By Graham Vanbergen: While our eyes have been diverted by global events and the failures of a scandal-ridden regime in Downing Street to manage the basic machinery of government – something rather sinister has been going on in the background. What appears to be a policy of silencing critics of the government has emerged, reflecting the many warnings about hard-right political dogma emanating from an increasingly desperate Downing Street.
The average elector knows things are not going well in Britain. Trust in government has hit a new record low as 75 per cent polled in the Edelman Trust Barometer say the UK is heading the wrong way in just about everything possible. Just 17 per cent of the public approve of the government in a YouGov tracker poll.
The government is paranoid. It’s what happens at the heart of political failure. We are already aware that in Towns and cities across the country, Britons are captured in some way around 70 times a day through surveillance CCTV systems alone. And then there’s the architecture of surveillance capitalism and state capture of private information.
Before Brexit – the government was found to have breached all manner of privacy laws and decided to make them legal by creating new laws such as the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014. Then the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or RIPA came into being. This was a significant piece of legislation that granted and regulated the powers of public bodies to carry out serious surveillance and investigation against certain ‘targets.’
Now, any government agency could collect the content of telephone, internet, and postal communications. It could also collect data on your internet search addresses, domain names, postal addresses, including dates, times, and duration if needed.
What many people didn’t realise is how far that Act allowed government agencies to go. For journalists, it was far worse. It included the use of tracking data on agents, informants and undercover officers; electronic surveillance of private buildings – such as their own homes, offices and vehicles; following people; and gaining access to legally encrypted data.
Whilst those in government will falsely tell you all this is in the name of security, it isn’t. Then, fast forward to a post-Brexit era where a global pandemic gave the government extraordinary powers over its citizenry.
Emboldened by surviving a litany of allegations of malfeasance in office, of general wrong-doing and lawbreaking along with pandemic laws – the government has now secretly gone one step further into the realms of pure authoritarianism.
Imagine being a well-respected British-born national security expert with experience acquired over many years, spanning the scientific, legal, intelligence and regulatory aspects of government. You have been asked to speak by an apolitical public body at a conference in London. Sometime later, whilst preparing your slides – an email arrives, stating that your invite has been cancelled. The hosts of the conference have written the following:
“Rules introduced by the Cabinet Office in 2022 specify that the social media accounts of potential speakers must be vetted . . . to check whether these people have ever criticised government officials or government policy. The check on your social media has identified material that criticises government officials and policy. It is for this reason . . . that I am afraid that we have no choice and must cancel your invitation.”
At this point, you will either be incredulous that this could even be true in modern-day Britain or immediately think this is some sort of fake news item designed to destabilise rational thinking. The former is, in fact, 100 per cent … true. The speaker has been ‘blacklisted’ by an unnamed official in the government for simply criticising it in the past.
In an extraordinary article published in The Times just yesterday, columnist Edward Lucas made this very point. Lucas is not just a writer with an opinion. He is a consultant specialising in European and transatlantic security. His expertise includes cyber-security, espionage, information warfare and Russian foreign and security policy. Unlike many columnists who have little real-world experience of their own commentary – Lucas knows what he is talking about, backed by relevant experience.
Lucas further points out, when referring to a friend and expert colleague of 30 years, who is in this exact position – “there is no appeal from this secret blacklisting. He does not know what caused offence, or whether it has been correctly interpreted. He cannot complain publicly: if the blacklisting becomes known, other clients will suspect the real reason was indiscretion or incompetence. Professional ruin beckons. So too do the next steps in the country’s descent into dictatorship. This is not a political page-turner. This is Britain right now.”
This significant change, something you might read about going on in Russia, China or North Korea, has caused no outrage in Britain. It is not on the pages of any other newspaper – or any other credible news outlet that I can find. And there’s a reason.
What we should not forget, is that this new piece of information architecture, effectively a ‘gagging order’ from the darkest corners within the corridors of power, has been implemented by a government, that has never sought parliamentary permission by debate nor publicly announced anything about it.
We do not know how many times expert speakers have been ‘blacklisted’ like this. Or anyone else for that matter. Lucas has not identified his friend for many good and obvious reasons, but there is no reason to doubt his words, especially given the potentially libellous claims against that of this government.
Lucas signs off his article with the words – “If the principled arguments about individual liberty, free speech and the importance of public debate do not sway the government, perhaps another, practical one will. Decision-makers who cut themselves off from the best sources of information for political reasons are unlikely to find their work improves. That mistake spelt disaster for the communist bureaucrats of Eastern Europe. It may do the same for their modern heirs in Whitehall.”
The RIPA laws referred to earlier, appears on the surface, to have come about to regulate the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance. But soon after, it was being used to catch BBC licence fee dodgers, parents trying to manipulate school catchment areas for their children and even dog walkers and people feeding pigeons. It’s a classic case of mission creep. In fact, most local authorities now abuse these laws relentlessly. Back in 2016, Councils were given permission to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance over five years by the government with laws used to catch very dangerous criminals.
There should be a train of thought here. If the RIPA laws are being abused by agencies of government to such an extent – what direction is a government going in when it simply implements what rules it likes without reference to the electorate? That is surely the absolute opposite of democracy.
The crux of the article by Lucas is that we now have unknown and faceless ‘vetters’ whose job it is to seek out “criticism of government officials or policy” and crush that with real threats to livelihoods.
We have no idea which politicians are at the centre of this dictatorial descent into the informational abyss. However, Jacob Rees-Mogg has form. Last August LBC reported that Rees-Mogg had ordered speakers be vetted for criticism of government policy – “to ensure there is a proper process for inviting speakers to talk to civil servants in the Cabinet Office.”
That article stated – “that individuals would themselves be bound by general civil service rules around impartiality, and those who are found to have criticised government policy would not be automatically banned from making appearances.” The inference ‘not automatically banned’ is telling.
The problem is one of trajectory. This has started with vetting speakers communicating their views to civil servants. Very quickly, it appears to have reached any person or organisation in the public domain the government wishes to be silenced.
Last week, something else happened. Scotland Yard arrested a French publisher suspected of taking part in the protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms. They used UK anti-terrorism laws. Ernest Moret, a freelancer at the Left-wing Editions La Fabrique, was detained at St Pancras station on Monday evening after arriving on the Eurostar to visit the London Book Fair. The police demanded he surrenders pin numbers and passcodes for all of his electronic equipment, which he rightly refused to do.
To our knowledge, Moret has never been convicted of any crime relating to violence of any sort. He is not a ringleader of protest in France and is not sought by the police. Sebastian Budgen, a senior editor with Verso, said – “Everybody at the fair and in the publishing world are in complete shock.” PEN International, the writers’ association, said it was “deeply concerned” about the behaviour of the British state.
The police gave no information on what grounds Moret was arrested.
It was only a few short weeks ago that the hard right element of social media, especially Twitter, made its presence known when Gary Linekar mentioned the current Home Secretary and language used in 1930s Germany in reference to migrants. Against that backdrop, there’s something deeply disturbing about a state arresting a publisher of books.
Hitting A Nerve
The question you have to ask yourself is – what next? Silencing critics in the media may be one thing. But what about you – at home? In the pub? Don’t think for one moment this is nonsense. You have no idea what information the government holds on you. ‘Operation Optic Nerve’ tells us a lot about the government. There’s a decent chance, it might even have images of you or your partner or children, naked, compromised – and on a database.
Optic Nerve was and may well still be for all we know, a mass surveillance programme run by the British signals intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), with help from the US National Security Agency. It surreptitiously and very illegally collected private webcam still images from users while they were using a webcam. It also turned out, your webcam could be turned on without your knowledge. Between 3 per cent and 11 per cent of the images captured by the webcams were sexually explicit in nature. All of this was authorised by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.
The current government continues to act as though all its citizens are guilty of something. The result is ever more extreme acts of said paranoia. And that paranoia has turned nasty. This year, the UK has now imprisoned dozens of people over acts of non-violent protest. And as Natasha Walker at The Observer wrote last week – these draconian tactics “are part of a turn towards a more authoritarian state.” The experience of one imprisoned protestor was one of ‘cruel and painful” treatment. She says she was “restrained in a way that hurt so much that it made her want to vomit, then handcuffed, and placed in segregation.” Is this what we expect of our government in Britain today?
To make matters more concerning is The Public Order Bill currently passing through Parliament. Very worrying new measures have been proposed, including the criminalisation of non-violent but disruptive tactics such as “locking on” along with the extension of stop and search powers. If this bill really does become law, even people who have never been convicted of any offence before could be banned from attending protests, even electronically tagged, monitored online, and stopped from associating with named others.
But then again – some people are being arrested for going about their lawful business. It was only last November when Senior police officers ordered the unlawful arrests of four journalists detained while covering climate protests on the M25. The Guardian reported that -“there is evidence to suggest the potential for the arrests to amount to an ‘unlawful interference’ with the individuals’ freedom of expression under article 10” of the European Convention on Human Rights.” But this is not a government concerned with such conventions – obviously.
Censorship, powers of arrest and illegal surveillance have reached a new peak. You could argue some of it is necessary when thinking of the disruptive tactics of XR or Just Stop Oil. But it is especially worrying when an email arrives stating you cannot go about your daily business – simply just because you’ve not agreed with or criticised the government!