Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Why is the UK media so silent about the mass surveillance programmes revealed in Edward Snowden's NSA Leaks?

When I first heard about the NSA/GCHQ snooping revelations, my initial thought was: "Well duh."

Truth be told, I would have been deeply surprised if our intelligence agencies hadn't been intercepting our online communications on the flimsiest of subtexts. Nevertheless, it's always slightly alarming to have your worst suspicions confirmed.

While the Guardian's revelations seem set to keep on coming - the most recent story revealing that the US has been carrying out a large-scale bugging campaign at the embassies of its European allies - it's noteworthy that many other British media outlets seem surprisingly unwilling to report on the content of Snowden's leaks.

The central story - the creation of a mass surveillance machine by our largely unaccountable intelligence agencies, which is being used to indiscriminately cull personal data - seems to have been entirely bypassed by many publications, who are instead directing their focus on Snowden's globe-trotting attempt to find asylum abroad. I say "surprisingly unwilling", but in many ways the lukewarm response from most of the mainstream media is entirely to be expected.

So, why are the British press largely keeping Snowden's leaks at arm's length? It's impossible to give a comprehensive answer to this question, but here are a few suggestions.

1. Because the intelligence services told them to?
In case you think this sounds like the talk of a swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist, have a read of this story. The day after the NSA's PRISM programme was revealed, the Ministry of Defence issued a DA (Defence Advisory) Notice - often referred to as just a D-Notice - to try and limit the fallout from the Snowden revelations.

The entirely voluntary DA-Notice system is intended, as the official website clearly states:
to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations and methods, or put at risk the safety of those involved in such operations, or lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure and/or endanger lives.
Obviously the D-Notice system serves a useful purpose, as no journalist in their right mind would want to pen anything that presents a credible threat to national security or puts lives at risk. However, if you read the notice (as leaked by the blogger Guido Fawkes), it's not hard to see how it could have a chilling effect on journalists and serve to shut down further debate and discussion of the issues raised by the leaks.

2. Because it's not really that big a story?
Speaking on Radio 4's The Media Show last week, Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover suggested a couple of reasons for the minimal column inches given over to Snowden's revelations. The main thrust of his argument was that the Guardian had "overblown" the importance of these leaks, a point he attempted to make by focusing on their story about British intelligence spying on our allies at the G20.

True, the idea that nation states' intelligence services spy on one another, even on their allies, does not come as a great surprise. However, if the construction of a global dragnet surveillance system is not a big story, I'd dearly love to know what is.

3. Because the media are still unsure about the narrative surrounding these leaks
This was Glover's other claim, and one which I wholeheartedly agree with. Is Edward Snowden a "goodie"  (giving up a $122,000 a year salary and a home in Hawaii to expose mass snooping by our intelligence services) or a "baddie" (recklessly revealing intelligence secrets and endangering innocent lives)?

The press, in particular the tabloids, like black-and-white morality tales, not shades of grey.

4. Because most of the media don't have access to the main source
If there's one thing sure to leave a journalist disgruntled, it's lack of access. If there's one thing guaranteed to send a journalist apoplectic, it's being scooped. While news organisations are normally happy to crib stories from their competitors, the fact that Snowden chose to work almost exclusively with the Guardian and the Washington Post is part of what drives the spite behind stories like the New York Daily News's attempted smear piece on journalist Glenn Greenwald.

5. Because it challenges official sources
Yes, some UK news titles are owned by proprietors or run by editors whose political stance prohibits active questioning of the intelligence services. But, perhaps more depressingly, there's an awful lots of journalists who are deeply impressed by power, despite it being their job to interrogate it.

6. Because it's a complex story, and hence time intensive and less easily digestible
This is a consideration that far too many people overlook. PM, the BBC's flagship evening radio news programme, ran with the Snowden story on Tuesday evening. The item began with a lightning-quick round-up of the programmes Snowden had exposed, before devoting a good 15-20 minutes to Snowden's attempts to negotiate asylum.

The focus on the man is in some ways entirely understandable - it adds a strong human interest angle to what is otherwise a very complex, detail-heavy story - but there's no doubt that it moves the spotlight away from privacy abuses and a real analysis of the implications of Snowden's revelations.

While the lack of coverage can feel maddening at times, there's no doubt that the NSA leaks have encouraged a vast number of people to start taking their online privacy seriously. Take, for example, the huge popularity of the PRISM Break website, which provides web users with a list of companies who are not currently part of the NSA's PRISM program. It's also worth pointing out that media outlets, like political parties, often follow rather than lead on an issue. If concern about online surveillance reaches a tipping point among their readers, you can guarantee there will be a whole lot more articles about it in the future.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Left needs to stop parroting the terminology of the Right. Talk of "welfare" only fuels the scrounger myth - it's time to go back to "social security"

I've been planning for a few weeks to write about the change in the language used to describe people who claim benefits - a resolve hardened after seeing the much-shared Daily Mail front page pronouncing Mick Philpott, convicted of manslaughter following the death of six of his children, a "vile product of welfare UK".

Once my spluttering rage at the grotesque inappropriateness of equating an extreme criminal act with claiming benefits had subsided and I'd wiped my spittle-flecked monitor clean, I started to pay closer attention to the headline's wording. One word clearly took centre stage: welfare, a term known once upon a time as "social security".

Then, quite by accident, I stumbled across this excellent article by Labour peer Ruth Lister, chairman of the left-wing Compass group. Lister charts brilliantly why this change in language matters. If social security suggests a safety net to stop citizens falling through the cracks, then welfare, used as a noun, is easily associated in the minds of the public with what she calls:
a stigmatised US-style residual form of poor relief. It is all the more stigmatising because of the constant coupling with "dependency", so that in many people's eyes receipt of social security is now equated with a "dependency culture" that research does not in fact substantiate.
With the scrounger myth continuing to exert a strong hold over tabloids and public alike, it's ever-more important that the Left chooses its words carefully. In other words, it's time to stop borrowing the Right's terminology. Let's bid farewell to welfare and "benefits" (the latter carrying a vague suggestion of luxury rather than entitlement) and say hello to good old social security.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Most politicians have no idea how the less well-off live. They should be forced to find out if they want to remain our elected representatives.

In Thomas More's Utopia, a strange sixteenth century mix of fiction and political philosophy, the author floats an intriguing idea: that anyone who seeks political power should automatically be disqualified from holding it.

While that might be taking things too far - after all, we don't want to press-gang people into public office against their will - we should give serious consideration to the question: why do people choose go into politics?

For large swathes of the general public, the answer to this would be because they are all self-serving individuals out to feather their own nests. Personally I think that's overly glib and cynical, and not a view borne out by the politicians I've met in person. I'm still naive/gullible/stupid enough to believe that the majority of politicians enter politics out of a genuine desire to make a difference, but to succeed that needs to supplemented with a large dose of personal ambition.

There's also no question that the last few decades have seen the professionalisation of politics and the rise of a distinct "political class". If More's criteria were applied today, the House of Commons would be entirely empty. As the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out in a recent column:
In 1979, 40% of Labour MPs came from a manual occupation; according to analysis by the Smith Institute that is now down to 9%. Just 4% of all representatives in the Commons can claim a background in a manual occupation, which is roughly the same proportion as went to Eton.
Over one in four of all Tory MPs were previously employed in finance; more parliamentarians came from jobs in politics than from health, teaching, the army, agriculture and voluntary services put together. With his frictionless ascent from thinktanks to backroom Labour politics to the cabinet, David Miliband is typical of the gilded class who masquerade as our delegates in Westminster.
But while it's perhaps perverse to ban those who want to do the job, it's not unfair to say that, as a bare minimum, our political representatives should know how their constituents live and a degree of empathy for those living in less fortunate circumstances than themselves.

Fast forward then to Iain Duncan Smith. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions experienced what many pundits referred to as his "Marie Antoinette moment" this week by claiming during an interview with the Today programme that he could live on £53 a week "if I had to". A hastily drawn-up petition asking him to do just that has currently amassed almost a quarter of a million signatures.

Yes, there is something unseemly about a Cabinet minister on £134,565 claiming he would have no problem getting by on a fraction on that. But what was more disturbing about IDS's dismissiveness was that he is one of the most knowledgeable Tory ministers when it comes to the reality of social deprivation. His issue is not that he is unaware of how people live, but that he lacks the empathy to put himself in their shoes. For the former Tory leader, the impoverished are simply not aspiring and striving hard enough.

Empathy has become a vogue subject in academia over the past couple of years but it's something that large swathes of professional politicians - and not just on the Tory benches - completely lack. Last November, Lord Freud, the government's welfare reform minister, launched a scathing attack on
the incapacity benefits, the lone parents, the people who are self-employed for year after year and only earn hundreds of pounds or a few thousand pounds, the people waiting for their work ability assessment then not going to it
When it was suggested that his background - Oxford, Financial Times journalist, investment banker, Tory peer - might prevent him from fully grasping what life was like for those living on benefits, the peer's reply was instructive: 
You don't have to be the corpse to go to the funeral, which is the implied criticism there.
Which is, of course, true. The idea that's it's necessary to have experienced something directly to understand it is the worst of all postmodern fallacies. I haven't personally been caught up in an extreme weather event, but that didn't prevent me feeling sympathy for people who lost their lives and homes in Hurricane Sandy.

There are, though, limits to this principle. In order to empathise, you have to at least make the effort to imagine your way into another person's situation. It's worth pointing out that Lord Freud has never actually been an elected  representative, which means he's never had to trundle round an estate or a tower block canvassing support from people who live there. Instead he's known the Oxford quad, the newsroom, the plush banking headquarters and now the Lords. It's hardly surprising he's not got a handle on the lives of those in Britain's low-income households.

So I'd like to propose that all Britain's political representatives spend a week living on benefits before they take office. This is not a new idea. In 1984 writer Matthew Paris, then a Tory MP, spent a week attempting to live on the benefits paid to an unemployed worker in Newcastle. He failed miserably. In 2003 Michael Portillo starred in the BBC documentary When Michael Portillo Became A Single Mum documentary (clips available to watch here). He emerged a seemingly changed man, somewhat chastened by his experience. More recently Austin Mitchell, Mark Oaten, Tim Loughton and Nadine Dorries featured in Tower Block of Commons.

You might think this all sounds like a colossal waste of time. Haven't MPs got more pressing things to worry about? My answer would be an unequivocal no. Empathy is an absolutely crucial part of the political picture. Take the Coalition's spending cuts. Without that empathy they are just a policy. It isn't until you seem the damage they have wrought up close that the human element begins to loom into focus.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Ugly business neologisms of the day #1: "Onboarding"

Welcome, dear reader, to the first in a new series.

One of the English language's great strengths is it's adaptability, the sense that it is constantly shifting and evolving, borrowing words from other languages, fusing words, their meanings altered as they are adopted by new subgroups of speakers. Most of the time this is evidence of the vitality of the language, something celebrated by writers from Shakespeare to Joyce to Walcott. 

And then there's the world of business, where words and phrases are created in order to lend an air of gravitas to concepts that would be easily-graspable by your average six-year-old. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you...

Ugly business neologism #1: Onboarding
Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviours to become effective organizational members and insiders. Tactics used in this process include formal meetings, lectures, videos, printed materials, or computer-based orientations to introduce newcomers to their new jobs and organizations.
Example usage: "He spent a week with us at corporate so we could quickly onboard him into the company culture."

Just no.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Media organisations relying on unpaid content reinforces elitism. So should journalists refuse to write for free, or is it a necessary evil?

Should journalists ever write for free? It's a knotty question.

Freelance journalist Nate Thayer sparked an intense debate this week when he published an email thread between him and the global editor of The Atlantic asking if he'd be interested in "repurposing" one of his recent stories for their website. All in all, it sounded like a relatively cushty commission. The catch? She wanted him to do it for free. 

I think we can all agree that a for-profit news organisation asking a veteran journo to provide free copy on the basis that it will boost their exposure ("We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month") displays a fairly staggering level of cheek. But how about lesser-known writers?

My gut response is that if we want high-standard content, we need to pay for it. Yes, it's possible to quickly churn out a blog or a reaction piece to unfolding events, but in-depth journalism takes time and research. And relying on free content, as with unpaid internships, means journalism is only accessible to those with a financial safety net. As Gawker's Cord Jefferson put it:
These people are right to be concerned about the homogeneity of media, a problem that worries me as well.
But it's then incumbent upon all of us to recognize that this is the culture we breed when we offer to pay writers nothing or next to nothing, thereby immediately eliminating anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads.
In other words, porfessional journalism becomes largely the preserve of the well-off. That said, I do think there are some occasions when it's okay as to write without expectation of payment, which I'd broadly summarise as:

  • When you're writing for your own personal satisfaction or to air your own views (this blog would be an example). 
  • When you're writing on a specialised or arcane topic that you're passionate about but there isn't really any money in. This could include writing for a non-profit alt periodical, or one with no freelance budget.
  • When the exposure - for example having a piece published by a well-known news organisation - is genuinely going to add to your CV and increase the chances of having work published by other sites. 

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Google glasses: just another cool accessory, or the first step towards a sinister, tech-driven dystopia?

The evil masterminds at Google have just released a new video showcasing their Google Glass project.

All of a sudden the last episode of season one of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is looking less like a dystopian nightmare, and more like a particularly prescient episode of the Gadget Show...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Amid all the rejoicing about the passage of the gay marriage bill through the Commons, shouldn't we spare a thought for the rights of bigots?

As MPs debated the gay marriage bill today, the above tweet caught my eye.

The bill passed through the Commons by 400 votes to 175, a majority of 225 which should be enough to get it through the Lords this year.

However, there have already been mutterings from MPs such as Matthew Offord, the Conservative member for Hendon, that this represents a slippery slope which could lead to marriage being redefined to include polygamy. And picture the old school Tory constituency party members across the country fretting that this will inevitably lead to people being able to marry their pets or inanimate objects like their bannister. For them, I offer this:

You can read the rest here.