Tory ministers bid to revive the snooper's charter after Woolwich attack

Theresa May is "determined" to act to give the police new powers to monitor internet use.

All too often in recent history, governments have used terrorist attacks as a pretext to further erode civil liberties, so David Cameron was rightly commended for his declaration yesterday that there would be no "knee-jerk" response to the events in Woolwich. In the hours after the murder, John Reid, the former Labour home secretary, Lord West, the former security minister, and Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem peer and a former government reviewer of counter-terrorism, all argued that the attack demonstrated the need to revive the communications data bill or "snooper's charter", which was excluded from the Queen's Speech after Nick Clegg's intervention. But Cameron's words reassured liberals that the government would not be pushed into hasty legislation. To invert Tony Blair, the rules of the game have not changed. 

But on last night's Question Time, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, suggested that she and others are more sympathetic to the calls from Reid and co. She said:

I'm very supportive of legislation on communications data, I think it would help us in combating terrorism. 

Elsewhere, today's Independent reports that Theresa May, who has previously accused opponents of the bill of "putting politics before people’s lives", is "determined" to act. A Tory tells the paper: "The Home Secretary is very keen to do something shortly that includes at least some of this Bill. I suspect any opportunity to strengthen pressure on the naysayers will be taken. She is absolutely determined to do something on this."

What is not clear is whether Villiers and May only have in mind changes to make sure all mobiles are linked to IP addresses, something Clegg is willing to consider (and which may not require primary legislation), or whether they hope to revive the bill in its original form, which would require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year. But however modest or severe the proposals, the coalition is heading for further division over this. A spokesman for Clegg simply said: "There are already substantial powers in place to track the communications of criminals and terrorists." 

Home Secretary Theresa May arrives to attend a meeting with government's emergency response committee, COBRA, in Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.