The Corrupt Corporate Culture At the Heart of #Hackgate (Part II)

'Son of Murdoch' by ssoosay on Flickr
‘Son of Murdoch’ by ssoosay on Flickr

The phone hacking scandal is becoming increasingly confusing.  During the debate on the issue today, I confess I became utterly lost by Ed Miliband’s long explanation of the relationships and personalities involved.  David Cameron was able to use phrases like “conspiracy theory” and “tissue of intruige” which brand the scandal as a Westminster fabrication.  John Rentoul is right to say that Cameron’s critics need much simpler language to explain the problem with the Prime Minister’s judgement and relationships.

Labour’s tactic is to doggedly pursue the ‘smoking gun’ of lore: the archived e-mail or the scribbled note that proves that Cameron knew more, and knew it earlier.  At yesterday’s select committee hearings, the questions were pitched to discover similar key facts that could skewer Murdochs R and J.

This is risky in both cases, because such evidence may never emerge.  It is also counter-productive, because on the meantime, both the politicians and media barons get to punt the difficult questions with “let’s wait until the inquiry” or “I don’t want to jeapordise the criminal investigation”.

A narrow fixation on evidence that could further damage the Prime Minister, or ruin Rebakah Brooks, means that the wider issue – polical, police and corporate corruption – is left to fallow.  Rupert Murdoch presided over the expansion of a corporate culture in which the phone-hacking of murder victims and other obscenities were the inevitable end result.  Whatever he knew and whenever he was told, he is at fault, he is to blame.  Meanwhile, David Cameron’s first act as Prime Minister was to employ someone who he knew had come straight from that morally barren Hades.  There may not be a smoking gun, but you can almost see the steam coming off this scandal.

The Problem of Verification

Jalena Lecic, whose photos were stolen and posted on the 'Gay Girl In Damascus' site
Jalena Lecic, whos photos were stolen and posted on the ‘Gay Girl In Damascus’ site

Angela Philips of Goldsmiths College, at last Friday’s POLIS conference:

A Major skill for journalists is to learn how to authenticate sources

Or, words to that effect! I made the note on twitter and therefore may have paraphrased. To fully authenticate the quote readers will have to watch the video of the session when it becomes available.

This quote stuck out, because twice in two weeks, I’ve been quick to share information online which has then been questioned and discredited.

The first was the damning testimony of an “executive of Sony Music UK” who described how Simon Cowell grooms and sexualises young performers, in his quest to find a British Justin Beiber.

Ronan was privately auditioned by SYCO scouts on two more occasions and, as is usual practice on BGT, he was “invited”  to audition for the show as a “preferred” contestant.  At the same time, Ronan and his parents were “required” to enter into a contract with SYCO.  Like all SYCO contracts, it is heavily  weighted in favour of the label and are notoriously bad, even in the cut-throat world of the music industry.  Simon effectively signed Ronan for life and he’s got little or no chance of ever  getting out of it…unless Simon decides to terminate.

Now the improbable perfection of little Ronan Parke has always made me feel uneasy, so I was quick to share the story on my Facebook page.  However, the original post quickly disappeared from the website where it was posted and Simon Cowell issued such a strong denial over matters of fact that I felt it rendered the accusatory, anonymous post unreliable.  The following day, James Ward posted an excellent analysis of how the attack was propagated by a twitter account @ukLegion, which has also now disappeared from Twitter.  I shared James’ link on Facebook too.

#include damage.h

An industry insider at #BGT spills his guts on how this year has been totally stiched up for Ronan Parke to win

Earlier this week, reports emerged of the abduction of a Syrian blogger in Damascus.  I duly tweeted out the links on the @englishpen feed, because that is precisely the sort of information we are supposed to share.  However, by Thursday it emerged that no-one can be found who has actually physically met the blogger, Amina Abdallah Arraf.  It appears the photos posted on her site are fake, but it is not clear whether the entire thing is an elaborate hoax, or whether she has cleverly covered her tracks by ensuring that if no-one has met her, no-one can unwittingly betray her.  I was reminded of the Ali Abduleman disappearance in Bahrain in March – I am still not clear whether he was abducted by security personnel, or has simply gone into hiding.

I have several things to say about this.  The first is that linking to hoax information is clearly embarrassing, no two ways about it.  Here’s my worst example, although to be fair it was reminiscent of a real story.  As the Literally Unbelievable blog shows with its comments on The Onion articles, other people are much more gullible than I.

The second thing is to say that, nevertheless, the internet can work as a sort of fact-check engine.  The act of sharing a link does not and should not imply complete endorsement.  In the case of the SyCo smear I, at least, was quick to share the original article and the rebuttals.  In this example, one could say that the act of posting/sharing is also an act of verification.  When you publicise some text, does it stand up to scrutiny?  If not, you have learned a fact about the world, which you also publish.  This method is something that bloggers understand innately.  However, in formal journalistic and legal circles such a practice would still be lumped in with ‘publish and be damned’ as irresponsible journalism.  But it is more akin to open-source fact-checking.

I will also say that internet publishing has the huge advantage over print in that it allows corrections to the original article.  In the case of Amina Abdallah Arraf, the three highly reputable news organisations I linked to (Al Jazeera, the New York Times and the Washington Post) were all able to correct the original article.  This, I think, lessens the possibility of misinformation spreading.

Finally, this issue puts me in the mind of Ste Curran’s Monica, a play about a fantastic and witty online friend who turns out not to be real.

Unfinished Business

Both my regular readers will remember I sometimes post short pieces of creative writing on the site. The last two have featured a blogging sleuth, Ebeneezer. I have another Ebeneezer story in the works, based on the Infininte Monkey theorem and this cartoon from XKCD.

The story begins by talking about earthquakes and has a sizeable portion of it devoted to a bombing in Jerusalem.  So, given events in Japan and Israel, one might think that now is either the most appropriate, or least appropriate time to post it.

This is an academic question, however, as the story isn’t finished, and has not been ever since I started typing it about five years ago.  This horrible thought in turn makes me realise just how many creative and personal projects I have started but failed to finish. They include:

And none of these take into account the work-centred To Do lists I have set up on Vo02Do, Remember the Milk and Wunderlist.

All this makes me acutely aware of the fact that Dr Belbin would call me a Plant or Resource Investigator, not a Completer Finisher.  Let’s hope that this post motivates me to finish some of the things I’ve started.

Radio Litopia: A Town Named Sue

The Litopia online writers colony broadcasts several weekly podcasts on various aspects of writing and literature.  I was invited onto the Debriefer show, presented by Donna Ballman, to discuss the pressing issue of libel reform.

You can listen to my dulcit tones right here.  If it leaves you inspired, you can always head over to to find out how you can help the campaign.

Royal Courts of Justice. Photo by Yrstrly off of Flicker.
Royal Courts of Justice. Photo by Yrstrly off of Flicker.



Time again to plug the upwardly mobile Edinburgh tinkers/tinklers, FOUND. Their new album is entitled Factorycraft and is launched on 14th March by the extremely respectable Glasgow label Chemikal Underground. Here’s a short trailer for the album, put together by Adam Proctor. Its an aesthetic not unlike videos we have previously admired on this blog.

FOUND, you will recall, sold music to fund their trip to the SXSW festival, and created the marvellous yet moody steampunk musician, Cybraphon. They’re playing at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on 3rd March, and Dingwalls in London on 7th March.  Yrstrly has some small psychological stake in their success, having helped create an earlier music promo ‘Static 68‘ while I worked at Fifty Nine Productions.

Right, that's it, I'm disabling Postalicious

Housekeeping: I’m fed up with the 500 Internal Server Error Messages that keep being generated, and I know others are too. I am not sure whether it is the API or the postalicious plugin itself that is at fault. Since Yahoo is trying to ‘sunset‘ I am guessing the former is more likely.

But until I work it out for sure, I shall have to disable it the regular posting of links.  These automatically generated posts with no useful content are ruining what little credibility I have.

Farringdon Lane Docking Station

Right then:  I’ve made a tentative foray into the world of webtools for urban living: The Farringdon Lane Docking Station on Twitter.  Now I need help making it better.

There’s a long established trend of inanimate objects being on Twitter, including Tower Bridge and The River Thames.  In both cases, they update people on crucial aspects of their current status: for example, is the tide in or out? I felt it was time this particular bike rack joined the service – as a keen user of Boris Bikes (an ironic moniker given they were commissioned by Ken Livingstone) I often need to check the status of the rack outside the Free Word Centre (where I work).

The Farringdon Lane Docking Station is a popular rack, one that is usually either (a) completely full with no space to park a bike, or (b) completely empty with no cycles available to use.  For that reason, I often find myself trying to check the status of the racks online or on the move.  Unfortunately, the workflow required is relatively difficult, involving several steps through the website or iPhone apps like Fliplab’s London Cycle.  This actually takes a fair few frustrating minutes via a 3G connection, which is no good when I am in a hurry and keen to make a quick decision about whether to take a tube train or a bike.

I thought I could solve this by creating a twitter account that automatically updates itself, whenever the status of the dock changes.  That way, whenever I think I may need a bike, I can simply fire-up my twitter application of choice and look at the latest status of the docking station.  I don’t have to load unnecessary information about the status of every other docking station.

Unfortunately, my coding skills are minimal and limited to simple PHP.  I don’t have the wherewithal to pull data from the London Cycle Hire site using their API.  I solved this by making a customised RSS feed using the Feed43 (Feed for free) service.  This scrapes the cycle hire map page (which has the status of all the bike racks embedded into it).  Then I used Twitterfeed to post the results into a customised twitter account.  The results are below:

The problem with my system should be obvious!  If the chain of data was linked together properly, then we should be able to see every single change in status, not a huge jump from 16|0 to 8|8.  This is clearly happening because both Feed43 and Twitterfeed pull data a long but regular intervals, not on a second-by-second or minute-by-minute basis.  This is useless for my purposes.  How can I improve it?

A Criticism of Wikileaks

This blog has been saturated with Wikileaks commentary recently (one, two, three, four in a row).  Allow me one more on the basis that it adds a dash of caution to the Kool-Aid.

Reading various commentaries about the Wikileaks and its #Cablegate releases, I think a balanced consensus is emerging around the publication of Government information.  Everyone agrees that the near-mythical “launch codes” should be kept secret (although how one would actually go about launching a nuclear weapon if one did have the codes is never explained).  Back in the realm of the possible, examples such as the identities of Iraqi and Afghan translators working for Nato forces are obvious no-nos.  The risk of harm is obvious and the possible chain of events that might lead to someone coming to harm is quite direct.  But when government policies, attitudes and diplomacy is concerned, there seems to be a feeling that The People’s Right To Know outweighs any tangental negative effects it might have on the governing class.  Administration embarrassment is not a genuine national security issue.  For the most part, Wikileaks seems to be adhering to similar principles, and many of the leaked cables are indeed gossip and opinion.  Not facts that can be turned into weapons.  It seems the journalists covering the publication for Wikileaks media partners (for example, the Guardian) have taken care to self-censor when National Security is genuinely at stake.

One example from a few days ago stands out, that of the list of facilities crucial to US National security.  It lists pipelines, chemical labs and undersea fibre-optic stations that, if attacked, would cause major problems for the US economy and wellbeing of its citizens.

The cable is listed as secret, but a defender of freedom of information might point out that the information it contains is available elsewhere.  It does not take a Pentagon analyst to work out that the major pipelines are critical pieces of infrastructure, as are cable landing points.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of the economics and history of medicine would already know that a facilities that manufactures insulin and vaccines are important establishment for all humanity.

However, let us remind ourselves of a blogpost at Minority Report on the subject of anonymity (which I enjoy referring to from time to time):

Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.

I think this same thought could apply to the secrecy of government information, too.  Sure, any old terrorist cell, given Google and a couple of live minds, could come up with a similar list of mission-critical targets for attack.  If they stumbled accross Neal Stephenson’s masterful long-form report on the FLAG-project, they would know exactly where to find fibre-optic landing stations on any continent – Stephenson, ever the geek, includes precise GPS locations as his chapter headings! But crucially, these searches will take a little time.  You do need to do some thinking and some searching, which takes a lot of man-hours.  And (to paraphrase David, above) in that gap, that grace-period, may be where our national security lies.

This is, for me, the strongest argument I can think of against the Free Information Fundamentalism preached by Wikileaks.  But even then, this only counsels against the disclosure of some very specific types of information, not the wholesale immorality of the project.

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