The growing myth of Brexit ‘incompetence’

With apologies to turtles and rocks, Brexit is myths all the way down.

Its central thesis – that the UK can turn on its heel and thrive without the EU – has proven to be a myth. According to UBS, the UK has already lost 2% of GDP due to Brexit, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

Its supporting economic argument – that the UK can replace advantageous arrangements with the EU with a free trade deal, and make up any shortfall by creating new agreements with other nations – is a myth. The government’s Chequers proposals are dead in the water and we are hurtling towards a No Deal exit.

And I need not go into detail on the many other fanciful promises that were made during the referendum – many of which were disavowed almost as soon as the result became clear. They were clearly myths, too.

Beyond the referendum itself, there are other myths on which Brexit rests. Chief among them is the British nationalist myth: we’re exceptional, and we are capable of standing alone in the world, and that great long-lived myth of World War II – the oft-debunked and totally discredited ‘Blitz spirit’ – will see us through anything.

Today, the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has added his own contribution to the list of Brexit myths. In widely reported comments to the BBC, he claimed that the government’s ‘lack of preparation’ for Brexit had ‘beggared belief’, and that news of food and medicine stockpiling

‘doesn’t tell us anything about whether the policy of staying in the EU is good or bad, it tells us everything about the incompetence of the preparation of it’.

IMF Spring Meetings 2008

Mervyn King (IMF Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe)

King is a prominent supporter of Brexit. Yet Brexit as promised to the people who voted for it is an impossibility. So it’s in his interests to change the conversation. As the quotes above show, the way he and others are trying to do this is to blame the failure of Brexit on incompetence rather than fantasy. Labour have been particularly fond of this narrative, with their central campaigning theme on Brexit being (to paraphrase) ‘if only you’d get shot of the rubbish Tories, we’d take over negotiations and everything would work out great’.

Remainers need to resist this narrative. It is a myth as dangerous as any proposed during the referendum campaign. Allowing people like King to paint what is happening in the UK as mere ‘incompetence’ is to misallocate blame. Instead, we must keep reminding people that no politician and no government can ever deliver Brexit as it was presented to the people who voted for it.

Without consistently making this point, we will fall into the trap that King and his allies are setting. It’s the same dogmatic approach to an ideology that you see with communism – that it has never been done ‘properly’. As if on cue, King’s comments followed on the heels of Boris Johnson’s latest absurd missive in the Daily Telegraph, in which he claims that the current state of things shows ‘not that we have failed, but that we have not even tried’.

It’s not enough to suggest, limply, that a more intelligent or competent government would handle this better. In the context of the referendum campaign and the myths that won it (to say nothing of the illegality), there was no realistic political course for a Conservative Prime Minister to chart.

No, instead, it is time to come clean and say, badly paraphrasing the great European Winston Churchill, that Brexit is a fantasy, wrapped in an impossibility, inside a dream. It’s myths all the way down, and it’s time for the UK to wake up.

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‘Adequate food for all’: the new Brexit slogan, dead on arrival

Yesterday the newly-minted Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, appeared before the Brexit select committee. I suspect that he didn’t expect to be demoted two weeks into the job, but almost simultaneously, that was what happened, as Theresa May – the Prime Minister who has shown such impeccable judgement and negotiating skill with her own party – takes on the mantle of lead negotiator.

Bearing in mind that Raab’s predecessor, David Davis, spent just four hours with Michel Barnier (the EU’s lead negotiator) this year, I suspect this is more of a cosmetic update than a meaningful power shift.

Raab was keen to reassure the select committee about something quite important to all of us: the government’s preparations for food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As recently as Sunday, he had failed to deny that the government was stockpiling food, calling it only a ‘selective snippet’.

Today, he clarified that it wasn’t the government doing the stockpiling. Instead, the government is working with industry to do the stockpiling. It’s a neat distinction, but not one I personally find reassuring.

He adopted another unnerving phrase in the course of this explanation: that there will be ‘adequate food supplies’.

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Inadequate politician (photo by Chris McAndrew, sourceCC BY 3.0)

Plenty of other people have pointed out the unattractive nature of this statement. I think I’ve seen at least three separate mock-ups for putting it on the side of the famous Vote Leave bus.

But there’s something more significantly wrong with Raab’s claim – not just wrong, but disturbing. Anyone who follows the issue of food in the UK will know that there is already a crisis. Food poverty has been on the rise in our country, most notably since the recession a decade ago.

It’s very difficult to find good statistics on this, because – guess what – the government doesn’t collect data. They claim, for example, that monitoring the number of people using food banks would place too much of a burden on the volunteers who run them. (Seriously.)

So it’s left to the civil society organisations – mostly cash-strapped charities – to do the role of our civil service. And they do a decent job. In particular, the Trussell Trust produces tons of research and advocacy. Importantly, they also adopt a cross-cutting approach, looking for instance at the impact of Universal Credit and benefit cuts on food bank users. Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group are also notable for their work on this issue.

Some key statistics:

  • According to UN data from 2014, more than 2 million UK citizens are in severe food poverty and up to 8 million live in households where there is moderate or severe food poverty [src]
  • The Trussell Trust doled out 1.3 million 3-day emergency food supplies in 2017/18 – 13% higher than the previous year (and they only represent 2/3 of the UK’s food banks) [src]
  • 1 in 4 parents are skipping meals because they can’t afford them [src]

I confess to being skeptical of some of this research. Some of these organisations are clearly on low budgets and probably do not have the kind of resources that are required to do really high quality research of this type.

That’s yet another reason why a government serious about providing ‘adequate food’ for its citizens would already be measuring food poverty and food insecurity. Emma Lewell Buck, the Labour MP, has attempted to introduce legislation to that end on several occasions, without success.

In a cruel irony, her most recent Bill, still going nowhere in Parliament, even uses that same phrase:

For the purposes of this Act “food insecurity” means a person’s state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year. [emphasis added]

When the government won’t even get the information it needs to figure out how to help people who are already living below the breadline, there is no reason to trust Dominic Raab’s inadequate reassurances.


EDIT: I’m grateful to Andy Jolly for drawing my attention to the Food Standards Agency’s ‘Food and You’ survey. The FSA’s remit is much more to look at food safety and hygiene, but there is data in this survey that counts as official statistics. It is still inadequate so far as meeting the needs of citizens goes, but it’s more detailed than I thought, so consider this a partial correction.

You can find the ‘Food and You’ surveys here. Key statistics from the last one (April 2018):

  • 9% of UK households are food insecure
    • 18% of those aged 25 to 34 live in food insecure households (compared to 2-3% of those aged 65 or over)
  • Women are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity than men
  • 41% of respondents aged 16-24 said they sometimes or often worried that food would run out before they had money to buy more, compared to 5-7% of those aged 65 or over

Legitimate criticism of the BBC must not be lumped in with conspiracy theories from the tin foil hat brigade

Yesterday I wrote a piece on Nick Robinson’s worrying approach to political interviewing. In a tweet, the experienced former BBC and ITV political editor and current Today presenter argued:

I found this quite surprising, and sought to explain why. However, I’ve noticed that there are several other examples popping up of similar disputes on BBC journalism and its role in the UK’s political discourse.

Much of the criticism of the BBC’s coverage has focused on its attempts to find ‘balance’ over the vital issue of the UK’s potential exit from the European Union. It’s important to recognise that some of this criticism definitely veers into tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist territory. There are people who appear to genuinely believe that the BBC is colluding with Russian bots, voracious hedge funds and shadowy Tory donors to force the UK to toe the Vote Leave line.

I imagine that if I were a BBC figure of any serious standing, I would feel pretty strongly about such nonsense. I have been extremely reticent to criticise the BBC because of this trend, and also because they have regularly been under extreme pressure from powerful Conservatives who are dying to kill Auntie, leaving even more space for the right-wing partisan media.

I have no doubt that the vast majority of BBC journalists and reporters are honestly trying to do the kind of work we expect of them: doggedly reporting the truth in the public interest, uncovering wrongdoing and corruption, and holding power to account.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re doing it right, nor does it mean they’re exempt from criticism. Nor does it mean they’re free to mischaracterise the legitimate criticism they do receive. One example of this comes from Rob Burley. He’s the editor of several BBC live political programmes, including the Andrew Marr show and the Daily and Sunday politics. Perhaps to his credit, Mr Burley engages frequently with people on Twitter to debate whether his shows have presented things fairly and well.

However, yesterday he defended this tweet, published by one of his shows:

The full clip shows Suzanne Evans, a UKIP spokesperson, repeating several lies about the recent Electoral Commission report on Vote Leave, the official campaign for leaving the European Union. One of the key lies is the entire text of the tweet: that the Electoral Commission ‘refused to interview Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings’. Elliott was the Chief Executive of Vote Leave, while Cummings was Campaign Director.

The reality, made abundantly clear in the Electoral Commission’s report, is that Vote Leave took obstructive action to avoid participating in the investigation, failing even to acknowledge deadlines, let alone comply with them. The findings from 4.70 onwards (page 29) indicate that the EC had to deal with intransigence and stubbornness from Vote Leave that also reflects their subsequent attempts to spin their way out of their decision to break the law during the referendum campaign.

The BBC allowed itself to be used as part of this spin campaign. It allowed Vote Leave to leak the fact that it was about to be found guilty, giving Matthew Elliott the chance to put out his lines before the official report was made public. That in itself was astonishingly irresponsible.

On the day the report finally came out, I was in Sweden. However, the BBC being the UK public broadcaster, I was eagerly expecting to see a major story appear on the main news website. Imagine my dismay when I saw that the story had been relegated to an effective footnote, appearing between a story about Usain Bolt playing football, and a recipe about the world’s oldest bread:

 

BBC burying Vote Leave fine

Screenshot of the BBC News front page, taken on 17th July at 11:07am

Burley spent a lot of his time yesterday defending the tweet about Suzanne Evans. In doing so, he showed that Nick Robinson’s view of journalism and interviews is not confined to one senior man at the BBC. Here’s him for example, suggesting how the ‘free media’ works:

This is the kind of ‘balance’ the BBC now offers: for a ‘version of events’ that is ‘disputed’, read ‘a factually incorrect account of an investigation done by the statutory regulator of elections’. For Burley, it is enough that Evans was ‘challenged directly’ with the opposite view.

In conversation with Adam Bienkov, another political journalist who works at Business Insider, Burley doubled down:

The fact that opposing sides say different things about something is not surprising. As Bienkov suggested, we would be shocked if there were many legal cases in which the guilty party did not maintain their innocence even after the verdict was passed down.

Burley’s defence is that the clip is about ‘the interviews thing and not the verdict‘, but he fails to recognise that the EC report addresses the issue of interactions between them and Vote Leave in a very substantial way. In fact, it hands down a verdict about precisely this issue: that Vote Leave committed an offence under Schedule 19B paragraph 13(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

In other words, on the specific matter of interviews, with which the clip deals, Vote Leave aren’t just lying: they have been found guilty of breaking the law.

Burley finally followed up with this shrug of a tweet, posted about half an hour later:

This is an argument that speaks of understandable frustration. As I said earlier, I have no doubt it is true of some people. However, Burley doesn’t get to act all dismissive when it comes to legitimate and accurate criticism of the shows he runs, including their social media output.

This was echoed by Daniel Gibson, a former BBC journalist, in a lengthy thread that he subsequently muted. Click the link at the bottom of the tweet to read it all.

Gibson’s thread is passionate, well articulated, polite, and wrong. I have already explained why the specific example of the EC/Vote Leave issue was incorrect, and why the defence of it is ill-founded. However, Gibson compounds the errors by making some truly remarkable assertions:

I addressed this in my post yesterday, but just to reiterate: in an age of ‘fake news’, this is a horrifying claim. You cannot assume that the information given in political interviews is accurate or truthful. It doesn’t mean that you have to treat every interview as an interrogation – I am not advocating Jeremy Paxman’s approach (“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”). It does mean that you have to outprepare your interviewee, and know the facts better than they do, so that you can correct the record immediately.

Another astounding statement followed:

This is the famous myth of impartiality, which the BBC still appears to subscribe to. Unfortunately, it is broken. I had thought we had all understood and recognised in the 21st century that there is no such thing as neutral/unbiased reporting; in fact, attempting to appear unbiased at all costs is likely to cost both you and your audience dearly.

The reality is that we need journalists who are prepared to give us true information, and ensure we understand when the opinions we hear have no factual basis. Perhaps then we can get back to the kind of political discourse that doesn’t lead to the country embarking on an undeliverable fantasy, after a referendum whose winner has been shown to have cheated.

If journalists and editors want to defend the BBC in public, they’ll have to do a lot better. They should avoid the Simpsons’ approach and instead take Denis Healey’s famous advice: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Nick Robinson reveals how far the BBC may have strayed

Nick Robinson revealed something significant on Twitter today. He was replying to this accusation from a guy called Frederic Moreau:

For those new to UK politics, the DUP is the party at the centre of one of Brexit’s many dark money scandals, and also the party guaranteeing the current government a majority.

In reply, Nick Robinson wrote this:

Oddly enough, this was a pretty ‘interesting and revealing’ thing for a senior BBC presenter and former political editor to say. It’s especially interesting at a time when the BBC is under huge pressure to explain its continuing failure to act in the public interest by reporting on Brexit in a way that reflects the truth, rather than in a way that gives all sides equal weight.

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Nick Robinson [source]

Is Robinson right? Can there be room for interviews on the BBC that do not challenge? Bear in mind that the BBC is the UK’s public broadcaster, with an enormous audience and huge resources paid for by citizens (sometimes against their will). The BBC drives the news agenda in politics and much else. If governments and opposition parties want to announce something, they will try to get on the BBC to do it.

I would argue that there is no justification for an interview on the nation’s most important news show that does not challenge. I argue from authority: here are two key definitions of the purpose of journalism.

The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That’s from the American Press Institute [source], though. What if the UK has a different approach? Well, it turns out the Independent Press Standards Organisation (the UK print media ‘regulator’) has defined what ‘the public interest’ means [source] (bolded text is my addition):

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

The three bolded points are relevant to Jeffrey Donaldson’s statements. If this doesn’t apply to the BBC, who does it apply to?

Robinson’s opinion is terrifying in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Getting people to voice ill-founded opinions and false information without immediate challenge is actively inimical to the purpose of journalism outlined above. Worse, we know perfectly well that once a lie pollutes the information ecosystem, it travels faster than the truth. It was always thus. Jonathan Swift in 1710 wrote [source]:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

Never before has this been more relevant though, in a time when we have propaganda on steroids infecting our politics and our society, and when powerful forces both foreign and domestic are weaponising it for their own purposes.

I want to be charitable. Perhaps Robinson genuinely believes that by simply getting people to put forward falsehoods, other journalists and fact-checkers will come riding to the rescue and ‘challenge’ them, and in so doing, will ensure that citizens are informed. If he does, he’s naive. Politicians use the Today programme and other similar means to spread their lines and opinions. It is not enough to rely on people debunking things later.

The less charitable way to approach it, though, is that Robinson wants to be able to challenge some people and not others. As Chris Smith put it:

If Chris is right, we would see a pattern of left/liberal politicians being challenged in interviews, while right-wing/authoritarian ones were not. That might well undermine trust, as well as damaging the BBC’s claim to be serving the public.

All I know is that it’s becoming harder and harder to think charitably of the BBC.

Credit where credit’s due: an under-appreciated reason why Britain voted for Brexit – and a possible solution

This morning, Theresa May tweeted this. She must have got up pretty early on a Saturday morning to make that nice infographic. Who’d be prime minister, eh?

What an excellent policy! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of this kind of basic, decent move as something I would naturally associate with the Conservatives.

They don’t usually show much interest in tinkering boringly with the finer points of consumer finance to give us all a better deal. (They’re usually more interested in keeping their donors onside, often by shaping the financial system in their favour.)

So, this is almost certainly good news. Most of us have probably experienced unexpected surcharges on card payments at one time or another, whether it’s at your local cornershop or when buying train tickets online. This ought to cut that out at a stroke.

There’s one small problem with how Theresa May’s presenting this. And here it is: the UK government didn’t come up with the idea. It’s a requirement of the EU Payment Services Directive 2, which came into force in January 2016. Today (13th January 2018) is actually the last possible day for EU member states to enforce this part of the directive.

This is also key to the policy’s success. Because it’s being introduced as an integrated requirement across the 28 member states of the EU, the likelihood of companies raising prices to compensate, or stopping card payments entirely, is probably pretty small.

Armed with this information, we can now revisit May’s tweet. It can be read two ways:

  1. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is taking sole credit for an EU initiative that had nothing to do with her;
  2. She, a Conservative prime minister leading a government whose sole policy is leaving the EU, is associating herself and her government with the EU to such an extent that she is willing to use the first person plural.

I don’t know about you, but I’m plumping for 1.

Why does this matter?

This kind of failure to allocate credit for policies that actually benefit voters and society is a big part of why the UK voted to leave the EU. Voters see the benefits without understanding the process. (It’s also, incidentally, why people continue to vote for the Conservatives rather than the Lib Dems despite the coalition government’s most popular policies – on income tax, environment, marriage and even plastic bags – all coming from the smaller party.)

This is a huge problem in democracies the world over. Democratic governments generally don’t advertise, and that’s a good thing. And if they do, it’s generally to market new policies that are reliant on widespread public knowledge, an approach that often fails, and often because the policies are terrible.

Two recent examples are the Green Deal (a catastrophic failure where the government over-promised, rushed the policy out, and failed to market it, sometimes all at once) and the Help to Buy scheme (quite good take-up, but for a policy that actively exacerbates the housing crisis).

But that general lack of marketing means it’s political parties who market successes as their own, even when they aren’t.

A possible solution

I have been giving some thought to this problem of late. It seems to me that we need some kind of independent platform – maybe just a website – that details the source, development and impact of policies, and gives credit where credit is due.

Sure, not many voters would read it very often, but if done with sufficient quality and transparency, it would be a hugely useful resource during election periods – potentially making VAAs more accurate, and enabling journalists and broadcasters to refer to it.

Although there is a ton of money going into new fact-checking initiatives at the moment, these tend to be reactive. This would be one way to build a bank of accurate information that could also serve organisations like Full Fact, strengthening their ability to scrutinise.

It would be a major undertaking, requiring a number of permanent researchers and fact-checkers to aggregate the information, and then some savvy marketing and social media activity to promote its existence.

If you’re interested in helping to create such a website or platform, I have many further thoughts. Feel free to get in touch with me via the comments, Twitter, or Facebook.

Fixing Misinformation is a Misguided and Insufficient Strategy

Searching for new ways to stop the spread of false information is an understandable response to recent political developments, but proponents of the strategy are picking the wrong battle if they want to win this vital war

Recent revelations in the UK’s traditional media on Russian attempts to spread mis- and disinformation have been met with aghast intakes of breath. But this shocked response is really British exceptionalism, allied to a pretty incompetent domestic press. The issue of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda spread by social media has been at play for a long time in global civil society.

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Breathless headlines for a very old story: The Times/The Guardian (via BusinessInsider)

‘Fake news’ has become a co-opted cliché. It’s now more likely to be used by those who create and spread lies – such as the president of the United States – than those who unpick them. For the parts of civil society that have picked up the daunting gauntlet of defending the truth, the phrase is already a bad joke at best.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on trying to solve the problem, though. Attempts to differentiate between misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda have become more sophisticated, and definitions are becoming more defined. According to experts on the topic at the most recent MisinfoCon, held in London in October, there are now more than forty projects engaged in tackling different aspects of the problem, mostly funded by the same few large philanthropic foundations. There is tremendous energy and enthusiasm among the motley community of academics, techies, policy wonks and activists attacking this. I consider myself to be part of that broad community.

However, the headlong rush to ‘solve’ this problem is misconceived and misguided. There are several different reasons for this. I’m aiming in this post to set out what those reasons are and how we could redirect our efforts, as a community, towards more effective and valuable outcomes.

I want to make clear at this point that I’m mostly writing about the situation from an English language perspective and I’m inevitably heavily biased towards the UK and US.

Jump to:

    1. Excessive focus on misinformation is a mistake
    2. Of firehoses and water pistols
    3. Wrangling the tech titans
    4. What should we do?

 

1: Excessive focus on one part of the information system is a mistake

At Mozilla Festival, also held in London in October, I attended a highly enjoyable session where the organizers (Melissa Ryan and Sam Jeffers) led several groups in imagining and designing ‘fake news’ articles. What this session proved beyond doubt is how easy it is to create such stories out of thin air. Although no one there had previously tried to write something viral and false, we all came with compelling ideas that would probably have gained at least some traction.

The rise of misinformation in the current age is not the product of newly creative bad actors. People – especially powerful people – have been lying since the dawn of time. It hasn’t become easier to create false information; it’s become far easier to disseminate it, and to profit from it. That’s an infrastructure problem; to correct it, you have to address the whole system and not merely one part of it.

It’s no surprise therefore that when we came towards the end of that session and began to discuss solutions, we drew a collective blank. Someone tentatively proposed better media education as a solution: that’s an admirable aim, but even if policy-makers acted now (and they aren’t), it will take at least a decade to make a noticeable difference. (I also happen to believe that the breakdown of trust in the media is arguably a consequence of improved media literacy.)

The best outcome of media literacy in a complex, tech-driven information ecosystem is perhaps not restored trust, but more sophisticated and granular distrust. To put it another way, we want distrust (i.e. limits on how far we are willing to accept information based on our experience and available data), not mistrust (i.e. a general cynical unease based on the complexity of modern life).

So attempts to change readers’ habits are long-term and therefore, I’d argue, insufficient as a solution for the immediate problems we face (by which I mean, we are already being governed by people who were elected in part on the basis of false information, at least in the USA and the UK). And attempts to reduce the amount of false information being produced are obviously doomed to fail.

In that context, it’s no wonder that we’ve turned to the kinds of projects that feel the most likely to succeed. But it’s short-sighted to focus all our efforts on the bad information in the system. We need to think much bigger, which brings me to the next point.

2: We can’t fight the falsehood wildfire with the tiny water pistol of truth

I have heard this point made occasionally at large disinfo- and misinformation conferences on both sides of the Atlantic (including MisinfoCon London and the Digital Disinformation Forum held at Stanford back in June). But it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet.

It seems facile to point this out, but even if we removed all the false information from the 21st century information ecosystem overnight, it still wouldn’t be healthy. That’s because the news industry’s incentives are set up wrong. Far more intelligent people than me have written about the corrosive impact of advertising on journalism, going back many decades.

More recently, the rise of the monopolistic tech titans (Google and Facebook), who now control the vast majority of the advertising market, has accelerated the tendency towards what we sometimes call ‘infotainment’: clickbait headlines leading us into factoid-laden stories of limited value and relevance. This is only likely to continue as newsfeed and search engine algorithms increasingly surface content based on a blend of general popularity, low quality titillation and individual preference.

While there are very clear differences between the large tech firms in terms of their motives, I am not sure that any of them can honestly claim to hold the high ground on this. Perhaps Google’s search team remains committed to giving humans access to high quality information, although Yelp and others may disagree. But YouTube (a natural monopoly and, if you’d forgotten, a Google company) is, by contrast, a nest of vipers, while Google News is still promoting false stories from long-time fakers and trolls like 4Chan.

In short, the business model that sustained for-profit journalism is broken beyond repair. The reporting on Donald Trump during the US election bears this out. Misinformation became a problem towards the end of that campaign, but way before that had occurred, the mainstream news media in the US gave Trump far more publicity than other candidates. This is because they have to compete for attention in an ever-expanding sea of attention seekers. Trump was outrageous, controversial, brash; in short, a ready-made attention-grabbing brand. (This is hardly surprising given his own business dealings have been based on nothing more than his brand – his own name – for decades.)

The question then often arises: what should we do about the broken business model? There is a lingering belief that journalism can become self-sustaining. There are some interesting new attempts to prove that subscription models can provide lasting funding: two that spring to mind are The Correspondent and Jimmy Wales’ latest endeavour, WikiTribune. People will often also point to the increase in subscriptions at established for-profit newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian as evidence that readers are waking up to the threat posed by misinformation.

I think people need to get real about the likely success of such initiatives. Even if something like WikiTribune does get traction, it’s going to take years for such a small organisation to start to produce the kind of investigative reporting that will make a dent, whether by raising standards in the news industry, or by improving transparency in the political landscape.

3: There is no consensus on regulation of the tech giants

While EU regulators have been on the case for a while, a happy recent development is that US legislators have finally begun to grapple with the monopolistic power of the social media platforms that have accelerated the spread of false information. Sadly, their focus is currently taken up mostly with the influence of foreign entities (especially Russia) on elections, rather than the general degradation of information quality that these platforms and their super-dominant technologies are creating.

These are extremely knotty political questions that have no easy answers. In that sense it’s not surprising that the open internet advocacy community has developed little to no consensus on how to approach the issue. This is partly because many in that community are equally worried (sometimes more worried) about government interventions as they are about private corporations. These are people who are used to fighting against excessive surveillance by intelligence agencies; their heroes are Snowden and Manning. As such, it doesn’t come naturally to petition the government to take action against excessive corporate surveillance.

There’s also the risk that by taking action, governments could actually give more power to the platforms. I’ve been back and forth on the issue of CDA230, the provision that protects the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter from being liable for content posted on their platforms. This is a law that is staunchly defended by freedom of expression activists in the USA.

However, it has arguably backfired in its intention to allow speech to flourish online by allowing all sorts of misinformation and hate speech to be posted without placing enough of a responsibility on these media companies – for that is partly what they are – and by failing to account for what happens when, as in other markets, a few dominant players emerge. A law created in 1996 when the internet was an anarchic Wild West of small, intensely competitive players now looks like an anachronism, protecting the few titans of Silicon Valley.

On the other, placing that responsibility on these tech/media companies now, when they are the de facto managers of online speech, both gives them even more power and adds to the risk of censorship. Once you’ve gone down that path, what is there to stop governments imposing similar conditions on other publishers or editor-like websites?

So, there’s no easy win here either. The reality is that only the threat of government intervention to regulate the market on the basis of competition/antitrust law – perhaps by breaking apart Alphabet and Facebook, which are both collections of monopolies – may be what goads the companies into taking real action.

So what do possible solutions look like?

1: Good quality information doesn’t come for free. So fund it.

One partial solution – crucially, one of which we (global civil society) can shape most or all elements – is to pour as many resources as possible into existing success stories, in an attempt to scale them. At the moment, philanthropic attempts to support media are too meagre to do anything but create additional competition, even between non-profit outlets that are openly committed to extraordinary collaboration. The same few foundations funding the same few organisations is all quite cosy, but doesn’t do enough to expand the amount of good quality information flowing through the system.

If we want projects like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers to be more than annual events, then reducing the need to compete (or, to put it another way, reducing the barriers to collaboration) and improving the technology used by investigative journalists and civil society accountability organisations should be the two foremost priorities. What characterises the network of organisations that carried out those projects is that it is sufficiently removed from the profit motive and sufficiently focused on social impact that its leaders are willing to forego the benefits that derive from exclusivity.

It follows that the main way we can expand the amount of good quality reporting in the system is to crowd in more funding at a sufficient scale to make a difference. Omidyar Network’s announcement earlier this year of an extra $100 million to address the global ‘trust deficit’ was impressive, but it’s important to realise that the amount allocated to content production is probably only a third of that (it’s not entirely clear where it’s all going).

We need a global fund of sufficient scale that it can accept money from all-comers, including corporate and individual donors who, on their own, would pose too much of a reputational risk to organisations receiving money. This fund, if large enough, could support global public interest media in perpetuity. There are already strong proposals on how to fund this. Governments recovering assets and money on the back of investigative journalism, for example, could tithe some part of the return into a trust. Or, indeed, there could be a levy placed on the tech titans (or voluntarily paid by them), as proposed variously by expert commentators like Emily Bell, Ben Eltham and Steven Waldman.

2: Turn surveillance tech to the people’s advantage.

The thing that really drives the tech titans’ insane profitability is their successful drive to turn surveillance into something people don’t just passively accept, but to which they actively contribute. On Facebook, Google or Twitter, you are the product. Attention has been tied in an unprecedented way to personalisation through massive-scale analytics conducted by beautiful, sophisticated mathematical contraptions barely understood even by the people who built them.

By contrast, the world of journalism is barely even living in the 20th century, let alone the 21st, when it comes to technology. It’s telling that the most popular film about investigative journalism since the mid 1970s – Spotlight – depicts an investigation conducted in the early 2000s in which the reporters rely pretty much entirely on shoe leather, phone calls, door-knocking and interviews. It’s extremely trad journalism. It has very little to do with the state of the art of investigative journalism today, which is heavily reliant on mapping relationships between entities found in disparate, large and often incredibly unwieldy datasets.

Because of the dire funding situation for accountability journalism, no single organisation – even in the for-profit media space – has the money to invest in the quality data scientists and software engineers you would need to get the most out of a leak like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers. Due to increasing collaboration, those projects have yielded tremendous results, but they could have yielded far more if there were a common set of tools, used by everyone, into which data could be shared.

‘Surveillance tech’ is a scary name for something that is, itself, agnostic. What makes the tech titans scary is their incredible network effects, the impossibility of knowing their motives, and the lack of accountability around what they are and do. If we were to build an open source, publicly available data commons to store datasets relevant to transparency, accountability and democracy – such as all public registers of ownership, all public land registries, and structured data from major leaks – it would vastly accelerate and improve the investigative process. In time, you can also envisage this commons including ‘open source intelligence’ – scraped YouTube videos, tweets, Instagram photos and all the rest.

This would be a major technological endeavour, but it is not at all beyond the bounds of current software engineers. What it requires is money and a team willing to work for the good of humanity, rather than for their own financial interests, and those of some anonymous VC investors. If philanthropic foundations or enlightened rich people were to pool resources to fund such a project, it could change the world.

3: Stop being squeamish about working together.

One of the things that most characterises different groups within global civil society is a strong sense of identity. That’s not surprising.

There are the investigative journalists, often independent to the point of paranoia; there are the activists, fired up but sometimes without a compelling, evidence-based story to tell; there are the academics and policy people, who have some data and some answers but can’t get a hearing; there are the civic tech people, trying to work with all of the above and explain why things aren’t as simple as they seem; and there are the donors, who must somehow tolerate all of these groups explaining why they deserve their money.

I’m always struck whenever I go to a conference or an event organised by any one of these groups how insular each one is. As someone who has no qualification to be in any one of them, and therefore feels like a perennial outsider, I find myself wondering at what point this might change.

And then, looking outside, there are other gaps: between civil society and government, between government and Silicon Valley; between civil society and Silicon Valley. And this is to say nothing of the deeper social divides that brought us here in the first place: between the powerful and the weak, the ignorant and the informed, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.

The state of the world today – certainly the world of ‘liberal democracy’, the ‘open society’ or whatever you want to call it – seems urgently to require new thinking, new places to convene, new ways to work together. There are a few places where this is happening, or where it might happen. I was proud to work with OCCRP on its formal partnership with Transparency International because it was a serious attempt to bridge one of these many divides. The Open Government Partnership is another important and valuable nexus for such attempts. Encouragingly there also seems to be a serious move towards building and funding interdisciplinary institutes engaged on ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence technology, such as AINow. And I am excited to see what comes of the new Intellectual Forum at the University of Cambridge, led by the brilliant Julian Huppert (for whom I used to work).

But there’s room for far more. This is an area where a small amount of systems thinking allied to a small amount of funding could have huge benefits and concrete outputs.

Get in touch if you want to help.

Cross-posted from Medium

Brexit reveals the broken relationship between government and parliament

Much wringing of hands over the government’s so-called ‘concession’ yesterday. David Davis promised a vote on the final Brexit deal – a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, as reported by the BBC here.

The way this is portrayed by the media (including the BBC in that article) is that this is some sort of climb down by the government. In fact it’s nothing of the sort.

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As it’s been apparent since the referendum result became clear, any vote on a deal must include the possibility of staying in the EU, otherwise it is meaningless. It’s very strange that the government hasn’t recognised this, as by giving Parliament that power they would both be honouring the terms on which Leave won the referendum (“take back control” – sovereignty, remember?) and giving themselves more bargaining power by holding themselves accountable.

In coalition government, the best thing rank and file Lib Dem members could do was to up the ante on policy-making to force the parliamentary party to take more radical starting positions when negotiating with the Tories. This was quite basic stuff; when negotiating with a more powerful party, you have to hold your ground as best you can, not concede it from the outset. (I say it is basic, but it was also apparently beyond the grasp of some of our people.)

In the same way, the UK government would have been better off using Parliament’s bias to Remain in its favour. They would have been justified in doing so because the Leave side claimed it wanted to give Parliament more power. And they would have given themselves room to make concessions that are healthy for the UK economy, in line with the EU’s requirements, and supported by Parliament. In short, they would have got a better deal that reflected the result of the referendum more accurately.

It blows my mind that the same Theresa May who made what now looks like a remarkably decent pro-Remain speech (for a Tory) back in April 2016 has frittered away her political capital and her chance to ‘stand tall and lead’, in her own words, by manufacturing a situation in which her ministers can simply ignore the country’s elected representatives.

We can’t really blame the government though. It asked for unfettered power to negotiate the terms of Brexit by challenging Parliament over Article 50. And Parliament, to its everlasting shame, blinked. In voting through the government’s bill completely unamended, it enabled Theresa May to invoke Article 50 without binding her in any way to any policy that would have ameliorated the total uncertainty of the current situation.

Once Article 50 was triggered, the legal process ceased to be a UK-based one, and becomes European. David Allen Green’s excellent thread, starting with this, summates:

If you didn’t read David’s thread, here’s the gist: you can forget all you read or hear in the press about Parliament having a ‘final say’ on Brexit. The legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, regardless of any further legislation being passed in the House of Commons. Only the government can directly intervene to stop the Article 50 process, and even then, it would be dependent on European institutions to allow or confirm the revocation.

What does all this tell us? It shows us the extent to which government and Parliament are failing to work together in the interests of the country. The relationship between executive and legislature ought always to be adversarial rather than cosy; the way that our government is built, derived as it is from Parliament, makes this immediately difficult.

But more importantly, it shows us just how poorly our elected representatives understand their role in our democracy. They voted enthusiastically for an advisory referendum that meant they retained the power of decision-making on Brexit. They squandered that power. Now, it appears, they are demanding that power be restored, having voted enthusiastically for a legal process that took it out of their hands.

It’s almost as if we need to reform the way we choose them.