"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Saturday, 9 February 2008

When You Don’t See Me

I think it’s time for a little rant, quite possibly an ill-informed rant and the facts do seem to be constantly shifting, so if you’ll indulge me with a little leeway…

Recently, a story has emerged about the bugging of a Member of Parliament, Sadiq Khan, while he was visiting a constituent in Woodhill Prison; the constituent is detained for extradition to the US pending the results of proceedings on various charges related to the support of terrorism via various websites he ran. As if this couldn’t look more unedifying it turns out that this bugging started before Khan became an MP… when he was a human rights lawyer. It should be mentioned that the actual details of this earlier instant are open to interpretation as Khan is also a childhood friend of the suspect and it is unclear whether he ever attended in his capacity as a lawyer.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that the media reports have all used non-committal terms like ‘may have been’ bugged. There doesn’t seem to have been any confirmation of this. What is known is that the visitor tables were set up with the capacity to carry listening devices. And ‘may have been’ is probably the closest to an answer that we’ll get since the surveillance matters are involved.

There has been the inevitable polarization of viewpoints on the issue based either in knee-jerk reactions or cold intellectualism. It seems another complex (theoretical) issue has fallen victim to reductivism.

On one hand, this bugging seems like a terrible abuse and on the other it seems like a reasonable precaution. There has been a lot of waffle about the ‘Wilson Doctrine’, the unwritten rule from 1966 that the security services would not tap the phones of MPs and Peers. Except this is no more than a ‘gentleman’s agreement’; it has never been passed into British law and only relates to phone tapping. Tony Benn related on the BBC News 24 that he knew he was being bugged during the Seventies and while the Cabinet Office wouldn’t admit to it, they wouldn’t categorically deny it. This would seem to tally with final episode of Yes Prime Minister back in 1988 And the show is well-known to have been based primarily on genuine incidents as related by various well-placed political sources including Wilson’s political secretary Marcia Williams (now Baroness Falkender) and Bernard Donoughue, senior policy adviser to Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan.

The notion that it’s reasonable to surveille MPs is not lacking in logic. Is there anything especially magic about becoming a Member of Parliament that means you cease to be capable of breaking the law? (Some would say recent investigations actually prove this!) Can we assume they don’t fiddle their expenses or claim they’re employing children as researchers when they’re actually at University? Obviously MPs aren’t beyond breaking the law. And I have no doubt that Sinn Fein and Unionist MPs have been bugged in the past and for, all I know, still might be. The clarified ‘Wilson Doctrine’ allows for the bugging of MPs when there is clear suspicion of serious illegality; so clearly even MPs don’t have absolute faith in their colleagues. It seems reasonable to assert that there could be MPs who might support extremists of all or any creeds.

On the other hand, there is the feeling that the state (or the police independently) have abused and over-stepped their authority and made a clear invasion of the constituent’s privacy… I’m sure that quite a few admissions of illegality do pass in confidence between constituent and MP but there are shades of illegality: this could range from someone admitting something illegal which is in a grey area or an issue of law that they wish to be changed/ challenged or a person who is escaping an abusive partner and has taken their child with them in what could be alleged as abduction; alternatively they may be confessing a small criminality in the process of exposing greater and more significant wrong-doing, as might be the case with a whistleblower. Should the State have the right to listen in at will to anything and any body at any time?

It’s since been confirmed by the bugging-policeman that he was pressurized by his superiors to do this against his better judgment* and that he bugged other people who shouldn’t have been. It’s also emerged that none of this was ‘signed off’ by a Minister (which it needs to be at a certain level of surveillance). On top of this a lawyer has come forward to say he was bugged in conversation with his client while they were discussing his appeal strategy. Now, it’s revealed that hundreds of Legal meetings in prison have been listened in on. Because of an intelligence sharing agreement with the US, it’s been pointed out that the information gleaned from this MP’s meetings (and therefore anyone’s) can/ will go straight across the pond to the US intelligence community… and presumably could be used to implicate or undermine the man and any subsequent trial.

In the end, I personally feel deeply uneasy about these developments: firstly, that some sections of the police would appear to have become a law unto themselves; considering themselves no longer answerable to Parliament; secondly, how can a person have a fair trial if the prosecution may already be primed with the defence. Most concerning, I think, is the precedent being set; if it’s alright to bug a confidential meeting between an MP and a constituent for the reason that something might be mentioned, you could ask is it equally acceptable to listen in on lawyers with clients in their offices or the police interview room; or to doctors with patients; or at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau; or in the Confessional? Aren’t these all situations whose very function is predicated on the notion of trust and confidentiality? Surely once a society has lost all sense of trust in others and the State, and where all the places a person might freely and confidentially air problems have been removed- isn’t this just a hair’s breadth from a Police State. And won’t it be the most desperate and vulnerable who will be left with nowhere to turn?

I think we can clearly see where this journey starts and the reasons but I’m not sure we can see where it will all end.

But it’s a difficult issue, there’s no denying that. With my head, and in the pit of my stomach, I rail against yet more invasions into the privacy of the individual subject; but with my heart I can’t help asking, if a terrorist bomb slipped through due to lack of surveillance, which of my family would I be prepared to lose…

*Of course, he may be being ‘economical with the truth’... nothing is known for certain on any of this. This policeman is currently under investigation for other unrelated matters.

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