Today the Prime Minister and his Deputy announced ‘emergency’ legislation to legalise the mass collection and retention of data. The laws will be rushed through parliament next week.
I have a lot to say about this: Continue reading
Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.
Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:
And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.
If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.
Last week I was at a Demos #ResponsibleSecurity event in London for a speech by the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper MP, on the balance between Liberty and Security in a modern democracy [full text]. It was a timely intervention on a crucial debate. Of course the revelations about widespread and illegal government surveillance are still in the news, and there had been recent, appalling revelations that the family of Stephen Lawrence had been bugged by the police. However, it has also been said that stronger surveillance measures might have prevented the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
Cooper said that Labour’s approach to balancing a need for security with our human rights and civil liberties would be based on evidence. By this measure, she said, the attempt by the last Labour Government to extend detention without charge first to 90 days and then to 42 days, was wrong: “The politics of security had become more important than the evidence.” She also said Labour had also failed to stop the powers granted within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) from being abused by local authorities, and that they should have done something to mitigate the effect on ethnic minorities of the stop-and-search laws.
Cooper praised the current Government for trying to fix RIPA and the stop-and-search problems, but criticised them for introducing new laws without proper checks-and-balances on state power. She cited the recent Communications Data Bill (a.k.a. The Snoopers’ Charter) and the appalling new secret courts as examples of this. Continue reading
Over on Medium, I have posted a short satire on the PRISM programme:
When he arrived, my agency source was out of breath. He had clearly been running to make our appointment.
“Busy day at the office?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the river.
“You have no idea,” he panted, as he slumped onto the other end of the bench.
I dropped the newspaper into the space between us, and slid it towards him. Edward Snowden’s righteous face blinked out from the front page.
“He looks like something out of one of those vampire movies for girls” said my contact.
I ignored the diversion and got straight to the point.“Why didn’t you tell me?”
The conventional wisdom is that Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 is an apologia for torture, a cultural product of America’s post 9/11 crisis of confidence. It is produced by Fox, a media outlet not known for its liberal bias1.
Every week the show presents a new ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma for Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer. These scenarios properly belong in a university Ethics 101 seminar, not real life. Would you kill one person to save a hundred? Is torture justified if it yields information that saves lives? In Bauer’s world, the answer would always appear to be ‘yes’. He consistently chooses the path that saves more Americans in the aggregate, regardless of the law. And when he does so, he prevails. The people he tortures are always guilty and the confessions he extracts always yield useful information.
This is a 180° reversal of real life, of course. But by promoting the idea that the abolition of due process can be effective, 24 is propaganda for the abandonment of law and decency that characterised the Bush/Cheney administration. 24 skews public debate on such issues.
However, I have just watched Season 7. This block of episodes has a very different feel to the previous seasons. Terrorists still attack passenger aeroplanes, launch WMD, and attempt to assassinate the President. And Jack Bauer foils their plans on an hourly basis. However, this time the action has moved from decadent, decaying Los Angeles to Washington DC. This proximity to the institutions of State clearly inspire the supporting characters. As the action unfolds, Bauer is consistently harangued and brow-beaten over his actions by the people around him. FBI Special Agent Reneé Walker tries to play along with Bauer’s unconventional approach, and finds she does not have the stomach for it. Special Agent Larry Moss says “the rules are what make us better.” Back at the FBI HQ, the analysts complain about racially profiling suspects. In a key scene with a liberal Senator, Bauer is forced to entertain the notion that it is the rule of law that makes America, and that sometimes upholding The Constitution should take priority over saving lives. By the end of the series, Jack has accepted this argument.
Meanwhile, in the White House, POTUS Allison Taylor puts the responsibilities of her office over the unity of her family in a most dramatic fashion, following her head not her heart. The situations that she and Bauer encounter are no less preposterous than anything in the previous seasons… But at least in Series 7 the characters give proper weight to the importance of the law as they make their decisions.
24 Season 7 was made in 2008. You can tell it is the product of a different political wind. In an overt attempt to redeem itself after many years promoting a Manichean worldview, this series ensures that every Muslim character is wholly noble. As Bauer lies critically ill in a hospital bed, he even summons an Imam for spiritual guidance.
It is a shame that 24 took so long to put forward the view that it is the law that is at the heart of the American Way. It is a shame that it took the producers six seasons before they remembered that United States Presidents take an oath to defend the Constitution, not the people. Jack Bauer’s torturing ways are themselves an attack on American ideals, and it is a shame that this is only called out in Season 7.
But hey – at least the series does, finally, make that conceptual connection. Just as Jack Bauer repents his sins to the Imam, so 24 Season 7 feels like it too is asking for forgiveness.
Does the show deserve absolution? That all depends how Season 8 unfolds, and I haven’t watched that yet.
(Les på norsk). There was an interesting piece on the radio this morning on how Norwegian attitudes to immigration have changed, since the Utøya Massacre last year. Apparently people have become more proud of being Norwegian, but also more accepting of immigration. This is the polar opposite of the cultural war that Anders Bering Breivik hoped to ignite when he committed his atrocities.
I would say that Norway has also ‘won’ in the sense that it has not compromised on its principles or the rule-of-law in its response to the terrorists. Breivik’s 21 year prison sentence seems ridiculously lenient to me… but it is the maximum allowed by Norwegian law, and they have stuck to it. It is admirable and noteworthy that the legal system has withstood such a traumatic shock. What is it about Norwegian culture that they were able to resist the shrill call that “something must be done”?
Compare this to the knee-jerk responses in the USA and the UK. More than a decade after the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, America still imprisons foreign nationals without trial in Guantánamo Bay. Here in the UK Parliament settled on 42 days detention without charge for terror suspects. Both countries allowed panic and fear to set policies that removed civil liberties. We should have been more like Norway, and stood firmer.
Plenty of Sharp-bait in the media this morning. David Cameron will give a speech today criticising the European Court of Human Rights, for going against the laws and judicial decisions of Council of Europe countries.
I’ve argued before, in a post on paedos and prisoners, that in the human rights framework, a judgement that frustrates the populist sentiment is a feature, not a bug. The case of Abu Qatada is cited as an example of a problem, but I see it as the system working well. The man (odious as he may be) hasn’t had a proper trial, and the European Court pointed this out. What’s wrong with that?
The response from the reactionaries is “he doesn’t deserve a fair trial”. This implies a two-tier system of liberty and justice, an Us-and-Them approach which eventually dehumanises certain groups. We need an effective justice and security system to provide some protection against violence and extremism. But it has to apply a consistent set of rules and procedures if it ismto woeffort perky. And we also need an external court of human rights, to protect us from the careless elements in our own society, who are happy to dispense with due process whenever it is not to their taste. it’s a shame that our Prime Minister is pandering to these “careless elements” and I hope the other party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, do not follow suit.