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 elite – 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.


I remember as an undergraduate wondering why – with so many applicants – were trainee investment bankers so well paid?

The answer of course is that investment banking remuneration had broken free from the petty economic tyranny of “supply and demand” and was not being driven down by an over-supply of potential recruits.

As Jonathan Schlefer noted, “Markets do not determine income inequality. It is fundamentally a social decision.”

Now we have an argument going on between economists about automation and jobs. Keynes’ biographer, Robert Skidelsky, presents it here. It is not really an economic argument.

Keynes had got there first anyway:

[T]here is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread … To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there.

Keynes meant, of course, that wealthy people have to keep themselves occupied. They are the apex predators of pointlessness. For every Henry Cavendish, lavishing an inherited fortune on scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge, there were many more of his wealthy contemporaries spending their time and money breeding horses for the track. This is his “advance guard”.

Extreme wealth in the eighteenth century was a function of family, land and inheritance. The social processes that allowed such accumulations were complex, but the foundations of the Cavendish fortune were so secure that a Cavendish remains a billionaire and Britain’s wealthiest landowner.

The less occupying staying wealthy is, the more leisure they have. But problems arise when the social and legal underpinning of this wealth is called into question, as – for example – in the United States where the south’s agricultural economy was based on slavery.

The success of the market in combining complexity and custom to distribute rewards by a seemingly “invisible hand” also distributes penalties to those unable to take advantage of either. The mitigation for those penalties has been the welfare system.

But the reality of modern labour is that it is a “meaning providing” social institution, and that opportunities to act meaningfully within a corporation/institution are what most jobs provide. The problem of unemployment becomes not that one cannot survive (hard tough it may be), but that one is deprived of meaningful participation in society.

The problem of jobs becomes: How do we distribute meaning? And that is not just a social but a psychological and philosophical challenge for which we seem, as yet, ill-prepared.


Ten days before my wedding, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school and killed seventeen people, sixteen of them very young children.

The media descended. I descended. I was filming an hour or so away and arrived on the scene as shattered parents waited for news, and local TV news crews slung their cameras, unsure as to whether or not to film. I was sure. Film first, decide later. Our job as television journalists was to bear witness.

We won awards for the coverage that day. Not awards given by relatives or viewers, but those given by our fellow television journalists. The hostility of local people, looking for someone to curse, was palpable. The curiosity of everyone else in the country, around the world, unquenchable.

My wife-to-be arrived too. She was a television journalist. In the next couple of days she was a regular at the police briefings. She got to know the Superintendent in charge of the scene. He was worried that the families and the community needed space away from news crews and notepads. She suggested that he ask news chiefs to quietly pull back. And so they did.

It wasn’t the kind of thing to take credit for, and she’s never asked for any or received any, and I – clumsy idiot that I am – made it the subject for our first argument of married life.

And – being, to this day, both clumsy and an idiot – I still think it was the wrong thing to do. I think the only thing that makes our post-modern society a society is sharing stories and telling stories, be they of tragedy or celebration. As John Donne wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” And we – journalists – we are the tolling bell.

But my wife disagreed. And she still disagrees. And she won the day.