Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.

It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

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Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

When we debate surveillance (whether its CCTV or snooping on our e-mails) the debate is usually framed as a trade off between civil liberties and security.  Its the right to privacy versus the right to be protected from crime.  Often, civil libertarians seek to win the argument by highlighting how the State can be tyrannical, oppressive, corrupt… or unworthy of trust.  Our governments are compared literary dystopias like Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four or to real-life dictatorships like North Korea.  These arguments are persuasive to some.

But as I have discussed previously, this approach does not persuade everyone.  And by deploying these arguments, civil liberties campaigners actually leave themselves exposed.  What if you do not believe that (say) the UK is as bad as North Korea?  What if you think that, on balance, Teresa May, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Robert Hannigan are actually on our side and not out to seize tyrannical control of the people?  All this chat about nefarious government agents acting like the Stasi will simply not persuade. 

When we talk about surveillance, we need to talk about The Observer Effect.  In physics, this is the concept that says that by measuring something, you change it.  And  we’re talking about surveillance, The Observer Effect means that simply by watching someone, you change their behaviour. Continue reading Surveillance changes the “Psyche of the Community”

More on #Leveson (As It Should Be)

It seems the House of Lords Communications Select Committee will be conducting an inquiry into the state of press regulation in the UK. Naturally, I’ve sent the clerks the link to my Leveson (As It Should Be) project, an HTML version of the Leveson Inquiry report. Hopefully that will streamline their research and inform the debate.
Continue reading More on #Leveson (As It Should Be)

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Fictionalised Assassinations

I wonder what Lord Bell thinks of Sony’s decision to cancel screening of ‘The Interview’?

Earlier this year, the Tory peer said that author Hilary Mantel should be investigated by the police after she wrote a short story called (and about) ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983′.

It was a silly thing to say but free speech groups like English PEN (for whom I work) cexpressed concern at his words. Artists should be free to imagine and to fantasise, and equating a fictional murder of a head of state with actual incitement is not only fallacious, but gives dictators around the world yet another reason to shut down any kind of expression that portrays them in an impregnable light.

Which brings us on to The Interview, a comedy film in which Seth Rogan and James Franco star as two journalists who set out to assassinate Kim Jong Un.  The government of North Korea called the film “an act of war” and threatened “bitter reprisals”.  This week, Sony pictures announced that it would be withdrawing the release of The Interview  after pro-regime activists calling themselves Guardians of the Peace hacked Sony’s computer systems, leaked embarrassing e-mails, and threatened attacks on cinemas showing the film.

Now, Lord Bell’s suggestion that Mantel receive a visit from the police is not equivalent to North Korean activists threatening violence.  But Lord Bell’s idea – that fictionalised assassination of an already dead Maggie Thatcher is incitement, is surely equivalent to the idea that ‘The Interview’ is incitement.  Of course, I think both ideas are false… but when a member of the House of Lords peddles the first idea, it rather gives credence to the second. Continue reading Fictionalised Assassinations

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report needs to be converted to HTML, pronto

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has release a shocking report into the CIA use of torture during America’s post-9/11 panic.  The New York Times has a handy 7 point summary, pointing out that the torture was more brutal and extensive than previously supposed, that it was ineffective, and that CIA officials lied to Congress and made exaggerated claims to journalists about the effectiveness of the programme.

Its truly sickening and should not have happened.  The USA is supposed to be better.  It has set a terrible example to brutal human rights abusing regimes like Iran.  Ayatollah Khameni has been pointing out America’s hypocrisy.

It looks like the United Kingdom might have been complicit in the torture programme too.

For those of us who want to read the full report, a 525-page PDF version is available on the webspace of Senator Diane Feinstein.

Plenty of journalists have been writing about the report.  Andrew Sullivan has ‘live-blogged’ his reading of it.  When they do cite a paragraph, they can’t link directly to it.  It strikes me that far more people would be able to read an engae with the report if it were in HTML format.  This is a ‘live’ example of the principle behind my Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report should be converted to HTML as soon as possible, preferably hosted by a civil liberties NGO or a newspaper.  It took me a while to convert the Leveson Report into HTML but a crowdsourced effort could convert this torture report in a matter of days, if not hours.

Debunking the myth that MPs are lazy and selfish

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On the Spectator blog, Isabel Hardman does a fantastic job in exposing a particular internet meme as a straightforward lie.

You probably know the message in question. It’s the one that has two pictures of the House of Commons side by side – one empty chamber, labelled ‘debate on welfare’ (or something like that); and another of a full chamber, with the label ‘debating MPs’ salaries’. The idea being that MPs are lazy and selfish.

I’ve just posted a comment on the article, and thought I may as well paste it here too. It fits very nicely with the counter-cultural ‘politicians aren’t all bad’ contrariness of other offerings.

Continue reading Debunking the myth that MPs are lazy and selfish

Is surveillance chilling child abuse whistleblowers?

Earlier this year, two rather shocking examples of over-reach by the security services were revealed. The police have used controversial powers in the Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to bypass the need to get a warrant before accessing phone records. They were therefore able to snoop on journalists in a bid to unmask whistleblowers. This is a threat to free speech and something a judge would never have signed off on.

The two cases both involved political scandals. The first was the hacking of the Mail on Sunday journalists reporting on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal. The second was spying on the political editor of The Sun who was reporting on the Andrew Mitchell #Plebgate affair (for once, a pleasing use of the ‘-gate’ suffix since the scandal did involve an actual gate).

Both these cases have outraged journalists and human rights campaigners. It’s an invasion of privacy and discourages free speech. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. However, I wonder whether these cases persuade the public at large that there is a problem. Journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, so I wonder whether they garner much sympathy. These are not scandals that relate to the lives most people are living.

I’ve argued before that campaigners need to ground their defence of human rights principles in stories that are meaningful to ordinary people. Good recent examples of this approach in action: The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (see here and here) and the Daily Mirror (see here and here).

There is another news story bubbling away at the moment that I think may persuade the public of the dangers of unchecked surveillance, and that is the investigations into alleged child abuse by senior establishment figures including, apparently, a former minister. There were apparently two dossiers about alleged pædophiles presented to Home Secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s, which have since gone missing. And according to Zac Goldsmith MP, detailed records seized from the notorious Elm Guest House disappeared after they were taken as evidence by the police.

Here’s what I reckon. It’s all conjecture and hypothesis, but I think it’s plausible: I think there must be former policemen and civil servants out there with knowledge of a cover-up. I think that some of them would like to ‘blow the whistle’ and tell the country what they know. But since police-officers are likely to be implicated in a cover-up, we run the risk that they will use RIPA and other surveillance powers to track-down and discredit anyone seeking to tell their story to the media, in confidence.

Potential whistleblowers know this. They have seen how people talking to journalists in the public interest are hounded by the security services.

I think that people who should be speaking up about child abuse today are keeping quiet because of the surveillance of journalists. My sad prediction is that we will one day discover this to be true, and that victims were denied a chance at justice.

Politicians like to say that surveillance keeps us safe, but sometimes, too much surveillance can cause irreparable damage, too.

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Talking Free Speech and ‘The Good Shabti’ on the Bookworm Podcast

Ed Fortune, the presenter of Starburst Magazine’s wonderful Bookworm Podcast, invited me onto the show to discuss the work of English PEN and my own creative writing endeavours.

Download Season 2, Episode 28 to listen to the discussion.

My bit begins at around 16 minutes into the show, but that really shouldn’t stop you listening to Ed and his co-hosts Ninfa Hayes and A.L. Johnson chatting about tea and reviewing a whole lot of genre literature.

The Leveson Report (As It Should Be)

Its about time I publicised a project I’ve been working on in my spare time:
The Leveson Report (As It Should Be).

No, this isn’t a rewrite of the report where I change all Sir Brian’s recommendations to suit my politics! Rather it is

An open, linkable, HTML version of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press

Over on the project website I have published a short explanation of why I initiated this project. In short: I think in a modern democracy, publishing accessible versions of public documents is essential. Having a simple HTML edition of a crucial text such as the Leveson Report means that more people can read and engage with it.

I hope the site is easy to navigate. To view a particular chapter of the report the site visitor simply has to type the part and chapter number after the website address. So to visit chapter 2 in Part B, you would type:

http://http://leveson.robertsharp.co.uk/B/Chapter2

In a similar manner you can jump straight to a particular section or even a single paragraph in the report. Full instructions are available on the project website.

My hope is that other people can take this project and run with it. All the HTML pages that make up this version of the report are available on GitHub, so anyone can download the files and host their own version of the report (here’s a handy ZIP file). I confess that the underlying markup (i.e. the raw code of each page) is not completely perfect, and I would welcome any help in polishing the pages. On GitHub, anyone can ‘fork’ the project and begin making alterations.

I have set up a mailing list. If the Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project is of interest, please consider subscribing. There are options to be notified of every change to the site files, or just major changes and developments with the project.

For fun, I’ve created a Twitter account, @LevesonAISB, which is automatically tweeting links to various sections of the report. I’d love it if someone helped me set up randomised Tweeting of sentences pulled from the document.

This is not the my first project on the subject of making public documents more public. See also The Defamation Act: Complete & Unabridged, Get Yourself A Cheap #Leveson Report, and Tracked Changes In the Defamation Bill.

A Leveson Word Cloud
A Leveson Word Cloud, generated using the HTML files from The Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project