Eight things I like about universal benefits…

There’s been a lot of discussion about benefits over the last few years – and in particular, how the Labour Party, or any other ‘progressive’ party, should deal with them in times of austerity. With Liam Byrne as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions it has been hard to differentiate between Labour and the Coalition – it often seems to be a competition to see who can be ‘tougher’ or ‘more rigourous’ in their approach.

One particular way that ‘rigour’ and ‘toughness’ seems to be played out is through the idea of means-testing. For many people it seems to be taken as read that means-testing is  a better way to go about things – that way people who don’t really ‘need’ benefits don’t get them, so you can cut the benefit bill without those who really need it suffering. Over the last couple of days this has been what lies behind the idea that ‘rich’ pensioners shouldn’t get winter fuel allowance, free bus passes and so on. In some ways it seems logical: why should ‘we’ subsidise things for people that can clearly afford them? It’s an idea that has traction with thinkers on the left as well as the right – and for political reasons it’s easy to see why. From the perspective of the right, anything that cuts benefits ‘must’ be a good idea, and from the perspective of the left, it’s seen as an electoral advantage to be ‘tough’, and the people who would lose out through this, ‘rich’ pensioners, aren’t part of the left’s ‘constituency’: they’re all going to vote Tory anyway, so the logic goes.

I don’t really like this logic – though people I very much admire on the left (such as Sunny Hundal) support it. I’m in favour of what may appear to be an old-fashioned approach, but I think is ultimately a more radical one. I’m in favour of more universal benefits – and less means-testing. By that I mean benefits that apply to whole categories of people – all parents should receive child benefit, all people over a certain age Winter Fuel Allowance, and so forth – so that their income or assets, or anything else requiring detailed analysis, vetting or similar do not get taken into account, or need testing.

There are many reasons to favour universal benefits,  both theoretical and practical – though ultimately the latter are more important. Theory is all very well, but the thing about benefits, above all other things, is that what we do for ‘policy’ reasons has a real impact on real people – on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

  1. A universal system is simpler to understand. I know this argument is used for bad things as well as good – the poll tax was simple to understand – but in relation to benefits it matters more than might be immediately obvious. People need to understand what they’re entitled to.
  2. A universal system is easier to administer. The more complex a system, the more people are needed to make it work, and the more those people need to be trained, the more time they need to take and so forth. Again, it’s easy to dismiss this as just ‘procedural’, but anyone who has seen the back office in any part of local government would realise that this makes an enormous difference.
  3. A universal system doesn’t require advanced computer systems. As anyone who has followed the problems with the new (and misnamed) ‘Universal Credit’ system will have seen, the first issue they’ve had to deal with has been technology – the computerised system simply doesn’t work. This, sadly, is far from unusual – quite the opposite. Government computer systems seem to be over-budget, to miss their deadlines and to simply fail to work all too often. The amount of money, time and energy wasted on systems that are supposed to bring about ‘efficiency’ is hard to calculate – but is huge!
  4. A universal system is easier for vulnerable people to negotiate. I worked for a time for a charity dealing with mentally disordered offenders – not people with severe mental health problems, but with multiple diagnoses: some minor mental health problems, some drug problems, some alcohol problems etc. We dealt with the transition between prison and the outside world – and some of the biggest problems we had were helping them to negotiate the complexities of the benefits systems. Filling forms that are complex even for ‘ordinary’ people can be pretty much impossible for more vulnerable, less educated, more stressed and more distressed people.  In some cases the stress of this kind of thing can cause more mental health problems – or make people more likely to drink or to take drugs. They might even cause more crime: if you can’t work your way through a complex system in order to get money that you’re actually entitled to, and you need money, what can you do?
  5. A universal system doesn’t disadvantage the vulnerable. It may seem counter-intuitive, but means testing can often actually disadvantage precisely those people it intends to help. This is closely linked with the previous reason – but qualitatively different. It’s not only true that vulnerable people may be stressed by the bureaucracy around means testing – but that less vulnerable people can take advantage of it. People who are experts at form-filling and good at understanding systems can negotiate them well, and can find loop-holes to take advantage of. They even know when and how to lie more effectively, and how and when we’re likely to get caught… but the people I’m talking about are not the classical ‘benefit scroungers’ of Daily Mail mythology. Quite the opposite – they’re the accountants and lawyers, the educated and advantaged people. As a former Chartered Accountant and current law lecturer I know all too much about this – we accountants are experts at milking systems. Means testing supports exactly the wrong people in this way. Universal systems are far less open to abuse – there’s far less scope for that abuse.
  6. A universal system is less divisive. One of the biggest problems right now – one of the things I like least about the current government’s approach – is the way that society seems to be become more and more divided. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is just one part of it: the ‘scroungers’ vs ‘strivers’ is another, and in many ways far more damaging. Whenever you have a means tested system you are creating or exacerbating   division – people that are entitled to benefits may be looked down on as charity cases, or as ‘scroungers’, while people who are not may be envious of those that are.
  7. A universal system is a real safety net. Lovers of justice are very familiar with the expression that it’s better for 10 guilty people to go free than for one innocent suffer. I’d apply that to benefits: it’s better for 10 people who don’t exactly need a benefit to receive it than for one person who absolutely needs it to be denied it. Currently, the opposite seems to be the case. Levels of benefit fraud are very small.
  8. A universal system sends a much more positive message. Though the practical matters on the ground are much the most important aspect of this, there is also a question of the message that our approach to benefits sends. Are we a society that believes in caring and supporting people – or are we one who believes in blaming and shaming, in dividing and demonising? I know which message I would prefer to send.

Perhaps I’m an old socialist dinosaur to believe such things – but I don’t think so. A simpler, more direct and universal benefits system should appeal not only to those on the left but to those who believe in a ‘smaller’ state – it doesn’t require such huge state machinery, such massive bureaucracy and such complication. It does go against the grain in some ways – we like to believe that being more ‘targeted’ means being more efficient, and we’ve followed that mantra for many years, largely despite the evidence against it that’s all too clear for anyone who’s tried to work their way through the systems. Now, it seems to me, is a time that we can try to think in different ways about these issues. Think more radically. Universal benefits is one of those ways.

Frankenstein’s UKIP?

Frankenstein UKIP JPGThere’s been a little bit of a media storm this last week or so – to everyone’s huge shock and horror, some UKIP local election candidates have turned out to have ‘interesting views’, from Holocaust denial to the idea that exercise can stop homosexuality onwards. Other suggestions include misogyny, links with racist groups such as the BNP and the EDL and so forth….

Those lefties in the media…

Of course those of us on the left are used to this kind of thing – indeed, it’s what many of us have known/suspected pretty much forever, and it’s been all over the ‘lefty’ bits of the media for ages. What’s different now is that the stories are now appearing in the right wing papers.

This is the Telegraph (link here):

“Racism is “just ethnic banter”, paedophiles should be killed by vigilantes and Londoners should wear face masks to protect themselves from eastern Europeans, some of the UK Independence Party’s local election candidates have suggested.”

This is the Mail (link here):

“However, the leader of the UK Independence Party is facing embarrassment today after it emerged the man, who is the party’s Leicester candidate, has supported groups with extreme racist views.

Chris Scotton, 24, has ‘liked’ a series of controversial organisations including the English Defence League (EDL), a site suggesting racism is ‘just ethnic banter’ and a group ‘joking’ about ‘losing a black friend in the dark’.”

So what’s happening here? What lies behind these stories? The timing is pretty direct – just before the local elections – and the main reason is almost certainly that the papers have finally woken up to the trouble that UKIP could be causing to the Tories, but I suspect there’s something more to it. The papers might be starting to realise that the UKIP monster might be getting out of control. And it’s a monster they themselves have played a key part in creating.

Frankenstein’s UKIP

It’s quite a monster, if the reports and other anecdotal evidence is anything to go by. A patchwork monster of extremists, homophobes, misogynists, racists, ‘fruitcakes’ (if Ken Clarke is to believed, as well as the ‘nice’ Eurosceptics that are the official face of UKIP.

The problem with the outrage of the Mail et al. is that this hideous monster is a monster to a great extent of their own creation – both directly and indirectly. UKIP have been given far more and far more favourable coverage in the press than they’ve warranted, and until now faced far less scrutiny and criticism than they’ve deserved. Now that they are, their apparent monstrousness is being revealed – and the Mail is acting as though it’s a great shock.

The indirect contribution to the ‘rise’ of UKIP may well be much more important, however. UKIP seems to feed on people’s fear – a fear that is fostered and supported by the constant stream of misogyny, homophobia, anti-immigration, closet-racist stuff that emerges from the Mail and others. The monster that has grown should be of no surprise to them: they’ve created it, fed it and breathed life into it. It’s alive now – and may well be out of their control…..

A monstrous press creates monsters…

That’s the bottom line. The nature of our press is such that it will help create these kinds of monsters. We shouldn’t be surprised – and neither should they.

Beware the Snoopers’ Charter Rising from the Grave…

Rise from graveThe Communications Data Bill – the Snoopers’ Charter – is dead, so Nick Clegg has assured us. I hope he’s right – but we need to be very careful not only that it is dead, but that it is safely buried, and on hallowed ground. These kinds of laws – these kinds of ideas – have  a long history of rising from the grave. They hide, half-dead, hidden from our eyes, mouldering and festering in the minds and files of spooks and authoritarian civil servants, ready to emerge and wreak havoc.

The idea for total internet surveillance has been around in UK politics for a long time. The ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ was brought to the table by Labour in 2008 – but the ideas behind it had almost certainly existed for longer, and the attraction of being able to monitor everything that everyone does online is clear to almost anyone with authoritarian tendencies. That, sadly, includes a vast number of politicians of almost all parties – and certainly large numbers of all the three leading parties – as well as many working in law enforcement or even in public policy. It may be inevitable – the kinds of people who are attracted to all those kinds of careers include many who think they know what’s best for everyone…

Of the many, many problems with this kind of approach, one is rarely talked about: that the whole idea comes from a position of fear. The internet feels very big, very ‘dark’, very ‘wild’, very much ‘out of control’ – and that’s very scary to someone who believes that you need ‘control’ in order for things to work. The way that the internet feels hard to understand – not just technically, but socially, and practically – makes this even worse. The scrabbling around by the authorities about how to deal with ‘threats’ on twitter – the farce around the Twitter Joke Trial for example – makes it all too clear. If something is beyond simple understanding, there’s a tendency to clamp down, to block, to limit, to try to control…

…and I’m afraid it’s a tendency that won’t go away. It will re-emerge again and again, in new and different forms. We still don’t know whether we’ve killed – let alone buried – the Snoopers’ Charter, but even if we have, it will re-emerge, and probably nastier, smellier, with sharper claws and teeth. We need to be ready for that.

Zombie rising

Snoopers’ Charter RIP?

This morning, live on air, Nick Clegg effectively said that the Communications Data Bill, the Snoopers’ Charter, was dead. I hope he’s right – and if he is, those campaigning against the bill, including pressure groups Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and Privacy International, and MPs such as Julian Huppert and David Davis, deserve a great deal of credit. Those of us who’ve been campaigning will be holding our breath to see whether it’s really true – because promises like this have been made before, and come to nothing. So what should we do next?

Well, first of all, we should keep up the pressure – and scrutinise the Queen’s Speech with great care, to see what is actually said. There’s still likely to be something in there – we should make sure that it’s the kind of thing that Clegg has promised.

Secondly, we should remember that the existing powers, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) are already excessive and have been subject to significant function creep. We should be pushing for a tightening of those powers – and more clarity about how and when they should be used. Ideally, the ‘small bill’ in the Queen’s Speech should do that – but I won’t be holding my breath.

Thirdly, we should be lobbying all the main political parties to make sure that a ‘reborn’ Snoopers’ Charter isn’t part of their plans – indeed, to get commitments in manifestos (for what they’re worth) that they won’t be planning these.

Fourthly, we should be supporting campaigns in other parts of the world against similarly invasive and damaging laws and plans – from CISPA in the US to the National Security Review plans in Australia onwards. The movement towards universal internet surveillance is a pervasive one, and one that needs fighting at an international level.

Fifthly, we should be looking to have the European Data Retention Directive reviewed – and ideally repealed. This directive, described by Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor as ‘the EU’s most privacy invasive tool’ follows the same kind of logic as the Snoopers’ Charter, though with a slightly different scope. It was passed in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, and was based on fear – just as the Snoopers’ Charter is based on fear. We need a new approach, a new angle.

The big point for me is to understand why Nick Clegg might be wanting to kill the Snoopers’ Charter. To me, it’s indicative of a gradual changing in people’s attitudes. As I’ve written and talked about before (for example in my ‘privacy-friendly future’ blogs and talks), I think people are waking up to privacy, and starting to understand how much our privacy matters, and how it is being undermined. If privacy is now a politically significant issue – enough to make Nick Clegg stand firm on this – then that bodes well for the future.

All this, however, should be taken with a huge pinch of salt. The battle isn’t over yet – we need to watch Clegg like a hawk, and follow developments very, very closely. I’m cautiously optimistic, however. Let’s hope the rumours of the death of the Snoopers’ Charter have not been exaggerated….

Even wankers have rights….

Abu QatadaIt’s easy to allow people we like to have rights. Indeed, it’s more than easy – we want to do it. We want to hear what people we agree with have to say. We want to give our friends privacy – and are angry when people intrude upon them and take advantage of them. We demand that our friends get access to justice and fair trials. That, however, misses the main point of rights. The key test isn’t whether we accord our friends and allies rights, it’s whether we accord them to our enemies, to people we disagree with. It’s whether we understand that it’s not just ‘good’ people that have rights – but everyone. Even the worst people. Even the people we think are complete wankers – or far worse.

With the government apparently contemplating a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to be able to deport Abu Qatada, that commitment to rights, that understanding of rights, is being put to the test in a big way right now – and it’s a test that we really must pass.

Freedom of Speech

The test is being played out in a number of ways right now – in ways that show how hard a test it is. The first of them is freedom of speech – about which I’ve written recently. The key is whether we’re willing to let people say (and hear) things we disagree with, things that make us uncomfortable, things that offend us. Old Holborn pushed that limit in one way – ‘hate preachers’ like Abu Hamza push it in another. Do we really ‘believe’ in free speech? Sometimes, as I suggested in my earlier blog, it doesn’t feel as though we do – but it is important!


Privacy is another area that can be hard. Again, it’s easy for us to want our friends and those we admire to have privacy – and we get deeply offended (and rightly so) about privacy invasions like the phone hacking of Milly Dowler. What we seem less clear about is when it comes to people we don’t like. The phone hacking saga didn’t make people sit up and take notice when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians who were having their phones hacked – in some way people seemed to think that the celebrities and politicians ‘deserved’ it, or at least that they have accept it as part of the price of being celebrities and politicians. There is something to that – but if we believe in privacy, we need to accord that privacy to all, and to understand that invasions of privacy hurt everyone, and that even those we really dislike deserve it. Max Mosley is a case in point for me. I detested everything his father (the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley) stood for, I find the whole hoo-ha around Formula One repellant, and distrust his politics intensely – but the way his privacy was invaded was just plain wrong – and what he does in private, with consenting adults, is his own business. The idea that people’s private lives should be opened up and served to the public just for titillation – and that what ‘interests’ the public is in the public interest, so can override a right to privacy – must be wrong. Even people we dislike have that right – even those we consider complete wankers.

The right to a fair trial

This is where things are playing out right now – and not just with Abu Qatada. The right to a fair trial, to justice, to due process, is a fundamental right, and so it should be. It is in most key human rights documents – as Article 6 of the European Convention on Humand Rights, in the US constitution (in the 5th, 6th and 14th Amendments), and fundamental to the British idea of justice, right back to Magna Carta and beyond. In some ways it may be the most important right of them all. It applies – and should apply – to everyone. That includes Abu Qatada, and it also includes Boston bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – which is why many are watching how the US justice system treats him with eagle eyes.

With Abu Qatada, it is that right to a fair trial that is stopping his deportation – and however ‘bad’ he is, however much of a ‘threat’ he is, we need to be clear that it’s a fundamental issue. As it stands, the concern is that evidence obtained by torture could be used in his trial in Jordan – and that isn’t just a legal nicety. There are clear international conventions against torture (most notably the UN Convention Against Torture, which the UK has signed and ratified) and quite rightly so. Torture is considered abhorrent – and by most people ineffective. If evidence obtained through torture is accepted as a valid part of a judicial process, we’re more than condoning torture – we’re effectively encouraging it. No matter how much of a threat we consider Abu Qatada to be, that’s simply wrong – and it’s also unfair. If we believe in what we say we believe in – in fair trials, in justice – we should be standing up for Abu Qatada’s right to a fair trial, and to justice. Our system does that – which, ultimately, is why it has been so hard for successive governments to deport Abu Qatada. Home Secretaries may rant and rave, but that’s the bottom line. Until we’re sure that Abu Qatada will receive a fair trial, it’s quite right that he should not be deported – and to bend the rules, to consider withdrawing from the ECHR, in order to deport Abu Qatada is more than just wrong, it’s fundamentally wrong.

Do we believe in human rights? 

It’s not so much whether the government actually does manage to temporarily withdraw from the ECHR that matters – as Adam Wagner has said, the chances that they can actually do so are vanishingly small – but the fact that they’re even considering doing so that is very disturbing. To call it a slippery slope is to underestimate the importance of being consistent in our support for human rights for all. We need to accord rights not just to those we like, those we respect, those we consider to be our friends – we need to accord them to those we hate, those whose views we detest, to our enemies. Indeed, the extent to which we do that is a crucial test of our commitment to rights. It may even be the only real test of that commitment. If we fail that test, the results could be catastrophic.

The Snoopers’ Charter – what’s happening?

Rumours persist that the Government is going to try to sneak the Communications Data Bill into the Queen’s Speech. There are so many reasons this is a bad thing it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ve posted about it many times before – I’m not going to rehash the arguments, but the whole idea of the bill is what I’ve previously described as a ‘Despot’s Dream’, allowing the authorities free rein to monitor everything any of us does on the internet, to profile us in every detail.

The arguments have been made in many places. The costs are immense, the burden on business potentially terrible, the system likely to be ineffectual – and if implemented the whole thing could face legal action unless details are revealed, as discussed in this excellent piece in the Telegraph.

That latter point brings me to my main question: why hasn’t there been a consultation about this? The previous parliamentary committee report, at the end of last year, which was pretty damning of the earlier, withdrawn draft of the Communications Data Bill, specifically asked for a full consultation to take place. Why hasn’t it? I was informed by an insider that the draft was ready back in February – ready, I was told, for that consultation. Why has it not taken place? What are those behind the bill afraid of? Do they think they won’t be able to deal with the criticism that will come? Do they want to push the bill through without proper consultation – and without demonstrating that they’ve been able to answer the many, many criticisms that the bill faced the first time around?

We need to be very much on our toes – because this really matters. What’s being proposed here isn’t a small scale modernisation of existing powers – it’s something entirely different, something which shifts the balance from privacy to surveillance. I realise that some people may think that people like me are at the extreme end of the debate – but can’t we at least have that debate? Openly?

At the moment, it seems not. The release of the draft bill has been delayed, and delayed, and delayed, and still there’s no sign of a proper consultation. We need one, and we need one now. If the government wants to curtail our civil liberties, to compromise our privacy, to limit our freedom of expression and our freedoms to assemble and associate online – because that’s what this kind of internet surveillance can do – they should at least let us have a debate as to whether the benefits (if they exist) are sufficiently strong for it to be worth our while sacrificing those civil liberties.

So come on, Home Office, tell us. Let us look at your plans. Let us scrutinise your evidence. And let’s do so as openly and publicly as possible.

UPDATED: It’s now being reported in the Guardian that the Home Office says it has had its ‘consultation’ – though quite who it has consulted with is being kept quiet. It certainly hasn’t consulted with civil society, or with academia, let alone with the public. That is entirely unacceptable – and makes it look more and more as though the Home Office is planning what can only be described as a stitch up. A public consultation, it appears, would be too much for them to contemplate. The words ‘police state’ don’t come easily, but they’re starting to loom in my mind.

Free speech… what’s the point? UPDATED

The whole idea of ‘free speech’ has had a few challenges this last week or so. The Paris Brown saga (about which I’ve written here), the decision by the BBC not to play ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’ though it reached number two in the charts, the various attempts to block protests at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, the late amendments to the Defamation Act to remove the proposed controls over companies’ abilities to sue for libel, and the arrival in court of the Sally Bercow/Lord McAlpine twitter defamation trial about which I wrote this in December). Watching how all of this has been reported – and watching the exchanges in the media, and on twitter in particular – has reminded me how unclear it seems to be to many people what the point of free speech is. What is free speech? When it should be protected?

I don’t think there’s a very clear answer – not to me, at least – but there are some things that are clear to me. I’m not a ‘free speech absolutist’ in any way. I don’t believe that freedom of speech is such a pure and perfect thing that it should be prioritised over all other things – over privacy, for example – but I do think that in the UK, at least, we seem to miss what the point really is rather more than we should. For me, free speech is about holding the powerful to account. It should be to help the little people, the ordinary people, to have their voices heard. It should be to stop bullying, not to allow it.

Holding the powerful to account

That’s where things seem to be so very much out of kilter over the last few weeks: it has been the powerful’s voices that have echoed everywhere, and the ‘ordinary’ people who have found it hard to be heard. The BBC caved in to the powerful voices of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph in blocking the playing of ‘Ding Dong’ – when they had a perfectly reasonable opportunity to just play the song without comment or emphasis. It was a bit of a silly campaign, but why silence it? It was a bit distasteful, a bit disrespectful – but if we think taste and respect is sufficient reason to block free speech we’re going down a very slippery slope, the kind that ends in the kind of Lèse majesté laws that they have in Thailand and can give a 15 year jail sentence for insulting the King.

It’s a similar story in a way for the changes to the Defamation Bill. I’m not wholly convinced with the libel reform campaign in some ways – I don’t think our defamation laws are quite as broken as some suggest – but the limitations on companies’ abilities to sue, particularly where they perform a public function, seem to do exactly the right thing for freedom of speech: support the weak against the powerful.

Freedom to protest

That kind of relationship is echoed in relation to protest. The ability to protest – the freedom to protest – is a crucial part of freedom of speech, because it’s about holding the powerful to account. Freedom of speech doesn’t just mean freedom to speak politely and respectfully. It doesn’t just mean freedom to say things that the authorities like – indeed, quite the opposite. It’s most important when people want to say things that the authorities don’t like – and say them in a way that the authorities don’t like. Protest is part of that – indeed, it’s a key part of that. It may seem a bit pointless at times, it may seem disrespectful and disruptive – but it’s important. During the aftermath of the death of Thatcher, many people felt that their views were being marginalised – that they were being presented with a view of Thatcher that didn’t accord with their experience. How could they get their views across? From their perspective, the BBC and other broadcasters weren’t showing it – they were giving a series of ‘respectful’ and ‘supportive’ views. When they organised a silly song, even that was silenced. Their ‘parties’ were demonised – or barely covered on the media.

Some of it was very much distasteful – the burning of effigies etc – but even that is part of freedom of expression. For me, it shouldn’t be silenced – it should be listened to, it should be argued against but when people feel as passionately as they do about Thatcher, it’s hardly surprising. Sometimes the ‘polite’ and ‘respectful’ ways aren’t available – or are easily ignored. Sometimes they just don’t work.

The freedom to be offensive?

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always ‘OK’ to be offensive. Another example of this happened quite dramatically yesterday with the somewhat gruesome saga of twitter user Old Holborn. He posted some really remarkably offensive tweets – supposedly jokes, I think – targeted at Scousers, tweets about Hillsborough, about Jamie Bulger and other things. Really horrible stuff – and the result was that people started doing some research, to find out who ‘Old Holborn’ really was. In a relatively short time his name, address, employers name, phone number and more were released onto the internet – and apparently he started to receive threats, even death threats. The full details have yet to come out, and whether or not the police are involved – and how – does not appear completely clear at this stage.

Many people are finding this hard to react to – and I’m one of them. What he tweeted was totally repellent – and yet, to someone like me, so is the kind of targeting of him, the ‘torches and pitchforks’ approach to him. And, most importantly, if we believe in freedom of speech, we have to believe it for the people we don’t like, as well as the people we do like. If I want the right to protest about Margaret Thatcher, I need to be willing to accord the right to be offensive even to the likes of Old Holborn. Indeed, that’s the key test of my commitment to freedom of speech.

That doesn’t mean – in either case – that freedom of speech means a freedom from the consequences of that speech. Freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities and consequences – if I say something offensive, then the chances are that people will be offended. It’s not that they have a right not to be offended, but that their being offended means something. It will make them react. That reaction may be real, it may be nasty, but I have to accept that this reaction may happen.

The point of freedom of speech

So that brings me back to the main question. What’s the point of freedom of speech? It’s not about ‘nice’ things. It’s not about ‘respect’. It’s about being able to fight against conformity, about not being bullied. About giving people power. If we start using ‘taste’ and ‘decency’ as our guides, we’re headed in a direction that is very disturbing indeed. We seem to have moved in that direction the last week or two. I hope we have the sense not to go any further.

A privacy friendly future? The slides….

These are the slides from the presentation I gave at BILETA 2013, in Liverpool, on April 12th. I’ve blogged about them here – there isn’t a written paper, but some of the ideas explored in this paper will be included in the book I’m currently writing, which will be out early in 2014, all going well. I’m afraid the slides ask a lot more questions than they answer – but, as I said in my blog last week, in some ways I’m more optimistic than I used to be. When I started researching in this field, back in 2006, I was thoroughly pessimistic. Now, I do at least think there’s a chance we find a way to a ‘privacy-friendly future’…

Thatcher’s funeral – why not a ‘Public Subscription’?

There’s been a great deal of fuss around the idea of Margaret Thatcher having a ‘Ceremonial Funeral’ at the public expense – an expense amounting to up to £10 million, apparently. Given the divisive nature of Thatcher as a Prime Minister, it seems particularly inappropriate – many people disliked Thatcher intensely, and to find that in a time of austerity their money is being spent on a funeral is particularly galling.

Albert Memorial

There is, however, another alternative – one that borrows from that era that Thatcher herself admired, the Victorian age. In those days, big events and memorials were often funded by ‘Public Subscription’. The Albert Memorial was funded that way – so why not do the same for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral?

Effectively this would be ask people if they wanted to contribute – and collecting those contributions. It worked very well in the Victorian era….

It could solve a lot of problems. Those who disliked Thatcher won’t feel that their money is being wasted. Those who loved her can show that love – there could be a memorial list of people who contributed to the funeral, showing everything publicly. And, at the same time, it could save the public purse money. I’m sure those people who loved and admired Thatcher could raise the money relatively easily – so why not?

They could even raise a permanent monument, if they would like.

Paris Brown, Free Speech and Social Media

The sorry tale of Paris Brown, who stood down as Kent’s Youth Police and Crime Commissioner even before she took office, has already been talked and written about a great deal. I don’t want to add much, just to comment a little on the implications of it for what we loosely describe as ‘free speech’. It’s a cautionary tale in many ways – but I don’t think that all the ramifications have yet been considered.

I’m not going to rehash the whole story – and nor do I wish to comment upon Paris Brown herself. What I do want to talk about is what happened to her – because I think it has significant implications for both free speech and indeed for democracy. Ian Clark, who writes the excellent infoism blog, has described at some length the dismal role that the Mail on Sunday played in the whole affair: effectively ambushing Paris Brown and then demolishing her in print, on the basis of her tweeting prior to being considered for the position of Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. That, in turn, has brought about a police investigation into those tweets….

So what’s the impact of all this on free speech?

Well, first of all, particularly given the huge publicity that the whole affair has been given, it might make ambitious teens think twice about what they tweet. If they have an inkling that they might want to do something even vaguely political in the future, they might control what they say on the social media…

Secondly, if anyone – with political ambitions or not – sees that the police are going to instigate investigations, or even prosecute (though I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that) people in these kinds of circumstances, they will also be likely to think twice about what they tweet.

Thirdly, as Rachel Rogers points out in her excellent blog, it reminds employers (and specifically employers like the PCC), that they have a duty of care which should extend to checking potential employees’ social media presences. If Kent’s PCC had been careful, as Rachel Rogers points out, they could have encouraged Paris Brown to prune her tweets – but they might also have chosen a different candidate. Kent’s PCC has been extremely embarrassed about the whole affair – and other employers of all sorts will have been watching the events with deep concern. There but for the grace of God….

This combination of effects is pretty devastating. Anything people tweet, anything they put on Facebook, is facing potential scrutiny by the press, by the police, and by potential employers. For some that will result in a heavy chilling factor – they won’t say what they might, and might even drop out of the social media entirely. Others may have a different but potentially equally damaging reaction – they’ll choose never to put themselves forward for any job or situation that puts them in the public eye, expecting (or even knowing) that they’d be hounded and demonised by the press, humiliated and even prosecuted.

Freedom of the social media…

One of the strengths of the social media – and of twitter in particular – lies in the freedom of debate, and the spontaneity of interaction. Do we really want to lose that? I don’t mean that tweets should be beyond the law – quite the opposite – but that the law needs to be much more careful, much more balanced, and much less aggressive. The DPP has issued guidance on prosecutions for public order and related offences – I think we need a change in the law, relaxing it in many ways, allowing much more freedom.

This feels particularly poignant for young people – and Paris Brown, for all her precocity, is still a child. Children need freedom – and need to be allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them. That doesn’t seem to be considered here at all.

The press and free speech….

What’s equally worrying to me is the role of the press. Much has been said – particularly by the press itself – about the threat to free speech posed by the kind of regulation currently being put forward as a result of the Leveson Inquiry. Some of this is justified – and we do need to proceed with care – but we should also be aware that the press itself produces a chilling effect on free speech. Actions like those of the Mail on Sunday over Paris Brown have precisely that effect – and make it very hard to see them as great champions of the crucial democratic force of free speech.

What can be done about it is another matter – but every time the press acts like this, it makes me feel more sympathetic to the idea of press regulation. Whether any kind of regulation would stop the likes of the Mail behaving in this way is another matter entirely. It may just be that we have to accept it. Speech is chilled, democracy is stunted, but that’s the price we have to pay for a ‘free’ press….