After Gaddafi, before Blair and farewell to Wapping

Cameron’s about-turn on Libya, lip-service to human rights, News Corp’s caring and sharing ethic and

Now we know why the government was so anxious to mount a military operation in support of the Libyan rebels against Muammar al-Gaddafi. It hadn't merely, in the interests of persuading the dictator to abandon terrorism and WMDs, turned a blind eye to his failings.

It had actively colluded in his tyranny, handing over rebel leaders for torture, training his thugs and keeping him abreast of Libyan dissidents' activities in the UK. No wonder ministers rushed to support the rebels when they looked likely to win. If they hadn't, there would now be all hell - or, more precisely, lucrative oil exploration contracts - to pay for.

There may still be a high price, but at least there's a chance the new Libyan government will think it owes us. For David Cameron, it has all worked out nicely. Though he, like Gordon Brown, quietly continued Tony Blair's policy of cosying up to Gaddafi (albeit without having himself pictured in a tent), his briskly executed U-turn allows him to pose as a friend of the revolution while the reputation of his Labour predecessors sinks still further. The new regime may turn into an Islamist theocracy, treating its opponents as brutally as Gaddafi treated his. If it does, will Cameron remain so supportive of human rights?

Winston's way

I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the obvious historical analogy to the alliance with Gaddafi: our collusion with Stalin in the Second World War. As the Russians advanced over eastern Europe, Stalin demanded that those found in previously Nazi-controlled areas, including some 40,000 "White Russian" or anti-communist troops, should be repatriated regardless of their own wishes. Winston Churchill agreed that, where necessary, our troops would help in rounding them up. He well understood that many would be shot. "We cannot afford to be sentimental about this," wrote the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, adding, "we don't want them here".

The wartime government, however, had the further excuse that British prisoners-of-war were falling into Soviet hands and that upsetting Stalin might endanger them. Furthermore, even though Churchill backed military support for the White Russians during the civil war, he never pretended to favour humanitarian and liberal crusades. He was an honest, old-fashioned warmongering imperialist, not a hypocritical moralist in the Blair mould.

Family firm

From the latest MPs' questioning of former News International executives, we know the real reason Rupert Murdoch's company paid large sums to Clive Goodman, the News of the World reporter jailed for phone-hacking. Not, as we thought, to keep him quiet so he didn't implicate other staff - including senior executives - in criminality. No, Goodman, a convicted criminal who brought shame on his employers, was paid £230,000 on compassionate grounds. "Newspaper proprietors have a tradition of looking after staff families," MPs were told. In more than 30 years working on Fleet Street, five of them for the Sunday Times when it was controlled by News International, this caring side of the industry somehow escaped my notice. Like Murdoch's executives and ex-executives, I have searched my memory on this subject, but I cannot recall any person in a senior position even asking if I had a family. I don't remember. I was not aware of it. I had no involvement. It was outside my brief.

The confusenik

Given that Wapping seems to induce chronic amnesia, Murdoch is wise to abandon it. I worked there for only a few months and still shudder whenever I pass. A few journalists, known as "refuseniks", declined to obey Murdoch's instruction to move there in 1986 so that he could break the print unions. I was a "confusenik", because, much as I hated Murdoch, I didn't greatly care for the unions, which to my mind behaved more like labour contractors than organisations of proletarian solidarity.

I declined to travel on company buses provided to ferry employees to work safely. Instead, I walked from the local Tube station, braving abuse from picket lines and the occasional stone, which I was then nimble enough to dodge. Wapping itself, draped with barbed wire and entered through a heavily fortified gatehouse, was far more unpleasant. Murdoch's men called it "the plant" and indeed it felt like a factory. I knew journalism had changed for ever when I heard an executive refer to a newspaper as "the product".

Circus act

The late education professor Ted Wragg used to say that education was like Piccadilly Circus: wait long enough and everything comes round again. Here's an example. Travelling on a train from London to Manchester many years ago, I fell into conversation with a formidable woman who said she was a school governor. Which school, I asked. All schools in Manchester, she replied, explaining that the city's education committee, of which she was a member, was also the governing body for each school. That arrangement, I learned to my surprise, was not uncommon and it continued until legislation in the 1970s required each school to have a separate governing body.

Now, as the Financial Times reports, Ark Schools, which runs a chain of supposedly “independent" state-financed academies - set up, the government assures us, to "liberate" education from stifling local authority control - wants to set up a single governing body for all its schools. "The vast business of English education", a leaked memo says, should not be "run and regulated as a set of cottage industries". So much for accountability, devolution and the "big society".

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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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.