Tabloid morality, missing Madeleine and the perils of a clever politician

The downmarket newspapers can scarcely contain their glee at the rash of allegations on Twitter, naming celebrities who have supposedly taken out superinjunctions to prevent publication of details of their sexual behaviour. The apparent failure of judges' attempts to create a privacy law, the papers claim, represents a great triumph for liberty. It is nothing of the sort. It marks a significant victory for those who favour a Taliban-style moral dictatorship, in which anyone who commits adultery - or, more precisely, anyone suspected of adultery - risks a (metaphorical) public stoning.

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's very own Ayatollah, or "editor", as he prefers to call himself, outlined the moral argument in 2008. "Since time immemorial," he said, "public shaming has been a vital element in defending . . . acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens . . . adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a vital role . . . It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency . . . and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don't agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers."

You might say that, far from protecting "standards of social behaviour" (the Ayatollah means sticking to sex within marriage, preferably in the missionary position), the press undermines them by giving the impression that everyone is at it. But leave that and other non sequiturs aside. The Ayatollah thinks the press should act as a kind of public morality police, perfectly happy to visit "shame" not only on the transgressors but on their children and other relatives. I can just about tolerate honest prurience, but this I find chilling. If neither parliament nor the courts can protect privacy, we shall be left with Ayatollah Dacre's version of sharia law.

Censor sensibility

Dacre, though, should be careful what he wishes for. The first and still the best argument against censorship (which is what superinjunctions amount to) came from John Milton's Areopagitica in 1644. Milton opposed prior restraints on publication because he believed that truth and falsehood should "grapple" in the open. But once the grappling was over, he favoured prosecution of authors whose writings had proved "mischievous and libellous". Dacre may like to ponder the penalties. The "fire and the executioner", Milton wrote, "will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy".

Not in front of the kids

Pundits admit the coalition has turned out badly for Nick Clegg but say he and the Lib Dems had no alternative to entering it. I disagree. If the Tories had formed a minority administration, Lib Dem MPs, after open debate and careful monitoring of public opinion, could have treated each legislative proposal on its merits while promising not to deny the government its finance bill or support a no-confidence motion. That, I think, is what voters meant by "a new politics", and what they thought Clegg meant. Instead, they see the Lib Dems as a party that makes shoddy compromises to stay in office, an impression accentuated by ministers from the two parties claiming they had all suddenly become best buddies.

After the Lib Dem debacle in the local elections and the Alternative Vote referendum, perhaps ministers will air their disagreements in a more transparent manner instead of clinging to dogmas of collective responsibility. In Germany, ministers from different sides of a coalition set out their differences on TV. "We are not ready for that culturally," a Lib Dem aide told the Guardian. In other words, adults shouldn't argue in front of the children.

Willet work?

Very clever people such as David Willetts, the universities minister, nearly always make bad politicians. Most politicians circle an idea warily, asking how it could get them into trouble. Willetts seizes ideas as though they were new toys and wants to share them with everybody else. His latest goes like this: though universities cannot charge UK and EU students more than £9,000 a year, non-EU students pay £12,000-£28,000. For the former, universities must abide by government quotas, because public subsidy is involved, but they can admit as many non-EU students as they like. So why not admit some UK students under the latter category, provided they, their parents or some benefactor will meet the costs? Universities could then award more places within government quotas to students of modest means.

Put like that, you can see the proposal may be worth discussing, particularly if you're a Tory. But Willetts is saddled with headlines about "selling" university places to the rich and, not for the first time, finds himself in a blazing political row. The poor man is too clever to understand how his ideas will look once they have been simplified for folk of lesser intellect.

Moment of Maddyness

Back to Ayatollah Dacre's Mail, which is always mindful of the wider social good. In 2007, its reporter David Jones confessed to "niggling doubts" about Kate and Gerry McCann, created by the latter's "strangely breezy and matter-of-fact weblog". But, he instructed, if the McCanns were guilty of their daughter's disappearance (as was then wrongly alleged), "The consequences would be harmful almost beyond measure. Such an incredible outcome would forever destroy the inherent faith we place in outwardly decent, caring parents . . . and with it our very trust in . . . human nature." Now, having read Kate's newly published account, he accepts the McCanns as "loving parents" and is "certainly sorry that I ever thought otherwise". So that's all right then.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.