Why hacking, blagging, taping, spam, social media, marketing, blogging, sensationalism, corruption, denial and injunctions are merely different colours on a spectrum of control
Late last night as I went to bed, it felt like the world was going to drown in news. Panorama produced a devastating expose not just of Sepp Blatter and the crooks around him, but also of the police and political classes being utterly useless and generally disinterested in the idea of tackling it…..except in Switzerland, where FIFA is based. Lord Prescott won a Parliamentary review of Met police performance during its first two goes at
clumsily covering up getting to the bottom of Newscorp criminality. Be under no illusions: this is a game-changer, because not only will it reveal the extent of Met complicity in Newscorp’s hacking fest, it may also reveal that senior legislators were having their phones monitored not just for commercial gain by the papers concerned, but also perhaps for the political advantage of what was, at the time, Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Having been promised at least a hundred times that the ClubMed fiscal toxicity contagion would not overwhelm Spain and Italy, to nobody’s surprise it has. In this particular theatre of news, however, the media have failed to interrogate the lies, tosh, obfuscation, book-fiddling and secret deals indulged in by both the Brussels eurocrats and the debtor members….most notably Greece and (I predict) Berlusconi’s Italy. Merkel, Trichet, Sarkozy, Lagarde, Papandreou and a host of other ‘leaders’ have been allowed – outside the blogosphere – to talk drivel and not have it questioned or investigated. In the UK this is down to lack of interest (the EU doesn’t sell newspapers) and on the continent there simply isn’t the same tradition of aggressive investigation and awkward questions as one finds among the Anglo-Saxon media.
Ryan Giggs (having been outed in anagram form here) finally had his cover blown properly by Giles Coren on Twitter, The Herald in Scotland, and a LibDem MP in Parliament. Ben Brogan at the Telegraph called this ‘breaking the law’ by the MP, but it is no such thing: Commons privilege has always been the last resort for those genuinely committed to freedom of speech. And despite anti-heroic efforts to stop it becoming public, the news broke this morning that UK helicopters will be alongside French copters fighting in Libya.
Talking of helicopters, now – as Obama arrives in the UK for a State visit – The Slog’s latest OBL piece suggests strongly that the President knew all along where Osama Bin Laden was, but may have been shoved into action by CIA intelligence showing Pakistan’s A-Bomb programme to be advancing at an unexpected rate.
However – no pun intended – taking the helicopter view on all this reveals (at least, it does to me) that these events are about one debate which is, today, dominating all others: how much should personal privacy be respected? It’s a debate at the very core of why responsible individual freedom of expression must always triumph over selfish personal license.
In an advanced culture, every law-abiding, adult citizen or organisation with normal reasoning faculties should have some degree of power – and with that power comes responsibility. The ‘private’ citizen’s responsibilities might be called ‘accountability’ among those who take a leading role in one socio-economic activity or another; and interrogation of that accountability is a large part of the job of a free-speech media set.
This effectively means everyone must accept that such social privileges as they have (membership of a respected profession, political power, fame, a large salary, multinational business wealth, a senior judicial position and so forth) are open to media scrutiny. Failure to ‘live up to’ the expectations of the culture in that rule must be considered fair game for investigative reporting….whatever ‘side’ anyone or thing might be on.
Using the contemporary media stories mentioned above in this context, most objective observers would agree that Newscorp has failed, in the methods it has adopted for the garnering of news, to live up to the privilege it enjoys. Ryan Giggs too, as a sportsman and family man, must accept the consequences of behaviour that falls below the standards we should expect of a role model. As the leader of the world’s richest sporting organisation, Sepp Blatter and other senior members of FIFA have obviously been abusing their power for personal gain. Lawyers proclaiming superinjunctions extending even into the privileged Sovereign body of the State are exploiting the legal system for personal gain when they do so. A President of the United States of America who uses national security to obfuscate and censor an operation undertaken at least partly for electoral advantage abuses the huge power donated to him by the American People and its Electoral College. Senior bankers who misreport, mangle data and hide liabilities in their balance sheets in order to pass a stress-test are obviously abusing the enormous financial powers they enjoy. Senior Eurocrats like Christine Lagarde who turn a blind eye to such practices should be rewarded with vilificatory reporting, not a job as boss of the IMF. And police who collude with media barons to cover up wrongdoing deserve nothing but contempt.
Those of us who make personal gain from a reputation must live up to that reputation; and those media setting out to show the failure of celebrities (or even social ‘pillars’ at all levels) in that regard must remain within the bounds of legality when doing so. Let’s keep things simple: most of the time, we are really only talking about politico-economic celebrities, powerful organisations, lawyers, and media/sporting stars on the one hand; and the press online and offline on the other. The reason we find ourselves in such a mess is not because the current system is unworkable, but rather because none of these people and institutions any longer know how to behave – or care to, even if they do know.
So as always, if people can’t control themselves, the State will quickly step in to do it for them. This is what we should be debating: why do people and institutions want freedom without responsibility, and leadership roles without accountability?
But we’re not, of course: we’re asking where the law should draw the line. And this means an inevitable argy-bargy between Parliament, the Judiciary, the media, the famous, and the powerful. Each of these groups will hire lobbyists to argue for their own selfish desires – as opposed to what’s best for society as a whole, and safest for liberal democracy. The cacophony of argument and counter-argument will get louder and louder….and eventually some kind of meaningless compromise will be reached. Everyone will continue to moan and write Opeds; after which the circus will continue on its merry way, with bloodsports and bread, until the next crisis.
Except that this time, it won’t be enough. This time the change we’re going through is a qualitative one – at the risk of sounding cliched, it’s a crossroads, at which going three ways at once won’t work – and going back is not an option.
The telling difference this time is technology. Marketing, social media, High finance, stock exchanges, liquidity pools, derivative trades and market movers use telecoms, pcs and speed-of-light positions is a way unimaginable even ten years ago. The systems already in place are not only yet another accident waiting to happen, in some instances (especially finance) they are a licence to commit the perfect, untraceable crime.
In this sort of pervasive cyberspace, the Russians have taken on a new importance and a dominant role. Huge fortunes are being made not by backing the right horse, but by hacking the right Bourse. These billionaires are everywhere, but their biggest concentration is to be found in London. They live in gated communities. They have their premises ‘swept’ every day for listening devices and evidence of hacks or blags. They hack into personal phones, penetrate modelling mainframes, and blag the pcs of traders and strategists. They are starting to control banks, hedge funds, commodity sectors and sports clubs both here and in the US. They advise and influence their Government extensively. And they have organised everything from directional market raids and inexplicable market blips to the cyber-invasion of South Ossetia.
At a less pernicious but equally invasive level, spammers and social networks know more about us in 2011 than the most totalitarian regimes did about their populations during the Cold War. Major ISPs like Orange and Vodafone do the bidding of security agencies without questioning the reasons, for without mutually assured access neither type of organisation can function. These ISPs have thus, like the security agencies, risen well above the law. The private individual cannot hope to win against Google, LinkedIn, AOL, Orange or Microsoft: believe me, I’ve tried. Until a few months ago, Newscorp was on the verge of joining this elite club. There is now a glimmer of hope that they might be dragged down: but it is no more than that.
Overall, most cases concerning superinjunctions, cover-ups, disdain for the law, and incalculably crooked greed involve a recurring list of the usual suspects: bankers, lawyers, senior politicians, media moguls, spooks, market bandits, eurocrats and top sporting figures. Like most of life since pretty soon after man got up onto two legs, the issues are the same: corruption, power, money, influence and……returning to the collective noun, control.
This is what the next five years will be about: who will exercise control? Honestly elected officials, independent commentators and community leaders; or amoral bankers, draconian media lawyers and shadowy media barons? Will it be the Sepp Blatters, Bob Diamonds, Rupert Murdochs, Lloyd Blankfeins, Boris Johnsons, Harriet Harmans, Herman Van Rompuys and Tim Geithners who win? Or will the Chris Bryants, Andrew Gilligans, Jon Stewarts, Ian Hislops, Tom Hoenigs, Bernard Kouchners and Justice Vos’s who stand up for decency and ethics triumph?
The world of 2011 has turned into a parody of It’s A Wonderful Life. That’s fine by me: but we mustn’t let Potter win.