No. 10's Potemkin summit on internet porn solved nothing

Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the Internet Watch Foundation?

The "Downing Street summit" is a trusty device to bump some minor item a couple of points up the news agenda. The Prime Minister doesn'’t even need to be present, as indeed he wasn'’t when Maria Miller gathered corporate internet Titans in No. 10 to declare collective horror at child pornography. 
 
It turns out the simple fact of the conversation taking place within those hallowed walls is sufficient to spur action. But what action? The assembled bigwigs - including representatives from internet service providers (ISPs), phone companies, search engines and social networking sites - pledged to boost the funds and powers available to the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry's self-regulatory body, to track down and block child porn. Agreeing to do a tiny bit more is unmistakably better than agreeing to do less. So well done Big Internet for disapproving of vile criminality! 
 
Did it really take a choreographed Downing Street tea party to get an extra £1m for the IWF (spread over four years)? And will that sum, multiples of which are routinely misplaced in the margins of Google'’s UK tax returns, do anything much at all to protect children from predatory paedophiles? The answer, each time, is surely “no”. But it has helped boost Maria Miller’'s profile at a time when the Prime Minister is known to be mulling a ministerial reshuffle. There is no doubt Miller is feeling embattled. Comments she made ahead of the summit, noting her own status as the only mother in the cabinet, have been interpreted –not exactly favourably as an attempt to secure her position. She has even had to defend  the very existence of her department from the whispered suggestion it might usefully be scrapped altogether. (When Steve Hilton was still firing off wild strategy ideas in No10 he notoriously wondered aloud if the DCMS might be downsized to a roomful of people and a website.) Miller’'s friends suspect a concerted briefing campaign to get rid of her, with a steady flow of unhelpful items turning up in newspapers and political columns. 
 
It doesn’'t take a tremendous leap of the imagination to suppose that a beleaguered minister might see some presentational advantage in striding purposefully along Downing St. as the scourge of child pornography.  Yet there is something a little dismal about the whole spectacle. Much reporting of the summit conflated two separate issues: access to illegal images of children –and children’s' access to entirely legal sexual images. It is pretty easy to get outraged about the former and to demand a crackdown; the latter appears not to have been addressed at all. What many campaigners really want  – and what ISPs resist– is a tougher regime of default filtering that means, in theory, children can’'t accidentally find themselves looking at the bad bits of the web. (Whether or not this is a good idea in theory or can even be done in practice is more complicated than it sounds– I wrote about it at some length earlier this year.) 
 
The volume and nature of readily available and entirely legal sexual images online –-  increasingly user-generated  -  is a source of massive anxiety to many parents. It is also complex issue in terms of carving out jurisdiction and apportioning responsibility for policing. It merges with the wider debate, no less tricky, about the social consequences of a more generally sexualised culture. Education is likely to play as important a part in the answer as filtering and blocking. Separately, every rational person can agree that illegal paedophile material needs to be expunged. The two problems are more distinct than is often implied in reporting. Meanwhile, neither came remotely close to being solved by yesterday'’s Potemkin summit. 
 
Culture Secretary Maria Miller leaves No. 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt