Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dissident voices

I wonder how things will be in the future? Political bloggers, writers, reporters, commenters - are you afraid of what may be coming?

I grew up asking questions. But I wonder if Rachel Norths blogging in the future will be be allowed to ask questions? Will she be punished in the future for having had the temerity to ask questions at the start of the twenty-first century, back in the days when we still could?

'I used to write. I used to criticise the Government. Before the news was fully-censored, the internet fully-controlled, before the irises of my eyes were scanned, and my data, my DNA, my movements, my visited-websites, my credit history, tax payments, my voting patterns, my medical history and benefit claims, and my criminal record all stored and regularly checked. When Parliament's M.Ps could still debate freely, when the Prince of Wales could cheerfully call himself 'a dissident'and not be immediately arrested. When people felt they could still move freely, talk freely, work freely, read freely, debate freely, protest freely. Even though they were already being CCTV-taped, watched, tracked, logged, could be arrested on a minor pretext, still, then, they were mostly left alone. You'd have thought people would have worried more about what was coming, but they still trusted that we had a benign and democratic tradition of freedom and they didn't want to read the signs. The Government of the day grew bolder, more authoritarian; they curtailed civil liberities and they misused their powers, but people still didn't want to believe that there was anything too badly wrong.

I used to write. But after a while, I was too afraid. I'm not sorry that I wrote it, but I had to tell them I was, later. It all became too difficult, you see. We let them take our freedom away, and we didn't shout loud enough. And now it is too late.'

You give people power; they tend to want more of it, of course. What do you think will happen if we allow Governments and their officials more power to pry and to manage and to control the unruly lives of their citizens? Quite - a wise man wrote this once:

'All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience
to remain silent.'

'Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government
those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it
into tyranny.'

We have had a fine tradition of writers and pamphleteers speaking out for hundreds of years. Telling people about what is done in their name, with their money, their taxes, by their bosses and representatives, and pointing out what the powerful - the elected and the unelected - would like to hide. Information, education, criticism, out there for people to read and consume for a few pennies, or for free. People read, think, argue, debate, get angry, act. Protests, pressure, demands for accountability are the necessary checks on those who govern us. Freedom and responsibility, cause and effect, justice and injustice: we are all responsible for them. The freedom to disagree with the powers that be is absolutely crucial to how we all live, how we call ourselves free. This freedom deserves to be cherished and protected. More and more to me the War On Terror sounds like The War On Freedom. The War Of Fear. Unwinnable and unnecessary, inhuman and unjust.

Wars on abstract nouns are impossible misnomers. It's all about power-grabbing, of course. But recent events have me worried enough to wonder where all this is headed if it is allowed to continue unchecked.

I am reading Andrew Marr's My Trade, which is a sharp and sparkling examination of his profession - journalism. Before that I read Fergal Keane's All of These People, which is a moving and compassionate book and a brave one. We need our writers who are brave, who question, who fearlessly share what they find out is going on in this world of ours that we all share - and who retain their compassion and humanity as well as their nose for the news we devour. We have a fine tradition of them in this country. And now, with the rise of blogging, we have thousands of citizen journalists and commenters having their say too. We bloggers are not very important in the grand scheme of things, we are very tiny fish in a fast flowing river, but it is still important that we have this basic freedom to speak up and swim against the flow.

Journalism and opinionated commentary are important, for they help to shape how we think. Journalists stimulate, educate, irritate and obfuscate, they sensationalise, romanticise, entertain as they criticise and provoke. Good newswriting should not just inform, it should demand a human response to the comings and goings, the tragedies and banalities, the struggles and the machinations of our fellow humans. We all love to watch the Wheel of Fortune turn: those who rise, those who fall, those who capture the news agenda and those who are left as mere damaged flotsam in its wake as the news machine that reports history moves on. Sharing news is a sharing of our common humanity, it helps to place us in the world. We are the story-telling mammal; we need narratives for a sense of identity, our own and those of others.

I am very worried about what is happening at the moment. I.D cards, the Anti-Parliament bill, the Glorification of Terrorism amendment, all these latest abuses of power that gnaw away at our ability to live free of meddlesome checks and to say and think what we want to say and think. I worry that those who criticise will be silenced, that those who are angry will be denounced as threats to our 'security'. If not now, when? Soon? There is already a worrying heavy-handedness in the Government's response to dissidence and criticism. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is being misused to shut people up and bully and frighten them. Peace protesters Maya, Wolfgang, actors from a Guantamo movie, god knows how many more people frightened and bullied and detained - this is a clear abuse of state and police power. I am no Niemoller but I am jumpy. When will they come for the bloggers and the writers? How long have we got? What can we do to hold onto what we still take for granted, before it blows away in the storm of over-reaction, fear-mongering and paranoiac responses to the actions of angry young men?

I hope that I am just being paranoid: this week I have felt very unsettled and fearful, and I am trying very hard not to be. What do you think?


Blogger TM said...

Excellent post, reminds me of a slightly scary moment I had while working with the Home Office recently on an advertsing campaign for them, rather than being honest, the client actually asked for it to be a "different honest" proceeding then to tell me that all the public wants is the "good facts" as "bad facts" send the wrong image...

Very George Orwell ! :0(

*waits for revolution or room 101, which ever kills me first*

Slightly. xx

February 26, 2006 9:53 am  
Blogger R said...

No you're not being paranoid. The proof gets clearer each week. The arbitrary "detention" of the actors from Road to Guantanamo is the most worrying yet. I like the analysis from the Guardian because it explains how the "descent" can occur not through some grand machiavellean conspiracy but through a series of small self-deluded steps. I could believe that the politicians who gave the Police the powers they now have were not necessarily intending that they would use them to harass actors. And that the Police harassing the actors genuinely thought that they were fulfilling their responsibility to protect the public in doing so. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before another well-meaning coalition of Police, tabloid media and politicians forms around the idea that in these dark and troubled times, the government will regrettably have to start monitoring the activities of film-makers more closely and, where necessary, intervening to "protect the public"...

Having said this, it does sometimes seem hard not to suspect that there is more than just "sleepwalking" going on here - that at least some members of the political elite actually have an ideological commitment to reshaping society into a more conformist and reactionary mould.

I do think that the government will, at some stage, try to clamp down on the internet because it clearly is a growing threat to the monopoly on information previously enjoyed by the mainstream media. I'm sure they're watching the Chinese government's efforts very closely. But I do think their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure...

February 26, 2006 10:50 am  
Blogger R said...

PS - for some inspirational writing from the heart of a society where civil liberties were wiped out ago, I'd recommend this blog:

These guys keep on blogging and speaking out, despite the risks they face, and because of the anonymity of the web it's hard for their government to stop them!

February 26, 2006 11:06 am  
Blogger aidanrad said...

How are you doing with the Andrew Marr book? I loved the chapter on 'how to read newspapers', especially if feeling time-pressed...
And particularly the useful advice to ignore any headlines which pose a question (mostly beloved of the Daily Mail!), to which the unspoken answer is invariably: "Er - no..."

February 28, 2006 2:59 am  

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