Saving the Freedom of Information Act

Houses of Parliament (CC-BY)

Back in 2011, David Cameron announced that he was going to change the way government did business. No more hiding information away, making it difficult for people to retrieve. Instead, in an article published in the Telegraph, Cameron highlighted the importance of transparency at the heart of government. Information, said Cameron, “lets people hold the powerful to account” and, as a result, there needed to be more transparency about the workings of government. As Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, underlined, the “ambition [was] to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world“.

With such high words about the importance of transparency at the heart of government, it seems somewhat surprising (well, not that surprising) that Cameron’s government has launched a review into the Freedom of Information Act, a review that seems pretty loaded to produce a particular outcome: a curtailing of the power of the Act (which is saying something given its current limitations). So much for people holding the powerful to account.

The problem is that Cameron always had a particular narrow definition of government transparency. In his 2011 Telegraph article, he makes it pretty clear what he means by transparency: publicly accessible datasets. Releasing datasets is fine, indeed it’s a much welcome move. Their release certainly offers a degree of transparency. But it is a limited degree of transparency. Datasets alone can only tell you so much, they offer a very superficial form of transparency: transparency without context. Datasets do no negate FoI, they make FoI even more important.

At the recent Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) gathering in Huddersfield we talked about conducting research and the importance of FoI in helping to extract information from public bodies. The Act is a valuable tool for activists, enabling them to obtain information that can help to reinforce their case. It’s something that I have found an effective tool as part of my involvement in Voices for the Library – obtaining valuable information about the delivery of public library services throughout the UK.

Whilst the Act is limited at present, it does offer an opportunity to obtain information that can, just maybe, instigate change. Further restrictions to the Act will significantly limit its effectiveness and, further, make the kind of research discussed at the RLC gathering virtually impossible, not to mention creating difficulties for activists more generally. As Cameron himself said, “information is power”. Without access to the kind of information held by public bodies, we do not have power and without power we cannot instigate change.

But what of the review? Well, the figures involved in the review process should cause alarm for those concerned with transparent governance. Jack Straw, for example, is a known critic of the Act previously arguing that there needed to be substantial changes to the Act due to the impact it was having on government. Another figure on the panel, Michael Howard, was the subject of a number of freedom of information requests in 2005 that led to 500 pages of internal files being released relating to “controversial issues” he dealt with as home secretary in the 1990s. It seems hard to believe that he will be a great fan of the Act. And yet another member of the panel, Lord Carlile of Berriew, is not a particular fan of government transparency. The peer argued in 2013 that The Guardian’s publication of “stolen state secrets” was a “criminal” act.

With such figures involved in the review, it seems clear that at the very least the Act will be significantly watered down. This is not a surprise, it took years to make such an Act a reality and it’s not for nothing that the United Kingdom is known as one of the most secretive states in the Western world (we do, after all, retain an Official Secrets Act). Indeed, it transpired a couple of weeks ago that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of Tribunal fees – which will very likely have the same effect as the introduction of tribunal fees elsewhere (ie people won’t take decisions to tribunals, which of course means that the government and public bodies are likely to get away with withholding information).

Given the attack on a vital piece of legislation that plays a vital role in giving people the information they require to hold the government to account, what can be done to put pressure on the government and ensure that at the very least the Act survives in its current form (it certainly needs extending, but that seems highly unlikely at present – if not impossible under a Tory government)? I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post by Paul Gibbons,  a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management. I’d also urge you to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information as much as you possibly can. I was very privileged to be invited to their recent 30th anniversary celebrations and hearing about the work they have done and continue to do was incredibly inspiring. But they need support to carry that work forward, so if you can support the Campaign (either through donations or amplifying their work on social media) please do so. Do also see their “Stop FoI Restrictions” page. They deserve all the support they can get for their tireless efforts to ensure that we all have access to information from the state.

Transparency at the heart of government should be a concern of every citizen, but I believe that information professionals have a particular obligation to ensure that not only is the Act not watered down, but that we also work to strengthen it. Information is power. With a weakened Freedom of Information Act, our power is severely curtailed.

How “austerity” will exacerbate the effects of the digital divide

Image c/o Derek Bruff on Flickr.

During the last parliament, the Coalition government introduced a number of changes to the benefits system, one of the key changes for the unemployed was the introduction of Universal Jobmatch and the requirement to use the service to seek employment. The problems with this service were obvious (to all apart from the government it appeared). Despite the perception that we are all online in this digital world, there remains a significant proportion of the population that have either never been online or do not have internet access at home.

The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underline that despite a decline in numbers of people that have never used the internet (down 1% to 5.9m people in total), lack of connectivity remains a significant hurdle for a sizeable proportion of the working age population. Whilst there has been positive talk in the media about the steady decline of those that have never been online (whilst noting with some surprise that even in this day and age there are people who have never opened a web browser), there has been little exploration of the impact this divide has in terms of government policy (Sky hints at it in their sub-headline – “despite the internet being a key part of everyday life” but doesn’t go beyond that).

According to the estimates provided by the ONS, approximately 1.4m people of working age have never used the internet (ie people aged from 16-64). Although the figures are not available with regard to internet access within the home, we can safely assume that there are more than 1.4m people of working age that do not have an internet connection at home. That said, the ONS does report that around 1.1m people overall last used the internet more than three months ago which would lead us to estimate approximately 6-7m do not have internet access at home. We’re probably getting on for nearly 2m people of working age that do not have the internet at home (although that’s a guess based on the available data, rather than evidence based). How many of those are also currently unemployed is difficult to say as the ONS report doesn’t provide this level of data.

Estimates for number of people that have never used the internet by age (%age).

Percentage of people that have never used the internet by age.

Furthermore, the figures are particularly stark when it comes to disabled people. According to ONS estimates, 3m people “who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Equality Act definition of disability” (to use the ONS terms) have never used the internet – approximately 27% of disabled adults. Furthermore, of the 1.1m who had last used the internet more than three months ago, 0.5m were disabled adults. For the 16-24 age bracket, 95% were recent users of the internet compared to 99% for non-disabled users.

The estimates for both those of working age and disabled people underlines the difficulties many will suffer due to government policy towards benefits and unemployment. Both those that have never used the internet and those who do not have access at home face significant barriers in terms of seeking employment. They are at a disadvantage anyway due to the increasing expectation by employers that applications will be submitted online, the government’s reinforcement of this by requiring the use of Universal Jobmatch simply exacerbates the problem. That the areas where the numbers of people that have never accessed the internet also tend to be areas of the country with high unemployment simply underlines the difficulties many will face.

According to the ONS, the ten regions with the highest proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet are:

Counties %age never been online
Northern Ireland 18.8
Highlands and Islands 16.9
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 16.8
West Wales and the Valleys 15.7
Lincolnshire 15.2
Merseyside 14.8
South Western Scotland 14.6
South Yorkshire 14.4
Lancashire 14.3
West Midlands 13.3

The regions with the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet:

Counties %age never been online
Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire 9.8
Dorset and Somerset 9.6
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 9.5
Outer London 9
Kent 9
Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol/Bath area 9
North Eastern Scotland 8.5
Inner London 8.2
Surrey, East and West Sussex 7.9
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire 6.7

It hardly comes as a great surprise to see southern counties with a low proportion of people that have never used the internet, whilst the north has significantly higher proportions in some cases (there’s an 8.5% difference between Berkshire et al and Lincolnshire for example). It’s also not surprising to discover that the areas with high levels of non-internet use also seem to match up with areas of high unemployment.

The most recent statistics for unemployment provided by the ONS aren’t broken down in quite the same way as the figures for internet use, rather than counties they are broken down by region:

Region %age unemployed
North East 7.5
Wales 6.7
Yorkshire and Humber 6.6
West Midlands 6.4
London 6.2
Scotland 6
North West 5.7
East Midlands 4.9
East 4.4
South West 4.3
South East 4.2


Although it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions with data pulled from two distinct datasets, it does seem that areas of high unemployment coincide with areas where higher numbers of people have never been online. More investigation would need to be conducted to see exactly what proportion of those that have never used the internet in areas of high unemployment are unemployed (or in employment with limited job security – eg zero hours contracts). That said, it’s highly likely that those 1.4m people of working age that have never used the internet are in a particularly troublesome position. With an increasing demand to use the internet to seek employment, those 1.4m are clearly disadvantaged as they do not have the skills or access enjoyed by those that are online. Without a level playing field in terms of internet access, many of them will find it difficult to obtain secure long-term employment.

It’s also worth noting that within those areas of high unemployment and relatively high numbers of people that have never been online, public libraries provide an absolutely crucial service. By providing free internet access and trained members of staff that can provide the support required, they can make a huge difference in closing the digital divide for the 1.4m of working age that have never been online. Without a public library in which they can access the internet, it is difficult to see how those who are unemployed can get online and seek work. In the areas of high unemployment listed above, the public library will be a vital service in terms of getting individuals back into work. Any library closures in these areas will hit the unemployed particularly hard.

Unfortunately, with a mandate to further pursue a programme based on voodoo economics (ie “austerity”), it is hard to believe that libraries won’t be hit hard over the coming five years. However, you cannot both cut funding to statutory services (like public libraries) and expect to reach “full employment”, because those statutory services will be the mechanism by which people get into work because they do level the playing field, ensuring “opportunity for all”. As cuts to funding accelerate over the coming years, it seems fair to say that the consequence of the digital divide will be increasingly grim for the unemployed as support services are stripped right back, leading to increasing numbers of sanctions and, quite possibly, an ever growing demand for food banks. The consequences of the digital divide during a period of austerity are clear: precarious employment, poverty (in employment as well as for the unemployed) and a “recovery” that seems even further away than it did in 2010.

GCHQ and American attitudes to surveillance…

(Image c/o Christian Payne on Flickr.)

From Wired:

GCHQ’s hacking operations are conducted with little to no oversight and risk “undermining the security of the internet”, leading online privacy experts have warned. Even when oversight is required, GCHQ has revealed that ministers don’t have the technical knowledge to understand what it is doing. Privacy campaigners today described the issue as “a major scandal”.

Details of GCHQ’s hacking operations and attempts to weaken encryption were revealed in a parliamentary committee report into the UK’s surveillance capabilities. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) review, published last week, revealed GCHQ makes the majority of decisions about hacking, and its operations to weaken encryption, internally and without telling ministers exactly what it is doing.

In a passage quoted by the Open Rights Group, the ISC review found that:

No additional Ministerial Authorisation is required for these activities. There are internal procedures: ***. There is no legal requirement to inform Ministers: however, GCHQ have said that they would ask the Foreign Secretary to approve a specific operation of this kind “where the political or economic risks were sufficiently high” (although, in practice, they manage their operations to avoid this level of risk). GCHQ told the Committee that:

The FCO is aware of the activity and the possible political risk, but individual legal authorisations are not required for each operation. The FCO could assess the political risk of a compromise, it is not well‐placed to assess the complex technical risk. Whilst not formally overseen by a Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner has been briefed on this type of activity where it relates to individual approved operations.

A very disturbing admission about the state of digital surveillance in the UK. And the timing of the statement from ORG could not be more apposite. Whilst we are only just starting to come to terms with the consequences of this, a study in the US has been published that explores the fall-out from the Snowden revelations in terms of how it has affected behaviours as well as how it has impacted upon the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Pew Research Center’s report, Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden, provides a comprehensive and fascination exploration of how these revelations have affected US citizens. There is a lot to plough through, but a few things stand out on an initial reading (and, by the way, wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the UK produced the kind of reports that Pew produce on a regular basis, particularly with respect to the Snowden revelations). Top line stuff:

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications. 

1 in 3 people changing their behaviours is quite significant, and would explain why there are increasing moves to shut down the methods by which people protect themselves. One might also ask how Cameron would deal with 14% of people speaking in person rather than communicating online (given he thinks no form of communication should be free from surveillance).


 

…the public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:

82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists

60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.

60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders

54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens.


In this survey, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communication; 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”; 33% say they are “not very concerned” and 13% say they are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance. Those who are more likely than others to say they are very concerned include those who say they have heard a lot about the surveillance efforts (34% express strong concern) and men (21% are very concerned).


 

Some quotes from those who argue that they are unconcerned about surveillance:

“Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”

“I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”

“Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”

All of which, to my mind, underline a certain failure to grasp the nature of the state and its relationship with individuals. Of course, it is not individuals who determine whether what they are doing is wrong. The lie of “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear” seems to be one of the hardest to shift, despite its fairly obvious naivety about the state. It also underlines that state propaganda is very effective on large chunks of the populace (I’m not restricting that to the US by the way). So long as you keep talking about threats (which are minimal) and highlighting the importance of “protecting citizens” from “dangerous individuals”, some people will continue to believe that the state will protect them and that sacrifices to their rights must be made to ensure that protection. There’s nothing new in this, states have used that particular strategy for centuries: construct an external enemy, convince the populace that the state has the means to protect them, chip away at individual rights under the guise of protection etc etc.


 

Sophisticated tools and techniques are widely available and can help online Americans increase the privacy and security of their online activities and personal data sharing. However, thus far, fairly few have adopted these tools since learning about the programs. Among those who have heard about the government surveillance programs:

10% say they have used a search engine that doesn’t keep track of their search history.
5% have added privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger.
4% have adopted mobile encryption for calls and text messages.
3% have used proxy servers can help them avoid surveillance.
2% have adopted email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).
2% have used anonymity software such as Tor.
1% have used locally-networked communications such as FireChat.

It’s interesting that despite the fears and clear concern about the surveillance programme, many people are not using the most effective tools to protect themselves (I would include myself in that category if there were a UK equivalent study). This suggests there is a lot of work to do to inform the general public about how they can protect themselves online. I would guess that Barclays’ Digital Eagles probably won’t offer much help here. It seems to me that, and I probably would say this, librarians are well placed to provide this kind of assistance (see Library Freedom Project). Certainly given our professional ethics, this is an area that should concern us and that we should seek to provide solutions to for the general public. There is clearly a need as, looking at the figures, there is concern and a need to seek protection. One would assume that this would also be the case in the UK but, again, there is no such study at present.

I’d definitely recommend going through the Pew stats if you get the chance. There is a PDF report you can download, but lots of interesting stats are summarised over 5 web pages. Will such a study be conducted in the UK? It seems unlikely at this stage, but with the revelations about the activities of GCHQ and how ministerial oversight appears to be virtually non-existent, a study equivalent to Pew’s would be very welcome.

Douglas Murray – our generation’s greatest defender of free expression?

(Image via Marco Bernardini on Flickr)

“If you cannot lampoon bad ideas it means you can only lampoon good ideas. If you must refrain from insulting targets which might harm you then you will be limited to only insulting targets which are harmless. The problem then is not simply that you let bad ideas get a free pass; it means bad ideas have the opportunity to win.”

 So wrote Douglas Murray in his passionate defence for free speech. Passionate, yet also hypocritical because Murray only defends free speech when it hurts minorities, not when it threatens power.

You may have come across Murray before on those light-weight political chat shows. With his perfect pronunciation and calm authority, he comes across as a serious intellectual force to be respected. But then we remember the context: these are light-weight political chat shows. It is not difficult to come across as a heavy hitting, respectable intellectual when it comes to these kinds of programmes. The reality is, when you listen a little closer, Murray is almost paper light when it comes to intellectual rigour.

Take his piece the above quote was taken from. Murray also writes:

“Simultaneously in the media there are supporters of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who portray his theft and dissemination of thousands of British and American national security secrets in such a light. At very few times in history would freedom of expression and the “freedom” to steal vast swathes of secret government information and then dump it in such a fashion that only enemies of the state could gain from it have been confused. But they are widely confused here, and it represents only a portion of the mix-up.”

And this is where Murray’s shakey ground reveals itself. We can have freedom of expression when it comes to insulting Muslims and their “bad ideas” but when it comes to the state and its “bad ideas” there are limits. Where these bad ideas threaten individual liberty, they must be defended rather than exposed. The limits of freedom expression must be determined by our security services, who should be free to constrain any expression that seeks to undermine the state surveillance network.

Back when Snowden’s revelations came to light, Murray was critical of the papers that published details of the information exposed by Snowden. In one article, Murray asserted that the editorial team at The Guardian, including Alan Rusbridger, were either “grossly negligent” or “worse than criminal”. That’s too say that, according to Murray, publishing a story about a bad idea and criticising this bad idea was “criminal ” which seems at odds with his proclaimed belief in the absolute values of freedom of expression.

The problem with Murray is that he defines freedom of expression in very narrow terms. It is ok to ridicule Muslims or to publicly criticise their faith and belief system (Muslims are a frequent target for Murray), but is not OK to expose the state and state actors to the same standard. For Murray, we must not be permitted to either expose or criticise state activity that threatens our civil liberties. Some “bad ideas” get a free pass. For Murray it’s the “bad ideas” of the powerful that warrant a free pass. If we reduce freedom of expression to only being able to criticise and ridicule the powerless rather than the powerful, then that is no freedom at all.

Unemployment unchanged since formation of the Coalition in 2010

A quick post with some quick stats that I stumbled across this morning. From the Office for National Statistics website:

“Number of people employed on a “zero-hours contract” in their main job was 697,000 for October to December 2014…”

That’s nearly 700,000 people on contracts where the work is not guaranteed and they have an insecure income and, of course, zero employment rights (they are “zero” in terms of more than just hours). Effectively, these people are not employed as we know it. They are neither full-time nor part-time. They have work purely when the employer deigns to instruct them to work – often at very short notice (I know, I’ve worked in retail in a management role and know exactly how it works). So, it seems reasonable to me to package up the zero hour contracts with the figures for unemployment, because they aren’t employed in any real sense.

The latest employment figures suggest that 1.91m people are unemployed. If we tack on the zero hours contracts, we get a grand total of 2.6m unemployed (ok, let’s call it underemployed, or 2.6m people not fully employed). But if we have to do this for the Coalition period, we also have to do this for the period immediately before they came to office. You know, to be fair and all that (we all know Cameron likes to bore on about fairness).

In May 2010, when the Coalition was formed, unemployment stood at 2.48m. According to the (revised) figures from the ONS, there were approximately 190,000 zero hour contracts [PDF] in 2009 (last full year of the Labour government) and 168,000 in 2010 (the first year of the Coalition). If we split the difference and say that there were 179,000 zero hour contracts, and add it to the unemployment figure for May 2010, we get…a grand total of 2.6m unemployed/underemployed/not fully employed. So the figure is unchanged.

Despite the rhetoric from the Coalition (and particularly the Tories), the employment situation has remain largely unchanged in the sense that there are still 2.6m people in this country who are not full employed in the sense that they have stable hours, a stable income and proper employment rights. The only significant difference is that increasing numbers of people are being forced off the social security that they have been paying into, and into insecure employment. Well, that seems fair doesn’t it?

How librarians became Thatcherite and the myth of TINA

Image c/o Simon Q on Flickr.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 saw not only an end to the global conflict, but also to the old economic order. The election of the first Labour government in the UK paved the way for a rejection of the economic policies practiced in the pre-war era, and the acceptance of a new model of economic governance – one based on a belief that government intervention in the economy is necessary to create stability and prosperity. However, this adoption of a new economic approach was not solely the preserve of the Labour party; it was also (broadly speaking) accepted by the Conservative Party in what became known as the post-war consensus.

From 1945 onwards, economic policies formulated by John Maynard Keynes were adopted by both the dominant political parties. There were, of course, tensions on the margins of both, but in the centre (where leadership tends to reside within political movements) there was a consensus that to ensure security and prosperity, the government of the day must adopt:

  1. The goal of full employment;
  2. The acceptance of the role of trade unions;
  3. A mixed economy, with a degree of state ownership of the utilities;
  4. A functioning, equitable welfare state;
  5. An adherence to progressive taxation and redistributive welfare spending.

From 1945 to the late seventies, this consensus remained in place with both parties, to varying degrees, ensuring that Keynes’ economic theories remained at the forefront of government policy. This ultimately led to a great post-war boom and a far greater degree of income equality. However, this “consensus” was not without its tensions, with the right-wing increasingly dismissive of this economic consensus. In the mid to late seventies, these tensions finally burst to the surface and led to the termination of the Keynesian approach to managing the economy.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to the final breakdown of this post-war consensus (arguably this began with Callaghan’s government going to the IMF and obtaining a loan which came with a variety of conditions regarding the shrinking of the state). Having been largely dismissive of the post-war consensus and the restrictions it placed on corporate Britain, Thatcher launched a programme of (highly unpopular) reforms to the economy. Assets were sold off, old state industries were attacked and the post-war consensus which had at its heart the notion of the “citizen” and “society” was abandoned, explicitly rejecting the latter and embracing a renewed faith in freedom, choice and the power of the individual. The erosion of the “citizen” had begun, replaced with a belief that we are, effectively, no more than consumers and customers who must be unconstrained by the state in a truly free market economic system.

In 1983, Thatcher underlined this break from the post-war consensus when she gave a speech to the young Conservatives. Mocking the Opposition, Thatcher asked delegates:

“Could Labour have managed a rally like this?”

(The answer from the delegates was, of course, “no”.)

She went on to add:

“Well, in the old days perhaps. But not now. For they are the party of yesterday. And tomorrow is ours.

“We are all here to state our faith in Britain’s future and our determination to keep her strong and free.”

Whilst this was clearly an attack on Labour, it also signified that, under her premiership, the post-war consensus was dead. It was as much a message to her own side as to the opposition. When she refers to “the party of yesterday” she means a party wedded to the post-war consensus, as Labour remained in the early 80s. When she says “tomorrow is ours” she doesn’t just mean the Conservative Party, she means supporters of her particular brand of conservatism. The “tomorrow” evoked is, clearly, a Thatcherite vision and it is the Thatcherite vision of society that will, in her belief, endure. Indeed, as her next sentence makes clear, not only will it endure but it will be fundamental to a “strong and free” future. This vision was part of the overall belief pushed by her administration that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). The only path to prosperity is the Thatcherite path; there are no other viable options (and certainly the ‘old’ approach was not to be considered viable).

For Thatcher, the only path to ensure security and prosperity was a shrinking of the state and an adherence to free market economics, influenced by figures such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. After the economic shock of the 70s and the subsequent IMF bailout, the only way to ensure the country was secure and remained one of the world’s leading economies was to fully embrace the free market, unencumbered by state interference (as they saw it). There was, as far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, no alternative. The alternative that was envisioned by Labour was considered archaic, a remnant from a previous age, alien to the realities of the modern world. A rejection of the Thatcherite path was considered a danger to the UK, a manifesto for instability and self-destruction. As far as Thatcher and her supporters were concerned, the monetarist counter-revolution influenced by Friedman’s economic ideas was essential to overturn the Keynesian orthodoxy that had existed in the post-war period.

TINA has become so deeply ingrained in our society that the Thatcherite ideology has percolated its way throughout our social and political life. We saw, with the emergence of Tony Blair, that even the Labour party cast aside any remaining adherence to the post-war consensus and accepted broad swathes of Thatcherite policy, dispensing with any remaining notion that they could in any way be considered a party of the socialist left. Under Blair, the party adopted the mantra of the free market and trumpeted its ‘values’, ushering in a new era of corporate influence of state infrastructure (see the infamous “Clause 4 Moment”). It now seems barely possible to consider alternatives (say, for example, the raft of policies that were accepted as part of the post-war consensus) without being painted as either a dinosaur from an earlier age, or a dangerous radical. What was once an accepted position across the political establishment, part of a broad consensus, has become either ‘radical’ or old-fashioned.

This market orientated doctrine has infiltrated all of our public services and is having a damaging impact upon professions. We have seen, as free market ideas have infiltrated public services, a growth of commercial, corporate language within the public sector. We have seen this in the rise of the use of terms such as “customer” and “marketing” in areas where they once had no place. Our language has become corrupted, commercialised in a way that wasn’t conceivable pre-Thatcher. Whereas once the rhetoric was about citizens and their rights, now it’s about consumers and their choices. This has become so deeply ingrained that rejecting the language of the market is considered backward or dangerous.

We have seen this within librarianship. We have had our own TINA moment. The embrace of consumerist language is, as Thatcher’s ideology always insisted, the only game in town. Increasingly we are led to believe that we have to adopt both the language and the approach of the market to ensure our security and prosperity. For example, in a document entitled “What Makes A Good Library Service”, CILIP (the professional body for library and information professionals) advised that for a service to be considered “good”:

Staff should be helpful, knowledgeable, welcoming and well-trained. They should be involved in a workforce development programme. Staff in front line customer service roles should be supported by specialists in service planning and promotion, leadership and management, and those areas of service delivery requiring specialist skills and expertise.

In 2010, the now defunct Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) published a practitioner guidance document called “What do the public want from libraries”. The document contains 31 references to customers. One section, “Expanding the offer – target genuine customer needs, don’t squeeze out books… just add coffee”, advised (with fairly clear implications if not adopted):

Coffee bars should be seriously considered by all libraries who don’t have one already. As well as driving up visitor numbers they can generate income and are an opportunity to build links with a local business.

The Society of Chief Librarians recently trumpeted additional funding from Arts Council England (ACE) by claiming it would be used “locally in areas critical to customers’ lives and well being”. And ACE, recently given the task of overseeing libraries following the disbanding of the MLA, worked with Locality over a six month period last year to:

“…explore existing good practice and assess the potential to further enable income generation to support and enhance as well as to improve the overall resilience and sustainability of library services.”

Again, income generation (whereby citizens become customers) is seen as essential for “resilience and sustainability” (much as Thatcher’s reforms were supposedly, as her supporters presented it, crucial for the resilience and sustainability of the UK econonmy). The consumerist narrative that is a crucial foundation of current economic and political orthodoxy, has become central to the survival of public libraries. The implication of the work between the Arts Council and Locality being that without this “income generation” the future of library services is under threat (there is no alternative.)

Our need to accept this terminology is pushed at us from both within and without the profession. Its use by official bodies (particularly bodies representing the profession) normalises it. The shift to market-orientated approaches that has emerged since the counter-revolution has infiltrated not only our public services, but our professions. The only viable way forward, so it seems, is to accept this reality and orientate our services to ensure a degree of customer services excellence. If we don’t, we risk the stability and long-term future of the service. We are, as the country was in the mid-70s, at a point of crisis. Salvation will come by adopting the language and structures of those that prosper within the free market.

Of course there are alternatives. We can ensure the survival and prosperity of both the profession and libraries in general through alternatives to market-orientated rhetoric, just as there are alternatives to liberalised free market economies (see Syriza’s rejection of the austerity orthodoxy).  There is a very real danger that we could find ourselves boxed-in, only seeing solutions that have their roots in the market. We wouldn’t be the first profession to make this mistake. Economists themselves made the mistake of believing that the free market, unencumbered by the stabilisation of the state that Keynes advocated, would provide the answers to our economic woes and bring prosperity and stability. As the past seven years have demonstrated, they have been proved utterly wrong. As economist Paul Krugman notes, “Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions.” Economists made a mistake in rejecting alternatives because it believed in the market, we’d do well not to make the same mistake.

Do we really have a right to offend?

Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.

(Image c/o ed_needs_a_bicycle on Flickr.)

There has been a growing trend in recent years to argue that there is effectively a “right to offend”, that people do not have a right to take offence.  But is there a “right to offend”? It certainly seems that an increasing number of people believe that there is such a thing (this often comes mixed in with arguments over the right to free speech), from Cristina Odone to David Cameron to Stephen Fry to Ricky Gervais. Confounding what one might reasonably expect, this notion of the “right to cause offence” has embedded itself across the political spectrum. Everyone from the liberal left to the far-right have pushed the line that no-one has the “right to be offended”, based on the notion that people choose to be offended by speech and can choose not to expose themselves to hateful messages and harmful language if they don’t want to see it. As far as the defenders of this so-called “right” are concerned, words are incapable of causing actual harm and therefore any sense of “offence” is meaningless. Of course, this train of thought relies on the belief that words are devoid of any social, cultural or historical context and merely exist in isolation. Which, of course, they do not.

The right to offend

We’ve seen the rise in this “right to offend” mentality in light of the attack on the “satirical” magazine Charlie Hebdo. Here, again, the argument that we should be able to offend whoever we want emerges. It is, so the proponents argue, the right of the cartoonists to insult Muslims, whether they are rich or poor, in positions of power or the disenfranchised. Unlike good satire (which should always punch up not down), broad brush cartoons attacking Muslims are indiscriminate. They do not distinguish between those in power and those without.

When it comes to free speech, we have already accepted as a society that this is not an absolute right. There are limits enshrined in law (although there are those who argue that these limits should not apply). Freedoms have to be balanced, we cannot argue that all rights are absolute, as there are times when these freedoms come into conflict. For example, the right to be able to live in a safe environment and not feel threatened by others, surely trumps the right to free speech (particularly when it comes to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia etc). Not for nothing did the German constitution of 1949 stipulate that:

“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

We all have a right to live with dignity, to live free from the threatening and abusive conduct of others.

Furthermore, we cannot overlook our responsibilities in exercising our right to free speech. One cannot use language that is offensive or threatening to minorities or marginalised groups whilst also detaching oneself from the responsibilities inherent in using such language. As Will Self recently argued, “our society makes a fetish of ‘the right to free speech’ without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right”. We have to be responsible for the language we use and the harm it causes. We cannot wash our hands of it and push the responsibility solely onto the victim for their response.

It is necessary to accept that there are limits, whereas the “right to offend” suggests there are none. And yet, as a society we have accepted that there are limits. As Gary Younge points out in The Guardian, every country restrains free speech to a degree:

In 2005 Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people. In 2008 a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo was fired after refusing to apologise for making antisemitic remarks in a column. And two years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”.

Far from being “sacred”, as some have claimed, freedom of speech is always contingent. All societies draw lines, that are ill-defined, constantly shifting and continually debated, about what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities. The question is whether those lines count for Muslims too.

Indeed, France has been struggling with this in the light of the terrorist attacks, arresting those who have made distasteful “jokes” seen to be in support of those responsible for the series of murders that rocked the country.

We have, as a society, broadly accepted that there is a right to be offended (albeit in very particular terms ie hate speech). It’s no real surprise to find that the vast majority of those who defend the “right to offend” are white, middle class males. These individuals cannot be “offended” because their culture is not under threat they are the ones who, after all, wield the power in our society. When you have power, what is there to be offended by?

Free speech and religion

Although I am a (fairly militant) atheist, I tend to see that there is a significant difference between criticising a religion such as Islam and Christianity in the West. We often hear that Christianity is an easy target – we’re all happy to laugh at Christianity, but wouldn’t dream of doing so with regard to Islam. There is, of course, a substantial difference between the two. We live in a country built on Christian beliefs, on Christian traditions. I grew up in a Christian country. A country where Christianity wields power that other religions do not – 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords and can make or break government legislation. No other religious group has such representation at the seat of power.

We do not have a “right” to mock Christianity per se, but mockery in the face of a force that wields power is reasonable, particularly as it is the dominant religious identity. Islam, on the other hand, is not. It is not part of my cultural heritage and is certainly not accepted as part of our supposed “shared cultural identity”. I have no connection to it. It is something ‘other’. It is not my place to lampoon it because it is not my culture to lampoon. I have no understanding of Islam and its tenets (even if I did, I would still feel uncomfortable exclusively ridiculing a religion that is not part of my cultural heritage). However, I do have ample understanding of Christianity. Mocking Islam as someone brought up in a Western Christian cultural environment makes me feel very uncomfortable. I would not mock other aspects of others’ cultural heritage or identity so why should I mock their beliefs, no matter how irrational they appear to be?

Our freedoms…

Meanwhile, whilst the best efforts have been made to ensure our eyes are diverted towards the many millions of people who had nothing to do with the attack (apart from suffering from the attackers’ lie that they are one of them), the real satire has been gradually unfolding. We’ve been subjected to passionate pontifications about the importance of the freedom of the press, pontifications that ring more than a little hollow when placed in their proper context. As is typical of those in power in desperate need of some good PR, leaders with a questionable commitment to human rights have used the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to assert commitments to free speech and a free press. Not only are our leaders engaging in such stunning cynicism, but prominent voices in the media (ironically) have also been keen to jump on Islam and assert the importance of a free press.

Take Douglas Murray for example. Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society and media spokesperson for the neoliberal far-right. Whilst he laments the state of the free press with regard to its collective failure in the UK to reprint the cartoons that supposedly led to the deaths of 12 individuals, he has not always been the greatest defender of a free press when it comes to confronting the danger of an over-powerful state. A free press when it comes to attacking those least likely to do us harm, versus that of a state that can exert its power over us at will.

Then there are the numerous leaders who announced that they were “Charlie Hebdo” on the streets of Paris. How hollow their words sounded when they are guilty of repressing the free press within their own states. And this hypocrisy didn’t just afflict those from countries in the Middle East and beyond. Indeed, no sooner had David Cameron announced to the world “je suis Charlie”, than he was back home announcing his (laughably idiotic) intentions to ensure that no-one can ever have a private conversation ever again.

A free press should only be defended, it appears, if it is sticking the knife into a minority group rather than those occupying the seats of power. Yes, this is the kind of free speech that must, apparently, be defended – the kind that punches down rather than punches up.

What we should be watching is not the many millions of Muslims throughout the world who merely wish to practice their religion in peace (no matter what we may feel about religion in general) but, as any good satirist would tell you, it’s the state. The powerful. We should be looking up, not looking down. For whilst the state wants us to focus on millions of people who have nothing to do with the atrocities supposedly carried out in their name, they will use this opportunity to remove the freedoms they claim bind us together as part of some notion of shared values. It happens time after time (even to those who are supposed to be watching the state closer than most). They preach solidarity with us, but the reality is that the state is often the enemy of the people and we should never allow their games of distraction to permit us to forget this.

How government is exacerbating the digital divide

(Image c/o Mike Behnken on Flickr.)

There is a common mis-conception that to bridge the digital divide, we merely have to provide everyone with access to an internet connection. Of course, as many of us know, the reality is much more complicated than that. Not only do they require a working and accessible computer with an internet connection, they also require the skills with which to exploit this access to its fullest potential (not to mention the associated issues around varying speeds etc etc). But it’s not just about skills and access, there is also a reliance on those putting information online to do so in a way that is as accessible and user-friendly as possible. This is particularly important when it comes to governmental websites.

I’ve written many times before about the government’s attitude to going digital. It is both poorly conceived and highly damaging. The efforts to move benefits solely online (as well as making job-seekers find jobs online via a governmental portal), is particularly troubling as those most reliant on benefits are also least likely to have an internet connection. The shift to services online would cause serious issues for many who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. However, it’s not just the fact that these services are shifting online when there is still a sizeable chunk of the population who have never used the internet, the lack of care and consideration in the development of such websites is also very troubling. It’s for this reason that I was interested to read FOIMan’s recent blog post on finding information via gov.uk and ico.org.uk (the information commissioner’s website).

The government’s main web presence, gov.uk, is particularly poorly conceived and raises huge issues for those without the skills to navigate the site properly and find the information they need. Even for those with a good standard of computer literacy, the website is problematic at best. As FOIMan explains:

If I want to find information on “freedom of information policies”, a search brings up a few random policies from government agencies, some answers to FOI requests, and FOI stats. It doesn’t take me to any government-wide policies that would previously have been on the Ministry of Justice’s website. There’s enough anecdotal comment on Twitter and elsewhere to suggest that I’m not alone in my frustrations.

The consolidation of multiple governmental websites into one solitary portal whilst seeming a good idea at the time (why have loads of websites widely distributed?), without separate departmental websites you are left with a vast website that makes finding particular pieces of information a particularly arduous task. And why should finding governmental information be anything other than easy and convenient? As FOIMan puts it:

The problem is that gov.uk appears to be solely concerned with the delivery of services in this way. For those of us who want to get at policies, procedures, statistics, reports – we’re stuffed.

This is government information. Information we are all entitled to access not only because we have a right to know, but also because this information can be used by us to hold the government to account. If we cannot easily access reports, statistics, policies etc etc, how can we effectively hold the government to account? A cynic might argue that that’s the way they would want it…

This does raise serious issues about the nature of our democracy as well as the interpretation of the internet by governments. The internet provides a fantastic opportunity in liberal democracies to bring the people and their elected representatives closer together. It provides opportunities to make it easier for citizens to hold their elected officials to account. Opportunities they may be for us, in terms of those in power they are undoubtedly threats. The construction of gov.uk hints at the broader governmental attitude to the internet. Yes, it can open up government and make it easier for the people to access information on the workings of the state. But it is also a threat to their power and authority. So piecemeal efforts are made to open up government via the internet, whilst simultaneously making that information difficult to obtain. Indeed, we know from various other proposals that government see the internet as a threat, when it should be seen as a democratising tool.

There is an opportunity to utilise the internet in order to build bridges between the electorate and the elected. To make our democracies more responsive and to make it easier to hold governments to account. Unfortunately, the attitude of the government towards the internet continues to be one where rather than bridging divides (both within society in general, and between the state and the individual) they are exacerbating existing ones.

Q. Why does Francis Maude hate the elderly?

“So, you see, either buy one of these or we will ensure you cannot access the services you require and have paid for.” (Image c/o The Cabinet Office on Flickr.)

There is nothing wrong with moving government services online. Undoubtedly it has made a whole range of services much easier to use and access for the majority of citizens. I can now go online and purchase my car tax disc in a matter of seconds rather than having to dig out a load of paperwork, complete a paper form and stand in a long queue at the Post Office. I can access information about a range of government services relatively quickly and painlessly (well, considering it’s gov.uk), and I wouldn’t swap that for doing things the ‘old’ way for anything. However, this is where Francis Maude and I depart in terms of understanding the digital world (obviously in broader political terms we depart much earlier than that). Because I understand that it’s a majority not because the minority can’t be bothered to get online, but because for many it is simply not possible to take advantage of digital services.

It’s for this reason that Francis Maude appears to have launched a rather bizarre crusade to get the elderly online. Rather than persist with a mixed approach to government services (ie digital and ‘analogue’ in tandem), Maude is determined to move towards an online policy and if the elderly or the poor are unwilling to get on the internet, then they will lose access to key government services. It is unclear how exactly his government will then provide these people with the support they need, he appears to believe that they can be sidelined and ignored without having an impact on society in general.

There are any number of things wrong with Maude’s rather blinkered approach to digital services. The most obvious is, of course, that to get online costs money. Not only does it cost money to buy the initial start-up equipment (computer and other equipment), but it also costs money every month to have a connection to the internet. When one considers that Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures demonstrate that 13% without an internet connection point to equipment costs as the reason and 12% say access costs are too high (all age groups), it’s clear to see that the reason why they are not online is not down to a proportion of citizens being, as Maude terms it, computer “refuseniks”. They are not refusing, they are unable to choose to get online. Quite a substantial difference, and one that is often overlooked by the comfortable middle classes who assume that, because they have a computer and an internet connection, everyone must be online (it’s this same middle-class assumption that leads to the old “we don’t need libraries anymore because everything is online” nonsense).

And it’s not just the cost of getting online that prevents pensioners from getting online. The ONS figures also reveal that 20% claim that a “lack of skills” is the reason why they are not online. Again, these people are not “refuseniks” they are people who simply do not have the skills to get online and make use of the many services the rest of us take for granted. If we are going to effectively force these people to get online, where is the support going to come from (aside from the paltry ‘one-off’ ‘assisted digital option’ proposed by Maude)? Public libraries seem to provide the most obvious mechanism for addressing this lack of skills but, well, they are being closed, hollowed out and stripped of their ability to provide the kind of support that would benefit those that are digitally excluded.

All of this rather begs the question: what will the government do about those that are excluded? It’s all very well talking ‘tough’ as Maude occasionally likes to do, but what does this mean in real terms? For those who cannot afford to purchase the equipment or to obtain the skills necessary to get online and utilise public services, what are their options? Will they just be left, excluded from important government services with the subsequent knock on effects and additional costs to the taxpayer (to adopt standard Tory terminology for a second…I promise it won’t happen again)? Or will the government purchase the equipment and the connection for those without in perpetuity (highly unlikely given the ongoing costs)? Nowhere in Maude’s grand scheme does he explain how the government will ensure that those who cannot afford the equipment will not be left behind. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

But there’s another element to this that is deeply troubling. The switch to digital also puts the emphasis on the citizen paying to access government services – government services that they have paid for through taxation. Whereas accessing government services would have come at no cost to the citizen but would be met by the government agency (eg leaflets, consultation time etc etc), the cost is now borne by the citizen. Twice. Once through taxation and once in accessing the government service online (which although does not require payment in and of itself, requires the citizen to make a payment to a corporate entity in order to access those same services). Now, that might be fine for people like myself and Maude, but I would argue that the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society should not have to expect to pay twice to access government services. They should be free and accessible to all in whatever format suits their needs. This may cost the government a bit extra, but better that than costing the citizen extra. Government services must be free to access, not effectively placed behind either state or corporate paywalls.

For some time now Maude has been pontificating about the need to drive government services online. Of course it is of great benefit for the majority of us that these services are available online and facilitate quick and easy access to government services. However, there remains a minority who, should the move towards a digital only policy take effect, will be marginalised and excluded from our society. The needs of the people must take precedence over the need to save money, the consequences of getting these priorities in reverse order will be felt for decades to come. The government would do well to remember that, not just in terms of the move towards digital only but also in terms of their broader economic and social policies. But I won’t hold my breath.

Are party political messages ever ok from government departments?

Since government realised that social media could be a useful tool to communicate with the governed, there has been a noticeable trend towards departments espousing political propaganda using the medium. The latest being the following example:

 

Now, I so happen to disagree with the motivation behind this tweet. I actually think that central government shouldn’t be attempting to overtly influence local government decision making processes.  If a local council decides it would like to increase council tax to make up for the shortfall in government spending, and are prepared to go to a public vote over the matter, then that is their right to do so (see Brighton). But I object more to the overt government propaganda contained within the image. It wouldn’t look out of place on some Tory promotional material, and therein lies the problem.

Messages such as that above should surely only be delivered by party political accounts, not by government departments? The civil service should be politically neutral. It has to serve the government of the day, not advance a particular political agenda (of course, it would be naive to suggest they aren’t complicit in cementing a particular political ideology). I would have no issue (although I would strongly disagree with the message) if such a tweet was sent from a Tory minister. I would expect nothing less from them. I would expect, however, a government department to avoid ideological crusades (I know, how naive am I?).

Of course, the truth is that the current government have a particular eagerness for politicising the civil service, turning it into a propaganda arm of whoever is in power. It is important that ministers are surrounded by people who are prepared to question government policy, rather than simply parrot it and push forward a particular ideology. Now, I accept that a certain agenda is bound to be pushed (these are government accounts), but it could surely be done without such overt politicisation (say, a tweet pointing out your rights if a council proposes an above 2% council tax rise)?

It seems to me that a government department should be raising awareness of individual rights with respect to government, dealing with queries from members of the public, pointing people to inquiries and reports or bills going through parliament etc. I don’t think they should be used to present a one-sided, highly politicised perspective on council tax increases. Leave that to the political parties and government ministers.  One thing is for certain, government Twitter accounts should be increasingly handled with care. As the information they share becomes increasingly politicised, so their value rapidly diminishes. Information published by government should always be treated with care anyway, but as it increasingly pushes party political propaganda it becomes ever more difficult to determine what is reliable, and what is sheer political opportunism.