Andrew Billen - Just another villain

Television - A timely look into a terrorist's mind and the hurt he caused. By Andrew Billen


Because of the number of innocent Irishmen incarcerated during the IRA's 25-year bombing campaign on the mainland, we did not, perhaps, give the plods of the day credit where it was due. Two decades on from the Brighton bombing of 1984, Peter Taylor finally managed to persuade the man convicted of the outrage, Patrick Magee, to appear in an excellent two-part documentary (14 September). Magee didn't give us any blarney about his innocence or how he was just following orders. The bomb was all his own work. The police got the right man.

In true Hollywood fashion, Magee's nemesis was an old cop on the brink of retirement. Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Reece was a keen fisherman, but the pursuit of mackerel and sprats was not for him. He preferred to wait all day for one really big fish. The Brighton bomber would be his biggest catch of all. It was clear that the security services were not going to be much help. Taylor revealed that they had discovered a stash of IRA bomb timers in a wood nine months earlier, but had made no progress on where or when they would be used. On the week of the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, the official risk assessment was low. When, halfway through the conference, it was upgraded to Bikini Black Alpha (what ridiculous jargon our spooks use!), nobody told the Brighton constabulary.

The morning after the blast, Reece set his men to work sifting through every ounce of Grand Hotel rubble until part of the timing device was finally found lodged in a lavatory bowl, way above in what had been Room 629. There, three weeks previously, Magee had fixed the device behind the panel of the bath in his room. The room's cleaner, whom he refused to let in throughout his stay, said her hand has never stopped shaking from the memory of their encounter.

Reece's next task was to interview the 800 people who had stayed in the hotel during the four weeks before the bombing. All checked out except one: a certain Roy Walsh, who had given a false London address. On his registration card, however, he had left a partial handprint, which was matched, incredibly, not to records taken during his internment in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, but to his time as a teenage thief in Norfolk. He was traced to an IRA safe house in Glasgow, where he was planning a whole summer season of seaside bombs.

Most of this was told in the second documentary. Norman and Margaret Tebbit, as well as the widow of Anthony Berry, who was killed in the blast, co-operated on condition that the bomber would not appear on the same programme. As a result, it was divided into two, the first part centring on the bombing and the victims, the second on Reece and Magee. The division did no great harm, although one day, perhaps, they could be re-edited into a continuous 90-minute film, perhaps for general release.

Sarah Berry's description of being buried alive, her shouts and the yelps of her dogs unheard, certainly bears comparison with the testimony of the trapped climber in Touching the Void. She said she would have done almost anything to be stretched out on the beach and allowed to die in the fresh air. Being Tories at the height of quash-the-miners Thatcherism, the victims are not, maybe even now, the most sympathetic of causes. Footage of the Thursday-night partying in the hours before the explosion brought back some of that period's triumphalism. And yet the programme made you appreciate not only the suffering of the Tebbits, but also their touchingly intimate relationship.

"I don't forgive them, because they never repented," said Margaret Tebbit from her wheelchair. Taylor, in the second programme, did what he could to force repentance out of Magee. He had not, after all, assassinated the Tory high command, but mainly their wives. His only real regret, however, was that the bombing campaign was "necessary".

Magee came over not as a psychopath but as a fanatic, which is as bad. He had been brought up mainly in England and returned to Belfast aged 19 in 1972, when there was a British soldier on every street corner. "The hatred that led to Brighton was generated here on the streets of Belfast," said Taylor, who has covered the province for many years. After two years in Long Kesh prison, Magee signed up for active service with the IRA and became its top bomber. His nickname was "the Chancer".

Reece pointed out, however, that leaving behind a bomb with a three-week fuse in a hotel room was not taking much of a chance. He was deeply unimpressed that his prize catch had been released as part of the Good Friday Agreement after only 13 years of the recommended 35 years in jail: "He was just another criminal. Just another villain." Although it is not quite so simple, that still seems to me the best way for the state to regard terrorists. That is why internment without trial was wrong in Ireland and remains wrong in Guantanamo and Belmarsh: it awards criminals special status. "I can't regret my past," said Magee. "We were an army. We were fighting a war." For Bush and Blair now to advertise a war on terror is crazy. A war is what the terrorists want us to fight. Bring back Chief Super Reece.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Property scandal

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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.