An elderly media tycoon and the not-so-humble pie

Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingles.

So there it was, then. The defining moment of the Hackgate hearings was not a thundering "You can't handle the truth!" from one of the main players but a foamy pie splattering into the face of an elderly media tycoon.

As the faux-custard humiliation oozed down his face, perhaps Rupert Murdoch's news-loving Spidey-sense still tingled: he must have known, despite it all, that this was the only show in town, and his humbling, via a not-so-humble pie, was complete.

It's a messy kind of protest, chucking goo at someone you don't approve of, and quite often rather counterproductive.

Ted Heath got showered with red paint on his first day as Prime Minister in 1970 (remarking "That was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?"), then splashed with ink outside the Palais d'Egmont in Brussels in 1972.

Peter Mandelson, of course, suffered a green custard sploshing at the hands of an outraged environmentalist in 2009, one of many food-chucking incidents of the New Labour era, which saw John Prescott egged, Nick Brown lunged at with a chocolate éclair and Tony Blair pelted with a tomato. Keep a straight face, please, because it's not funny, but Robert Kilroy-Silk had a bucket of slurry thrown over him.

Maybe there's a special course that politicians can go on where they learn how to maintain their dignity while they have foodstuffs lobbed at them; perhaps it's just a skill that comes with the territory.

There is a certain ability to be able to climb onto the moral high ground with relative certainty when one is enduring a custard onslaught -- though when the icy-cool mask slips, as it did with Prescott's memorable two-punch combo aimed at a protester in Rhyl, it needn't be a disaster either. People didn't mind Prezza going toe-to-toe with a man with an egg-hurling man in double denim; it seemed, in the public's imagination, that under such provocation, all ministerial decorum could be abandoned.

I know, by the way, that I'm talking about the pie, and that by talking about the pie, I detract from "the story", which is about everything other than the pie; by doing so, even with my minuscule readership, I run the risk of, in some small way, encouraging others to take up shaving foam and a cardboard plate when all else fails.

I understand this, but a pie to the face is still a pie to the face; there's no use pretending it didn't happen, when we all saw that it did.

I suppose I should say at this point that it's a demonstration of inarticulacy to pick up an egg, or a custard pie, rather than a keyboard, or a pen: and yes, it does give your target the chance to play the victim and accuse you of being incapable of using words to make your argument.

Mind you, the only way I think Murdoch could have won us over would be if he had secreted a pie of his own into the hearing, and launched it into his attacker's face as a pre-emptive strike. That would have been brilliant, but sadly it was not to be.

The pieing rounds off a truly miserable few days for Daddy Murdoch. His empire might not be collapsing around his ears, but it's not been a golden time either. But he can't let go, and is absorbing a huge amount of limelight since the collapse of the News of the World -- possibly to save his family, possibly because that's just the way he does things. It might even lead one to suspect he's almost rather enjoying the attention.

That grinning promenade with Rebekah Brooks was one thing; the paparazzi photos of his spindly legs in tiny 1980s athletics shorts, dangerously close to an upskirt moment, was another.

Perhaps it's a dirt-eating grin of someone who knows they are on the wrong end of a tanking; perhaps it's a defiance, in the face of all of it, from someone who believes he's more sinned against than sinning; or maybe it's just a smile from someone who knew all along that these days would one day come.

We'll never know, I suspect.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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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.