Accused: Jason Watkins (right) as Jefferies.
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Marked man: the careful kindness of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

Christopher Jefferies stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies
ITV

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (10 and 11 December, 9pm) began by carefully establishing the eccentricity of the retired Bristol schoolteacher whose life was so shamefully trashed by the press in the days following his wrongful arrest for the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates in December 2010. What counts as eccentric in 21st-century Britain? I think we’re all agreed that Jefferies’s hairstyle, a swirling grey nimbus secured by vast quantities of Elnett (“Extra Hold”), made for a pretty funny sight.

But is it really so weird to live in a flat full of books, to listen to classical music, to sit on various do-gooding committees, to open letters with a paper knife? How unbelievably depressing. I suppose it is quite unusual, these days, to kneel by your bed to say your prayers. But which of us doesn’t occasionally whisper desperately to some higher power? I know that I do and I was brought up by scientists whose feelings for the Church of England were roughly akin to those of Emily Thornberry for the St George’s cross.

Such details – or, the close attention of the film’s director, Roger Michell, to such details – had me worried at first. The most important point about Jefferies, it seems to me, is not his oddness (when I interviewed him, he seemed no more or less odd than dozens of other men I’ve met) but his ordinariness: he stands for us all in the matter of what the newspapers can do to a person, should they happen to take against him.

Still, I soon calmed down. This was such creditable television, so careful and kind, that it was difficult to believe it was on ITV. Peter Morgan’s script was unsensational to the point of minimalism, Michell’s direction delicate without ever prettifying. Most fantastic of all was Jason Watkins’s turn as Jefferies, a triumph of close observation, emotional consistency and fathomless empathy. Best known at the moment for playing the BBC’s egregious director of strategic governance, Simon Harwood, in the comedy W1A, Watkins deserves every prize going.

We all know what happened to Jefferies, the vile lies that were told about him and the way his sense of injustice over this eventually bubbled up into activism (having appeared at the Leveson Inquiry only reluctantly, he continues to campaign against press intrusion). But this was no broad outline. Here was the man in full, his life replete with friendships (long-lasting, teasing) and abiding interests (wide-ranging, intellectual). Here, too, were his stoicism and good manners. Lost for words at the moment of his arrest, his anxiety revealed itself to us only in his fingers, which made starfish shapes, in and out, and in the rapid escalation of his schoolmasterly pedantry: when a copper asked him what he meant by “bluff”, he reeled off a long list of synonyms that ended, rather brilliantly, with the word “unvarnished”.

The unlikely humiliation of the police cells for a man who had never previously received so much as a parking ticket was neatly encapsulated when he chose pasta bake over chilli con carne for lunch – either way, mush that arrived at 10am in a plastic dish, as if for a baby – and, later on, his other-worldliness in a scene set backstage at the Leveson Inquiry, when he failed to recognise Steve Coogan (played by himself).

Back at his flat, he cleaned resignedly in his Marigolds, the police having turned the place over. As he laid out his shaving equipment, lining each item up as a boy would arrange his toy battleships, we understood that for him the comforts of home have to do, for whatever reason, with order and precision. It was a moment that made the chaos of unchecked “facts” and feverish innuendo into which he had unaccountably been sucked seem all the more painful and appalling. I suddenly found myself thinking of an earlier scene: hiding out with a loyal former pupil in order to avoid the press, Jefferies sat Zen-like in a straight-backed chair, a book called The Cultivation of Lilies in his hands. At the time, I had wondered, in a film whose props seemed always to be meaningful, about the title. Now it made perfect sense. No wonder Jefferies sought solace in fragrant plants: anything to overpower the stench.

 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution