An open letter to Melanie Phillips

Alan White's open letter to the Daily Mail columnist about the promotion of a prematurely-sexualised culture on the paper's website.

This letter was submitted to Melanie Phillips through her website on 2 November. It also appears on Alan's website here.

Dear Ms Phillips,

In a piece published on 21 October (“Jimmy Savile and how the liberal left encouraged the sexualisation of our children”) you bring to the public’s attention the shameful relationship between the Paedophile Information Exchange and the National Council for Civil Liberties — known today as Liberty. You go on to say:

“Now we are being told by commentators that the culture which covered up Savile’s abuses belonged to a quite different age, that times have radically changed and paedophilia would no longer be tolerated. But this is just not true.”

As evidence for this, you cite the recent child abuse cases in Rochdale. You quite rightly add: “For while paedophilia has become a word that engenders not just social opprobrium but a degree of hysteria, at the same time Britain has, in effect, turned into a paedophile culture. It accepts — even expects — that the very young will be sexually active.”

Ms Phillips, I can find little flaw with your argument. However, I believe you make a significant omission from your piece. You fail to mention a relatively modern institution which appears to have done its utmost to promote the prematurely-sexualised culture which you describe. It is the website of the newspaper for which you write.

I find it very difficult to believe you are not aware of this. The blog post that outraged me so much that I felt compelled to write to you was published today. It now carries the title: “Little Lady Liberty! Teenager Elle Fanning pays homage to New York landmark”. It is viewable here:

This has changed from its original title, which made reference to Ellie Fanning’s “womanly curves”, which, according to an earlier version of the piece, she apparently wasn’t afraid to “flaunt”. You can see a screengrab of it here:

Ellie Fanning is 14 years old.

I believe the title of the article was changed due to the outrage that was sparked on social media. These pictures were taken from her personal Instagram account. The article, as it now stands, is just about respectable, assuming one doesn’t take offence at the reference to her “best angles”.

This is not a one-off mistake, Ms Phillips. As the journalist Martin Robbins has pointed out, this type of “journalism” (can it even be called that?) is a regular feature of Mail Online – a website on which your own writing appears. Indeed, it is endemic to the website’s culture. Tragically, this is because its editors know it generates traffic.

Here is his blog post on the subject.

And here is a video of him discussing it:

As Mr Robbins points out, “Remarkably, there is nothing in the PCC code to stop Mail Online publishing images of young children accompanied by such commentary. Section 6 of the code, focusing on children, says that “young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion” and that editors “must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s life”.

You may be entirely unaware of all this. You may file your pieces, blissfully unaware of the nature of the site on which they are subsequently hosted. But I would appreciate a response from you as to whether you feel that this behaviour, from a website which has now broken the 100 million unique web browser mark, is morally acceptable. I understand you are the mother of two children. Would you be happy to see them portrayed using the language that this website chooses?

You have my email. I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Alan White

Social media was outraged by the Mail's depiction of 14-year-old actress Elle Fanning. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.