My sister’s keeper

December 9, 2014

My sis­ter died last night. She was 46 years old.

For the last of those years she lived in a care home near the sea front in Great Yar­mouth, patiently looked after. In good times she took her med­ic­a­tion, and spent her weekly state allow­ance on daily litres of coca-cola and pack­ets of cigarettes.

She had lost a fin­ger to domestic abuse. Lived with heroin addicts who had beaten her for her bene­fit cheque. They told her they were dia­bet­ics. She, who had struggled to be kept in school, believed them.

After one beat­ing, at her low­est ebb, she had ended up in a hos­pital ward where, out of kind­ness, someone assessed her and dia­gnosed the schizo­phrenia that had afflic­ted her for years. Finally she got help with housing.

All this I know from my mother, second-hand. The last time I saw her was at my grandfather’s funeral, over twenty years ago.

I stopped let­ting her know where I lived to avoid the long ram­bling let­ters with accus­a­tions of murder and worse. But also because of my own guilt at hav­ing been a lousy brother, at my inab­il­ity to help her, and her inab­il­ity to be helped — to be a good victim.

She was dif­fi­cult to deal with: viol­ent, obstrep­er­ous, a fan­tas­ist. My mother says only: “a troubled soul”.

My father’s poor health made it impossible for her to live with my par­ents when her hus­band threw her out. My work took me all over the world. My mother made long drives to the coast to pay her vis­its and try to fix up some­where for her to live.

In the end ‘the sys­tem’ ended up help­ing her where we could not. The state, that big soul­less, joy­less col­lect­ive noun, so des­pised and ridiculed, came to her aid. It gave her com­fort and shel­ter, and employed long-suffering people to help her. The path did not run smooth, but the state was my sister’s keeper.

When my mother became ill this year, I real­ized that the day might soon come when I would have to make the vis­its, remem­ber her birth­day and Christ­mas. It never came.

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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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