson dis­covered, news­pa­per edit­ors are no excep­tion, espe­cially when it comes to the free­dom to humi­li­ate and shame celebrit­ies, politi­cians, and any­one fool­hardy enough to enter the pub­lic line of fire.

By com­par­ison, the secur­ity ser­vices might be con­sidered mod­els of restraint. And there are indeed real plots and real threats.

Yet the rev­el­a­tions that our phone calls, inter­net searches, emails and texts are digit­ally stored and sifted, and the poten­tial for such inform­a­tion to be bought and sold (see Leveson above, although not just by journ­al­ists but by law­yers, insurers, and private indi­vidu­als) is a cause for con­cern that silence, or simple faith, can­not meet.

Thought­ful, liberally-minded pro­viders of digital sur­veil­lance ser­vices to gov­ern­ments acknow­ledge the prob­lem. This is Alex Karp of Palantir*:

In the case of gov­ern­ment agen­cies, he sug­gests an over­sight body that reviews all sur­veil­lance – an insti­tu­tion that is purely the­or­et­ical at the moment. “Some­thing like this will exist,” Karp insists. “Soci­et­ies will build it, pre­cisely because the altern­at­ive is let­ting ter­ror­ism hap­pen or los­ing all our liber­ties.” For­bes

No one seems likely to build it soon. Or to sug­gest how to over­see such over­seers. In the mean­time, we are wit­ness­ing the end of anonym­ous whis­tleblow­ing on the secret affairs of the state. As Rus­bridger wrote in the piece linked above: “it may not be long before it will be impossible for journ­al­ists to have con­fid­en­tial sources.” This will make offi­cial scru­tiny more neces­sary, and the bar of con­science yet higher.

Let us not be under the illu­sion that whis­tleblowers are saints, and journ­al­ists their priestly con­fess­ors. But let us neither ima­gine that sur­veil­lance is a sword only wiel­ded by the just, and secrecy their only shield.

Absent a pub­lic debate and we must trust that our new secur­ity struc­tures con­tain no young digital Edgar Hoovers await­ing their moment, and that the most sin­is­ter res­ults of sur­veil­lance are embar­rass­ments at air­ports and not the Stasi-esque night­mare fic­tion­al­ised in The Lives of Oth­ers. If his­tory sug­gests any­thing, it is that we will only find out long after the event. Tech­no­logy, mean­while, is find­ing out ever more, ever faster.

*Palantir is a mem­ber of the Tech­no­logy Pion­eer com­munity of my employer, the World Eco­nomic Forum.

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Punishment by politics

February 28, 2013

The elec­tions in Italy reveal a crisis in lead­er­ship. Wolfgang Mün­chau blames Mario Monti’s defeat on a lack of polit­ical real­ism — code for cyn­icism. Paul Krug­man blames it not just on Monti but on a European élite — or ‘Very Ser­i­ous People’.

in Europe even more than in the US the Very Ser­i­ous People live in a bubble of self-regard at their own ser­i­ous­ness, and ima­gine that the gen­eral pub­lic will fol­low their lead — hey, it’s the only respons­ible thing to do.

As a mem­ber of an organ­iz­a­tion that brings together people in lead­er­ship roles, an activ­ity that attracts blame from Mr Krug­man, I can per­haps offer a dif­fer­ent perspective.

There is a chal­lenge to lead­er­ship in the world today. And that chal­lenge is us. The exten­sion of edu­ca­tion, and the priv­ilege of escap­ing the needs of our grand­par­ents, have left us more power­ful than ever as indi­vidu­als, but — as indi­vidu­als — isolated.

Like James Frazer’s sac­red kings, we want lead­ers we can sac­ri­fice or scape­goat. Democracy’s par­tic­u­lar bene­vol­ence is that it removes the guil­lot­ine from the pro­cess of dis­pos­ing of them. But the tasks of ‘hold­ing office’ remain bey­ond the bal­lot box. The respons­ib­il­it­ies we want to abrog­ate our actu­ally our own. The vehicles for col­lect­ive deliv­ery are numer­ous: our employ­ers, the cor­por­a­tions we pur­chase from, the fran­chise we exer­cise, the tax­a­tion we pay.

Do we work in silent acqui­es­cence? Do we buy what we don’t need? Do we vote our interest? Do we pay as little in taxes as pos­sible? Yes. But we tell ourselves that these are private fail­ings, that their col­lect­ive sum is not our responsibility.

The world we exper­i­ence is not an aggreg­ate of our indi­vidual acts of com­mis­sion and omis­sion. It is a place where those with more status, or money, or power are to blame. And don’t think for one minute that those we blame are not in turn uniquely aware of those to blame above them, or bey­ond their own bubble.

Des­pite advances in med­ical know­ledge, there are still corners of the world where dis­ease is blamed on witch­craft. Des­pite the explan­at­ory powers of mod­ern eco­nom­ics, there are still people wish­ing to look for someone or some group to burn, if only — for the moment — figuratively.

This is Beppe Grillo, the sur­prise anti-politics suc­cess of the Italian election:

We haven’t been aware that this is a gen­er­a­tional war …What makes me feel really ill are the mil­lions of people that have been stay­ing afloat in the crisis, that have just been mar­gin­ally affected by the crisis, that have man­aged to just get by to the det­ri­ment of the other lot of mil­lions of people that can­not go on any more. Italy’s prob­lem is this set of people. And as long as the salar­ies and the pen­sions of these people are not at risk it’s fine to immob­il­ise the coun­try. But this won’t last long. This situ­ation won’t last long at all.

How­ever ready we are to fall vic­tim to our own cog­nit­ive biases, pun­ish­ing people is not good polit­ics, and nor will it ever be good economics.