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.


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.