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April 08 2010

13:58

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

March 04 2010

11:58

February 25 2010

11:52

January 21 2010

15:12

November 19 2009

09:39

November 09 2009

20:51

Do something now: help change the daft defamation law on online publishing

Forget about turning your Twitter avatar green or adding a Twibbon, here’s something you can do today which can make a genuine difference to both professional journalists and bloggers: write to the Ministry of Justice as part of their consultation on defamation which has just a few weeks left:

“This consultation seeks views on the ‘multiple publication rule’ under which [people can be sued for every time a web article has been  accessed], and its effects in relation to online archives. The paper considers the arguments for and against the rule and the alternatives of a single publication rule.”

This consultation couldn’t have been published in a more user-unfriendly way. The consultation page consists mainly of a link to a PDF and a Word document (which was clearly written for an online form that was never created, even down to HTML coding).

There is no clear address to send your responses to. You’ll find it on the 4th line of the Word document. It’s defamationandtheinternet@justice.gsi.gov.uk. Don’t worry, I’ll repeat that again at the end of the post.

Here’s what they’re asking (also hereherehereherehere and here), reproduced in a rather easier-to-navigate format and rephrased for slightly easier reading:

  • Question 1. Taking into account the arguments set out in the PDF, should the multiple publication rule be retained? If not, should a single publication rule be introduced? Please give reasons for your answers.
  • Question 2. If the multiple publication rule were to be retained should publishers have to place a notice on an archive once the person responsible has been notified that the material is subject to defamation proceedings?
  • Question 3. If a single publication rule were to be introduced, should it apply to all defamation proceedings, not just those relating to online publications?
  • Question 4. If a single publication rule were introduced,
    1. If the publisher is successfully sued against the original publication of the material, should publishers have to remove or amend material held in other formats under their control?
    2. should there be a provision that, where defamatory material is re-transmitted in a new format, the single publication rule would only protect the previous publisher and not the publisher of the new article?
    3. if neither of these are considered appropriate, how could claimants’ interests be protected?
    4. should the existing ‘voluntary’ obligations to correct inaccurate and misleading material be strengthened? If so, how should this be done?
      Please give reasons for your answers.
  • Question 5.
    • a) If a single publication rule were introduced, do you consider that the approach taken in the United States in respect of what constitutes a new publication of hard copy material would be workable? If not, what changes should be made?
    • b) Should online content that has been modified be regarded as a new publication?
    • c) Are there any other issues that would need to be resolved in establishing a single publication rule? Please give reasons for your answers.
  • Question 6. As an alternative to introducing a single publication rule, should the Defamation Act 1996 be amended to extend the defence of qualified privilege to publications on online archives outside the one year limitation period for the initial publication, unless the publisher refuses or neglects to update the electronic version, on request, with a reasonable letter or statement by the claimant by way of explanation or contradiction? Please give reasons for your answer.
  • Question 7. If the multiple publication rule is retained, should the limitation period remain at one year from the date of publication (with discretion to extend)? If not, what limitation period would be appropriate and why?
  • Question 8.
    • a) If a single publication rule were introduced, should the limitation period of one year run from the date of publication (with discretion to extend) or the date of knowledge (without discretion to extend)? If the latter, should there also be a ten year long-stop from the date of publication?
    • b) If you consider that an alternative approach would be appropriate, what should this be and why?

In case you need further nudging, I’ve started a pledge at PledgeBank – if 10 people sign up to that pledge to write to the MOJ, then I will write too. But not until then. If you need any help let me know.

Once again, the email to send your responses to is defamationandtheinternet@justice.gsi.gov.uk. Please don’t be put off by the exam-style phrasing and intimidating raft of questions. Just answer the questions you feel able to respond to. If you’ve ever complained about the law not catching up to the internet age, this is your chance to do something about it. So do it.

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