A LAC Of Perspective

There seems to be a growing sense that ‘something needs to be done’ about technology. I don’t just mean the (entirely justified, in my view) middle class pre-occupation with children’s screen time, but a sense that something needs to be done about the hacking, the abuse and the distortion of reality. Also, Russia.

There is, of course, no perfect way of keeping people safe. In India, for example, the government has literally taken to turning off the internet to stop the public taking justice into their own hands after receiving fake reports on WhatsApp about children being murdered.

Yes, you did read that right, they are actually turning off the internet for hours at a time to stop the spread of fake news. You can even visit www.internetshutdowns.in to see the frequency with which this is happening – by my count almost one every three days so far this year.

On the plus side, this drastic measure probably stops innocent people being lynched. On the negative side, well, not only does it affect people’s ability to live their lives – how much would you and your business be stymied by not having internet access for, say eight hours, without any notice? – but it also creates a pretext for the government to shut down communications and information whenever it’s expedient.

What a terrifying amount of power for any state to have. Part of the problem, of course, is that we’re almost never allowed to define what our own safety looks like. Case in point, I recently changed my phone contract and as part of the package got a free trail of Vodafone’s SecureNet, which was advertised as ‘protection from dangerous files, viruses and harmful websites’.

Who doesn’t want that, right? Well, imagine my impotent rage a few weeks later when I followed a link in a Shooting Times email on my phone and got the following message: ‘This website is blocked by your content filters for the category Hate, Violence and Weapons.’

With a big red button underneath that bore the legend ‘Return to Safety’. Now, it’s entirely possible that rival shooting publications had simply bribed Vodafone to block the Shooting Times website, but I won’t know the truth of that until I check the print edition and see if this sentence has been removed. [Don’t worry Caroline, the GTN budget doesn’t quite stretch to bribing multinational telecommunications conglomerates – ed]

It’s depressingly far more likely, however, that the good people of perhaps the world’s worst mobile phone company see nothing wrong with lumping in shooting sports with ‘hate and violence’ and sanctimoniously hiding them from view in the name of our safety. Much like the recent debate around the potential ban on .50 cal rifles, there is a wilful conflation of legitimate sporting practice, something which brings joy to millions of people, with criminality and destruction.

It is lazy thinking – if indeed there is thought there at all – lazy journalism, and it makes me very angry. As you’re probably aware, we’re by no means the only ones being undermined by bad journalism.

Much like half the country, I recently read the Secret Barrister’s book, and the anonymous be-wigged scribbler’s moans about the media’s ill-informed and often entirely erroneous reporting on criminal law cases sounded all too familiar. We all know, too, that the media would gleefully reveal the Secret Barrister’s identity given half the chance, despite the fact that this would remove a much-needed and informed window into the state of the criminal justice system.

And that’s another problem with technology – it presents an alarming number of ways in which our privacy can be destroyed, although some, like the rather beleaguered (and deservedly so) League Against Cruel Sports, seem to see this as a bonus. As The Times reported in October, LACS has allegedly been caught with its grubby little hand on the mouse of shame, having ‘asked a computer expert to snoop on the email account of Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance’.

Now, I don’t blame LACS for wanting to read Bonner’s emails – I very much enjoy his Twitter feed and I’m sure his emails are equally entertaining. But, as the CA have rightly pointed out, it’s not exactly ethical behaviour and does make something of a mockery of their charitable status.

Although, as Kid’s Company and Oxfam have shown us in recent times, the ethical bar for charity behaviour is even lower than the IQ of your average anti. What’s interesting from a media perspective is how few papers picked up on the story. The Times not only broke the story but also published a follow-up piece four days later, but aside from the reliably-outraged Breitbart and charity-sector specific publications there was resounding silence.

Funny, really, when the story is not only about hunting – which papers love because it’s such a clickbait issue – but also contains serious allegations made by an MP regarding a charity which quite publicly gave him and other senior figures the boot not long before.   I could be entirely wrong on this (please tell me if I am, I’d love to know) but I don’t think it’s anything to do with the fact that it contains issues that, if reported the wrong way, could be subject to legal action.

Regardless of what LACS screams on its website about the story being false (mostly obfuscation and a general reliance on joe public not knowing how utterly, shamefully useless the Charity Commission really is), there is more than enough meat on the bones to run an article about the general statement of affairs at LACS – especially given that the MP Chris Williamson’s criticisms are on record.

Rather, I think it’s to do with three factors:

1) There was no evidence of actual hacking

2) No one has really heard of the MP in question

3) There’s no palatable victim in the piece.

Had it been the other way round, it’s hard not to imagine there being endless articles about rich, blood-crazed toffs using family money to prey on the innocent and cash-strapped charity LACS.

Which rather begs the question – how have we got to the stage where even the possibility that a charity might want to make such a serious breach of privacy isn’t newsworthy? Is the rise of technology responsible for this indifference towards what should be basic values, or is it that skewed media reporting has removed people’s ability to decide for themselves who is the real villain? Either way, something has to be done.

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