Hold on. Before we all get carried away heaping praise on the House of Commons select committee that grilled the Murdochs, before we start casting for the film version, with perhaps Colin Firth as John Whittingdale (chairman of the committee) and the guy who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings as Rupert Murdoch, we first need to take a fistful of reality tablets.
The members of this select committee aren’t heroes; they’re hypocrites. Their public pontificating over the evils of tabloid phone-hacking, their headline-grabbing finger-stabbing at wicked Rupe and his robotic son, needs to be measured against the fact that they have supported legislation that allows the British state not only to hack its citizens’ phones, but also to intercept our emails, open our post, and spy on us with night-vision goggles. Yes, actual night-vision goggles. Even the News of the World didn’t think of using them.
Since the committee took place on Tuesday, enthralling journalists and boring normal people everywhere, the little-known MPs who sat on it have had their mugshots splashed across the international press under headlines such as “THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO HUMBLED RUPERT MURDOCH”.
A better headline would have been, “The men and women who hilariously talk about the importance of privacy despite having colluded in its destruction in the United Kingdom”. The committee members are either supporters or non-critics of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a piece of legislation passed by the New Labour government in 2000, which codifies how and when the British state may spy on the British people.
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The RIP Act grants agents of the state extraordinary powers to intercept and read our emails, monitor our web-use, and force Internet Service Providers to hand over information about individual web surfers, so that the authorities can, in the words of the Home Office, which enforces the Act, “obtain a picture of that individual’s life, activities and associates”.
The Act empowers everyone from the secret service to the police to super-nosey local councils to invade individuals’ private lives, if they believe those individuals are up to no good. Local councils have used the Act to rifle through people’s bins for evidence of some wrongdoing; to use long-lens cameras to take photos of people who, for example, fail to use a poop-a-scoop to clean up after their dog; even to spy on people at nighttime, sometimes with night-vision goggles, if they suspect those people are partaking in “anti-social behaviour” — by holding a noisy party, perhaps, or frolicking about in the their gardens in their undergarments.
There have been at least 8575 instances of councils spying on people in such a weird, Pink Panther-style fashion, and numerous instances of other state bodies using the RIP Act. Last year, an independent analysis of government credit card spending found that Basildon Council, in Essex in south-east England, spent £1757 in a shop called Spycatcher: it bought zoom binoculars, night-vision goggles and a GPS tracking device, again all justified under the RIP Act.
So where do the brave inquisitors on the select committee that mauled the Murdochs sit on this outrageous law, which makes the antics of The News of the World hacks seem almost tame by comparison? Well, the two members of the committee who were MPs in 2000 when the Act was passed — the Conservative Party’s John Whittingdale and Labour’s Alan Keen — helped to nod it through.
And there’s no reason to believe that the other members of the select committee would have done any different. Tom Watson, for example, the Labour MP who has achieved hero status for his awkward questioning of Murdoch senior, has been a super-keen supporter of the ID Act, which also outraged civil libertarians in Britain with its plans to introduce mandatory ID cards.
The various other committee members have never, not once, stood up in parliament and said of the RIP Act, “You know what? I think it’s wrong to hack into our citizens’ private communications.” Why we should believe them now, far less fall at their feet, when they say, “You know what? It is a disgrace that the News of the World hacked into citizens’ private communications.”
The irony, of course, is that it is the RIP Act that has been used to prosecute and imprison two News of the World hacks so far — because the same piece of legislation that grants the state the authority to monitor private communications also denies that authority to journalists and everyone else. I would like to know, if someone could please explain it to me, just what is progressive and exciting and worthy of journalistic spasms of joy about a situation where the authorities can spy on us, but we cannot spy on them.
*Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London. He is speaking on political correctness at the Centre for Independent Studies’ Big Ideas Forum in Sydney on August 1.