This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

Being away has made me feel a little detached from the sound and fury of home. But, as I used to work for them, I have followed the GCHQ/NSA business quite closely. It seems as if, suddenly and because of inept handling of the Guardian by 'the powers', people are waking up to the enormous ubiquity of surveillance in the UK.

So much has been written during the last few weeks (including this reflection from Der Spiegel in Germany) and I won't add to it here. But, what it all suggests is that – as I have written before now – (a) we need a public debate about the powers of 'the powers' who act in our name, (b) we need a public debate about what sort of security we want and expect, and (c) we need to ask if the answer to (a) and (b) has any consequence for the realism of our expectations.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want total security – which means giving security services some substantial leeway – there will be a cost in terms of privacy. If we want less surveillance, we must be forgiving when stuff gets missed by the security services.

Given that total security is an illusion anyway, I prefer to limit the powers of 'the powers' and then face the consequences. And I would resist complaint against the security services if/when stuff gets past them. We can't have it both ways.

If anything, however, all this Guardian/Snowden business demonstrates the importance of a free and professional press, capable of investigating and digging deep behind the propaganda. Which, of course, raises the further question about the viability of a responsible and professional press when the digital revolution is rendering the old business models obsolete and making it harder for good journalism to survive or thrive.

We have choices…

 

I caught a hint of a glimpse of a headline somewhere yesterday while on the move. It simply raised the question of how we, citizens of a democratic country, would have responded several decades ago to the suggestion that every individual would carry around on his or her person a tracking device. It sounds absurd, doesn't it? We would reject such a notion as being an infringement of personal privacy and a seriously worrying intrusion by the state (or other powers).

Well, like many things, we allow it to happen because rather than be presented to us as a policy, it simply creeps up incrementally as 'technological development'. So, now, without really thinking a great deal about it, we live in a surveillance state, whereby the 'powers' can know where I am, what I am buying, who I am texting/phoning, which websites I am perusing, where I am driving, who I am with, and so on. CCTV, road cameras, debit/credit cards, social media, mobile signal triangulation, store cards, etc. – the mere fact of this coverage makes any idea of privacy seem a little ironic (in an Orwellian, 1984 sense).

So, I was amused to read this morning's (always) excellent Newsbiscuit piece about GCHQ.

 

Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

1. What do governments (and the rest of us, for that matter) think intelligence/espionage services really do with their time… and is there a clue in the title?

2. Was there a sadder face at Wimbledon than Laura Robson's today?

3. Is Edward Snowden so desperate that he thinks for one minute that Russia – the mighty, ruthlessly pragmatic and politically unsentimental Bear – might be a safe place to seek asylum from the USA?

4. Why were some of us dismissed when, during the Arab Spring, we urged a longer-term view (before declaring, as a US President once did, “Mission Accomplished!”) and suggested that pulling an existing system down is quicker and easier than establishing a viable alternative one?

5. What is the point of setting up an independent review body to determine MPs' pay, only to diss it on grounds of populist ideology?

 

The great German weekly newspaper Die Zeit leads this week with two articles placed side by side. The first has to do with the current problems between the governing coalition partners and the apparent lack of leadership from the Bundeskanzlerin, Angela Merkel; the second is about the hidden power of Google. At first I wondered why they had been put together on the front page, but then I began to understand.

There is a bit of a crisis in Germany over how the Schwarz-Gelb (conservative-liberal) coalition can hold together. They are arguing about everything and a crisis summit is about to take place. However, the real pressure is on Angela Merkel who has remained remarkably quiet and ‘absent’ in recent weeks while the arguments raged around her. It is her leadership style that is now in question.

Merkel’s ‘reserved’ style was welcome after Germany’s electorate had grown fed up of years of endless conflict and controversy. But, as the world around has changed in the last couple of years, this style of leadership has (according to some commentators) led to a vacuum in orientation or leadership of the governing class. What was appropriate in the last Great Coalition is proving inadequate in the new coalition in which the two small parties (CSU and FDP) are at odds with each other and are not being brought to book.

Furthermore, Merkel’s style was helpful in her other role as leader of her party, the CDU. She faces the same problem as David Cameron in the UK: how do you modernise a conservative party without alienating your reactionary core and still remain electable as a coherent party? Quietly-quietly served her well in the last government, but it is coming apart now.

Obviously more could be said about this, but I want to move on. Leadership is a tough matter at the best of times and any leader knows how fickle the ‘led’ can be: waving in support one minute and calling for your head the next. Short-term memories on the part of the electorate do not always lead to good policy-making by those in charge. But Merkel’s plight (which Die Zeit partly attributes to her hands-off approach to the detailed negotiations of the coalition terms) highlights a problem for good leadership anywhere: how to recognise that a different style is now needed and to gauge whether or not I am equipped to offer it.

I have written about this in relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, so won’t repeat it here. But, leadership is a lonely business, especially when trying to lead at the same time as ‘read the runes’ of the wider mood.

And how does this connect with Google? Well, the article about Google articulates a widespread concern in Germany (Der Spiegel ran it as its cover story last week) that Google knows too much about us all and that this is dangerous. This debate has been running in the UK, too, but it is set against a historical backdrop in Germany that gives it a particular significance if not poignancy. (Interestingly, Spiegel is also suspicious about Google’s weak challenge to the Chinese…)

The link between the two articles (in my mind, at least) is this: how do leaders identify the really important issues that demand their attention? Helmut Schmidt has this week noted the return of the bonus culture amongst bankers and said that the seeds of the next financial crisis have been sown in thsi one because we understand more, but refuse to face the need for radical change. So, the financial crisis is up their with bankers’ bonuses. Then there are the economic and ecological challenges to our world and our societies. There is no end to the list of demanding ‘issues’ – and, as I have observed elsewhere, leaders are regarded as ‘leading’ only when they are shouting loudly what ‘I’ want to hear them say.

While Merkel and other government leaders (including in the UK) find all sorts of issues to concern them and dominate their agendas, there is one that seems to draw attention only from sections of the media and interest groups: the surveillance culture. Even the Church preoccupies itself with a limited list of ‘moral issues’ – sex is always at the top despite Jesus saying little about it; money is much lower down although Jesus said loads about it – while ignoring the tough ones that are more hidden.

Well, I want to stand with the editors of Die Zeit (whether they intended the link or not) and put a challenge to government (and other) leaders to take seriously developments in our surveillance society and put it higher up the list of ‘moral issues’ that demand attention. In the hands of a benign government there might be little to lose from being ‘watched’; but the potential for misuse of information is enormous even in such a society as ours.

So, how about some leadership in relation to the UK government’s will to retain email and mobile information, to collect and retain DNA samples from everybody imaginable, to photograph people in London over 300 times a day from ubiquitous cameras, and to retain as much information on everybody in as compact a manner as possible? Given the interconnectedness of the modern digital world and the propensity of human beings to misuse power in the interests of power, this is a debate that needs to be had now.

flat-earth-news1One of the best books to come out of 2009 so far is Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, subtitled ‘An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media’. The title comes from the assertion that for millennia everbody thought the earth was flat – until someone could be bothered to go and find out that it wasn’t. Davies says that loads of ‘stories’ in the media are perceived as true until anyone looks into them properly. One of his complaints about contemporary journalism is the culture that pressurises journalists to produce stories without the facility or time to check their veracity. he’s even set up a website to pursue these things.

His big one is the so-called Millennium Bug. In the run-up to the turn of the millennium there was a widespread fear that computers would malfunction with global catastrophic effects becasue of a suspected inability of the computers to properly read the double-digit turn from 99 to 00. Millions of pounds were spent in attending to this ‘problem’ – only for nothing to happen. So, asks davies, how did this story become so ubiquitously powerful when there was never any truth behind it? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

cctv1Well, in yesterday’s Times David Aaronovitch wrote about the ‘strange case of the surveillance cameras’. The oft-repeated ‘fact’ is that we can be caught on camera in London 300 times per day: that is how pervasive the surveillance society is now. I have often used this ‘fact’ myself. However, Aaronovitch decided to find out where this ‘fact’ has come from and eventually discovered it was, in fact, fiction. Yet we all believe it, apparently.

Three elements of this interest me:

1. Every journalist I know wants to do good, intelligent and useful journalism, but is constrained by the pressures of time, money and numbers to get stories the truth of which is not always ascertainable in the time or circumstances that pertain. This is bad for journalists, bad for journalism and very bad for society which needs to be intelligently and accurately informed.

2. We are too happy to be gullible and, as media consumers, too easily lose our critical and interpretative faculties. What is often confidently stated as fact is often baseless in reality or given a suggestive slant that affects the way a ‘fact’ is understood. A quick example was also to be found in yesterday’s Times in a tiny piece about the Pope’s nominee for Bishop of Linz. The implication of the piece is that the Pope has withdrawn his appointment from the bishop because he had said Harry Potter was ‘satanic’. Indeed, the bishop had said such things, but that was not the reason his appointment had been rescinded. It was his membership of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X, his anti-semitism and the fact that the priests in Linz set up a petition against him that did the trick. So, why the Times piece?

brandedarms3. The Church is often preoccuppied with ‘moral’ issues that are difficult and divisive. yet, one of the biggest moral issues we face in the UK right now is the so-called ‘surveillance society’. Even if the cameras aren’t filming us 300 times each day, so many records are now being kept that the notion of privacy is being slowly eroded. The government wants to keep our phone records and emails just in case. Fear of terrorism trumps all other concerns. And we still don’t learn that in 1930s Germany (for example) while the Church was concerned with sorting out ‘moral’ issues such as sexual behaviour and other ‘corruptions’ they missed the big stuff that was coming in its wake.

Does anyone see ‘surveillance‘ as a moral issue? I think it needs more serious attention that it has hitherto been given by people who find it easier to obsess about sexier subjects like sex. But, I suggest, it goes deeper and will require more attention from serious-minded moralists. Even if we are only being filmed 100 times each day.