I was delighted to hear this morning that Theresa May is to look at new powers for Ofcom in the light of the BBC decision to compound the propaganda coup that it gave to terrorism by broadcasting an interview with one of the murderers’ mentors – on top of its cover for the killer’s testimony.
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I was, however, dismayed to read the Michael Howard has joined John Reid and Alan Johnson in calling for the Communications Bill to be revived. This attempt to expensively return to the world of 1979, (the heart of the solution proposed entails spending £billions to recreate a BT stranglehold over the UK communications infrastructure), is irrelevant to the challenges of today. There is an undoubted need to update the surveillance capabilities of the UK security services but the communications world has moved on since the Post Office monitored the activities of the IRA and its sympathisers and the approach behind the bill is a decade or more behind the curve.
I have blogged before on the dangers of basing future surveillance policy on a return to a mythical past . The modern equivalent requires the co-operation of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. However, the symbiotic relationship between UK and US intercept capability (dating back to 1941 when the secrets of Bletchley Park were first given to the Americans to help bring them into the war) greatly complicates such co-operation if it is to be based other than on court orders, akin to the US process. More-over the bulk of terrorist communications which do not pass over their services or over University and Education networks (the original communications networks of both the Tamil Tigers and Al Qaeda were run from well-respected American and UK Universities) will use Internet Cafe access to operations like Cyberbunker and its peers.
That does not mean that the problems of surveillance are intractable. “Merely” that the Big Data “solution” predicated in the thinking behind the Communications Bill is not the most practical or cost-effective way forward. And when it comes to dealing with those like the killers of Lee Rigby it is all but irrelevant. Hence my welcome for the way that Theresa May is looking at the present and future, including the role of Ofcom, not the past – like her predecessors.
In looking at the future, the role of the BBC may be paramount, not just as a broadcaster but as the UK’s premier on-line brand. In the war against Fascism it was far from neutral. To quote Sir Robert Renwick (one of those at the heart of World War 2 who got his peerage for not writing his memoirs): “the BBC and the Times were world class propaganda machines, beside which the Germans were mere amateurs”. His precise words, like he himself, were airbrushed out of history – but do license fee payers expect the BBC to be neutral in “the war against terror”? or do they expect it to deploy its talents on “their” side – helping “take out” the intellectual breeding grounds that link extremism to violence.
If so we get into “interesting” areas because it was pointed out to me over the week-end that Muhammad copied the justification for Holy War from St Augustine.