Archive for the 'People with funny ideas of liberty…' Category

Depressingly predictable

The Ahmedinejad Christmas speech caused ‘international offence‘. Granted, he’s not the most tolerant man in the world when it comes to certain sections of society but then neither’s the Pope, and nobody’s stopped him broadcasting his message on Christmas Day.

Funnily enough, those who’ve said this is a cynical grab for ratings probably reckon without the British public’s desire to watch ballroom dancing or Coronation Street as opposed to a somewhat nutty president of a Middle Eastern country.

If it’s been said once it’s been said x number of times, where x probably stands for any number you want it to. Creating a big hoo-hah will give it more publicity than just the initial number of viewers would have done.

You may not agree with him. I don’t. But then I don’t write in and complain every time something I’m not a fan of comes on the TV. Rather than jumping up and down and shouting “Ban it. I don’t like him. Not fair!” why doesn’t somebody actually fire back with a few witty reposites that neatly take apart his arguments. Just a thought, like.

And, as Tim W says, “you’d be hard put to find any Church of England bishop who would disagree with what is said (rather than the man who is saying it or his attitudes or actions outside this particular statement).”

Final word: Sunny from Pickled Politics, who I don’t normally agree with:

“I don’t burn a candle for Ahmedinejad – he is clearly a tyrant and a racist. But there’s two fronts on which I find arguments against this C4 stunt a bit hypocritical.

1) The first is this threat that Channel 4’s funding should be cut or curtailed because of this. BBC News reports:

Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, a member of the all-party media group, said: “Channel Four has given a platform to a man who wants to annihilate Israel and continues to persecute Christians at Christmas time. “This raises serious questions about whether Channel 4 should receive an increased public subsidy for their programmes.”

Criticise Channel 4 all you like, but I find it fundamentally undemocratic that a broadcaster should be threatened financially for doing things the majority don’t like.

I thought these people wanted free speech? After all, MA isn’t saying anything racially inflammatory this time. Should I be burning my license fee in protest everytime the BBC invite Nick Griffin on television?”

Peace on earth and goodwill to all men and all that.

In other news, I got a recipe book for over 400 soups for Christmas. That’s far more exciting.

Hope everybody’s had a safe, happy Christmas. Normal service about where the media’s going and all that jazz, plus a few odds and sods on football teams you’ve never heard of, resumes later.


Take Jane

Normally politics makes me depressed and / or angry. And ID cards moreso than most other political gubbins.

But this viral that No2ID have produced is powerful, frightening and so easily close to being a reality. It makes its point well without resorting to going over the top, and neatly counters the “if you’ve done nothing wrong then you’ve nothing to fear” argument.

ID cards scare me, especially given the government’s record in data retention and civil liberties. And the public discourse around them has been rubbish, frankly. Hopefully one day MPs will realise that Minority Report and 1984 were meant to be fictional visions of a dystopian future, not a training manual.

I don’t hold out much hope.

*scurries back to t’interweb to talk more about blogging and Twitter and journalism*

Hazel, have you seen what’s happening over the pond?

Just as stopped clocks tell the correct time twice a day, so a politician occasionally makes a valid point without perhaps realising it, often because it’s difficult to distinguish from the rest of the words that tumble from the mouth and make little sense.

Hazel Blears’ speech on blogging and the internet is a prime example of a politician just simply not getting how social media works, but there’s also a couple of interesting points in there. We’ll come to those later, but chief amongst the proclamations is this gem:

“But mostly, political blogs are written by people with disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

“Until political blogging ‘adds value’ to our political culture, by allowing new voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.”

Christ alone knows exactly what she’s on about here when she talks about ‘adding value’. Blogs that are on message? That agree with the government line? That don’t insult politicians?

Maybe I’ve missed the point, but I always thought blogging allowed new voices (anybody can start a blog and get involved), new ideas, legitimate protest and challenge. I thought that was blogging in a nutshell, and one of the joys about it – that it encouraged new ideas, and developed those ideas through comment and discussion.

If you’re interested in politics, you can still start a blog even if you’ve got no connection to any political party or come from a particularly political background. Which, given that she’s also trying to get more people from outside the political class involved in politics (one thing I do agree with her on), you’d have thought would be an ideal place to start to look to re-engage a cynical public.

As for the cynicism and despair, then perhaps Blears best look closer to home. It’s difficult not to be cynical and despair of large swathes of what this government does. Not that either of the other two parties seem a great deal better, but the cynicism, despair and malaise set in long ago. Blogs mainly reflect that. If blogging had been around on a large scale back in 1997, it would have been no surprise if an outgoing Tory minister had uttered similar words.

She does, however, raise an interesting point when she says:

“Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?”

It’s not a completely daft hypothesis, even if the main blogs she mentions – Gudio, Iain Dale, etc – are hardly representative of all political blogs. They just happen to be the ones that, rightly or wrongly, get the most mentions in the mainstream media.

There’s also plenty of left-leaning blogs who are also fed up with this government, as Unity points out:

“It’s all very well flagging up that its only around half a dozen right-wing blogs, at most, who’ve been putting up the big traffic numbers and suggesting that this is ’simply anti-establishment’ and due to blogging having emerged only during the period in which Labour has been in office, but if that’s what she’s thinking then how does she account for the fact that most of the leading liberal and left-wing blogs are equally anti-establishment across a range of key issues from Iraq through to the government’s near-constant assaults on civil liberties and the systematic construction of the database state.

The problem that the current government has isn’t that there’s a general lack of popular or influential left-of-centre blogs, its that its policies on Iraq, etc. cost it the support of the vast majority of major players in the left-of-centre blogosphere, most of whom are at least semi-detached from the Labour Party if not operating fully within a broad ‘independent left’ category.”

It’s telling that when you compare the attitude of British politicians to the internet with their American counterparts, we come across as a lot less enlightened. Hell, a large part of Barack Obama’ success was built on the fact he managed to mobilise support online across the country:

“You know the executives that balk at implementing social media campaigns, well Barack Obama and John McCain showed that social media is no passing fad. Both candidates embraced blogs, social networks and Web video


The Obama campaign created a social network, MyBarackObama, on its official Web site. Members of that network at times criticized the candidate over his various positions.”

So while Obama, and the 72-year-old John McCain were busy getting their message out online, listening to their core support and, if necessary, modifying policies, this government is busy looking for more ways to regulate the internet and follow every part of our lives online.

Is it any wonder that this country is a bit disillusioned with politics, especially online, when it can look across at America and see how politicians are actually trying to engage with voters? As I’ve said, had this been 1997, there’s a good chance we could have been seeing a similar reaction to Tony Blair as we have to Barack Obama.

Tom Watson’s mentioned in the article. Although I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of his politics, I do wish his own party would look at what he’s doing online and even consult him occasionally on any policies towards the internet, as he’s one of the (sadly) very few MPs who seem to remotely get social media.

Terrorising Twitter

Pesky things, terrorists. They have a habit of misappropriating everyday useful objects like cars, rucksacks and fertiliser for their own nefarious means and now, if a report from the US Army is to be believed, they’ve now added Twitter to that list.

The story, which circulated earlier in the week, brought a predictable amount of sarcasm from Twitter users (or at least the ones on my stream). It’s quite possible they use Twitter – and Facebook and MySpace and other social media communities.

But, especially with Twitter, even with locked updates, they’re hardly the most secure of sites to if you’re planning another 9/11. Given that marketing and PR professionals are pretty good at trawling these kind of sites for relevant users, you’d like to think it isn’t beyond the police force to do the same.

But what’s worrying isn’t necessarily the thought that Twitter could be used to blow us up (and I’m sure they’ve got plenty of other methods of communication that a microblogging service used by geeks, PRs and early adopters). No, it’s the fact that we’re seeing a lot more of these kind of stories just as the government is making ever more frequent noises about internet regulation.

Much of the coverage is fairly unquestioning – possibly because it ticks a couple of fashionable news angles, in fear and an emerging new fad. But a lot of it is built on pure speculation. Take these paragraphs from the BBC article [1]:

“A chapter on Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter notes that first reports of the Los Angeles earthquake in July appeared on the service before established news outlets.

And the relevance of this is?

“Terrorists could theoretically use Twitter social networking in the US as an operational tool.”

Indeed they could. Note use of word theoretically.

“Authorities in both the US and the UK are increasingly worried about the potential for terrorists to use the latest communication technologies including sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and gaming networks.”

And that neatly encapsulates what I’m on about.

There’s no doubt that there are some Very Bad People using the internet – people who it’s a good thing the authorities are monitoring. But – and at this stage it’s difficult to find a decent set of words without somebody going ‘paranoid much?’ – there’s an awful lot of rhetoric flying around about the need for regulation on the internet.

We’ve already had Culture Secretary Andy Burnham call for a debate on regulation, a similar call from Ofcom’s outgoing chief, and plans to tap into pretty much all of our data online.

Quite aside from the fact that trying to regulate the internet – and the noises are sufficiently vague enough to leave little clue as to what form this would take and how they’d go about it, although that’s never normally been a problem for politicians before – is nigh-on impossible, it’s also debatable how much of a public desire there is for it.

So, we’re seeing a set of arguments being deployed that politicians usually bring out in these kind of situations:

1. Terrorists could use it.

2. Won’t somebody think of the children.

And added to this is the slightly vague and new category:

3. People often say nasty things about other people online and we just don’t know who’s saying what.

There are valid point to be had one points one and two, but there’s nothing that our current laws can’t tackle providing the police are given adequate online resources and training.

With point two (ok, yes I know these are vague, somewhat facetious, and cover a multitude of sins), there’s also a discussion to be had about better educating children to be more aware about how they use personal details and conduct relationships online. But it’s debatable how much of a difference regulating, say, social networks would make.

Point three has been covered behind the link, although is largely drivel.

It wouldn’t be a urge surprise to see a trickle of stories highlighting statistics or reports that all back tighter regulation on the internet, and these will no doubt be supplemented by a couple of unfortunate real-life examples (which will make the news precisely because they’re so unusual, rather than be indicative of a larger concern) in order to build a case for greater internet regulation.

When that happens, expect the rest of us to take years to work out exactly what this means and what you’re likely to get prosecuted for or have shut down online (I imagine Devil’s Kitchen would be one of the first to go, given the high level of (funny) abuse directed at politicians.

Ok, perhaps there’s a level of paranoia on my part here, and I’m well aware that many of the arguments made here are somewhat vague and general, plus there’s probably a couple of straw men in the above words.

But this current government has time and again shown a complete willingness to try a regulate and monitor the public to within an inch of our lives while curtailing free speech and civil liberties. It’s not a massive surprise that they’ll move online (and don’t think the other lot will be any better).

Remember, this is a government that once declared that legislation against Brian Haw was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it was worth it because this was one rather large nut [2].

Granted, this government isn’t the US army, but the Twitter and terrorists story felt a lot like scaremongering except with tanks in the virtual world rather than outside Heathrow.

There is a serious, and rational, debate to be had about child protection and/or terrorism online, but simply saying Twitter could be used for terrorists is not it. And politicians tend, in recent years, to prefer to pass more regulation than bother to have a sensible and rational debate.

It’s not a great surprise when I say I’m a big fan of social media, and its potential to help advance communication and democracy and any number of other positive things on a worldwide scale.

Some of it isn’t mainstream, some of it’s confusing to people who don’t understand it, or have been on the receiving end of a flaming early on. But neither of those are reason enough to push restrictive legislation, in whatever form that may take and curtail freedom of speech, expression and sharing of ideas online.

One day, hopefully, we’ll get that debate offline. But in the meantime, expect plenty more dire warnings about child safety and terrorism online [3].

[1] Yes, I’m aware this is from Radio 1 Newsbeat. However, they’re usually pretty good at condensing issues and, because of their audience, often tend to be a bit more insightful than other outlets, partly as the story’s often broken down to its core issues.

[2] And whatever you think about Brian Haw, it’s difficult to deny he’s got a right to protest about whatever he likes in a free country.

[3] This really isn’t to play down both of these issues, but whatever’s decided shouldn’t come at the expense of treating every online user as a potential terrorist, child abuser and general ne’er to do well. Surprisingly enough, we don’t need governments to look after us on here – and given their general track record of keeping our data, you wouldn’t trust them ether. Given the option of being ruled by government or Google, I’d take Google every time.

No, I don’t read it either, but…

From Ken Livinstone’s reader’s Q&A in the Independent:

What was your biggest mistake as Mayor?

All the big decisions we got right. Sadly I didn’t have the power to close the Evening Standard.

I think he’s joking. At least, I like to think he’s joking. I’m not entirely sure.

A bit more on libel and t’interweb

First up, a quick update on the blog post by Kezia Duggdale that was taken down, apparently under threat of legal action.

Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads has usefully put together a bit more of a comprehensive background to the issue and it still doesn’t seem all that clear cut (and certainly very different from the Usmanov case):

“The Daily Record goes on to use further extracts from the letter, but stops short of printing other allegations that are, quite frankly, tangential to the central issue here *and* a matter primarily for the authorities until the moment Noor Hanif turns 18.

If at that stage she still wishes to publish these allegations herself and is unfairly silenced, she will enjoy my complete support. I’ll even help her to build the website.

I am not saying that it is right that a blogger can be conveniently silenced without any actual legal action. At all.

But subsequent warnings issued to newspapers suggest heavily that Jahangir Hanif’s threats are by no means idle, empty or even drunken… and in Usmanov’s case, his lawyers completely bypassed any need to go to court by avoiding authors and instead bullying their UK-based ISPs. Bloggers who then went on to defy Schillings by hosting their response(s) on US-hosted weblogs received nothing more than nuisance-level complaints to that provider. Two of the blogs that have published the Noor letter and removed it are and it would appear that they were at least contacted and challenged directly about their content.

This is, arguably, still a case of a man with money being able to silence someone without the means to defend themselves but the wider matter is clearly far more complicated than that, obviously party-political in nature, and a lonnnng way from being such a clear case of abuse of UK libel law that the author(s) should expect an immediate avalanche of support.

But – as you can see – I have gone to the trouble of actually explaining the background so other bloggers might better be able to decide for themselves, and that’s a step up from badgering them about not taking immediate action over a complicated game of political football nobody bothered to even notify them about in the first place.”

Political football is what it feels like, and I’d rather stay out of not overly-clear political football. Plus, it’s not clear at what stage the court case is and there’s some pretty strong allegations in the letter that, as Tim notes, are a matter for the daughter at this stage. Family disputes and political disputes… not something I’m overly keen to embroil myself in. As Nosemonkey says in the comments:

“I’m still confused as to precisely what the allegations were/are, however – and I’m not going to support someone in a libel fight if they actually did libel someone.

Saying “someone’s being sued for libel – support them or you’re a hypocrite” without saying why they’re being sued or why it’s wrong is a tad counterproductive, to say the least.”

What’s much more interesting is George Monbiot’s column on the Sheffield Wednesday supporters who were sued for the club for venting their frustration with the club and the team on an online forum – the kind of stuff you’d find on any fans forum of any team after a loss. It has similar parallels with the Hereford United messageboard dispute.

Libel laws in the UK do desperately need reforming to take into account online actions. Websites, blogs, and forums shouldn’t be taken down just because somebody doesn’t like what’s being written on there. They shouldn’t be able to be silenced without any legal action being taken, although it shouldn’t be taken as a free for all to post libellious comments willy-nilly.

It’s a tough balance, and one that is probably best answered than a better legal mind than I, although Mr Justice Eady’s judgment that online comments are more akin to slander than libel are sensible and a step in the right direction.

Libel laws are a powerful tool and can be used to chilling effect. Freedom of expression can often lose out. But this doesn’t mean anybody who has offered support to Craig Murray, Martin Watson, or the Sheffield Wednesday fans should be attaching themselves to any possible instance just because they’re told it’s a free speech issue and should be backed regardless without having any idea what it is you’re supporting.

I’d like to see Britain’s libel laws examined in more depth with a view to making them clearer with reference to online comments. That doesn’t automatically lead to meaning anybody who claims they’ve been denied their freedom of expression should be offered unqualified support. Nor should they effectively be labelled a hypocrite for not getting behind an issue they don’t fully understand and probably wouldn’t have seen unless they had a specific interest in the issue.

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January 2023

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com