When Nelson Mandela goes, the global village will lose its elder | Jonathan Freedland

The former South African president is the ultimate example of moral authority, the most precious commodity in politics

The vultures are circling, said the family. Later they withdrew the charge, but who can blame the relatives, visiting the aged patriarch in his hospital bed watched by an ever-expanding encampment of the world's press. Anyone would recoil at this morbid intrusion of lenses and microphones whose purpose is simply to wait for death.

But the rest of us should not condemn too harshly the journalists preparing to bring us news of the death of Nelson Mandela. They are there not to feed themselves, as vultures do, but to satisfy what will be a global desire to mark a moment that is rare indeed. Just for once, the entire world will be united in mourning. Dissenting voices will be scarce to non-existent. For Mandela is in a category of one, a person known universally and admired, even loved, almost as widely.

That is why the press corps outside Pretoria's Mediclinic heart hospital is so large, why the US president, on a tour of Africa, is in the unfamiliar position of hoping for a meeting he might not be granted. Truly, no one else on the face of the Earth would get this treatment. There will be an enormous reaction in this country – bigger, I suspect, than many realise – when the Queen dies. Hundreds of millions of Catholics the world over will mourn the pope when his time comes. There are other figures with large, international followings. But none has the standing of Mandela, a man whose name alone carries a unique moral weight in any language.

And moral is the word. For what sets Mandela apart is his moral authority, greater than that of any other living individual. This is the source of the intense current interest and wellspring of the grief that will flow when he is gone. Yet, moral authority is a strange, elusive quality. We feel we know it when we see it, but what exactly does it amount to? Who has it and how is it used?

The usual prerequisite is suffering. Harsh to put it so baldly, but most of those who can hush an audience with their presence alone have experienced an ordeal that commands our sympathy and therefore our respect. To light on three disparate examples: Doreen Lawrence lost her son, Stephen, when he was murdered by a racist gang of white youths in 1993; the Israeli novelist David Grossman lost his son, Uri, when he was killed in combat during the Lebanon war of 2006; James Brady initially lost the use of his legs and much of his speech and cognitive function when he was shot during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. All three are usually granted a hearing, even if they are not always heeded, in part because of what they have endured.

But pain alone is not sufficient. There are, sad to say, other mothers of murdered teenagers who do not have the standing of Lawrence. What distinguishes her is the 20-year campaign for justice she has fought since her son's death. It is in this context that she is listened to, just as Grossman speaks with extra moral authority on Israel's conflict with its neighbours or Brady on gun control. Each has channeled their experience into a struggle, whether for justice, peace or an end to violence.

What's more, it is the manner of this struggle that either adds to or reduces a campaigner's moral authority. Lawrence is said to bristle at the now-cliched description of her as "dignified". Yet this is central to the gravitas she exudes. Her calmness, her refusal to rant or rave – even though such outbursts would be wholly understandable – enhance her status. That was clear again this week, as the Guardian revealed that the Metropolitan police had dispatched undercover spies to smear the Lawrence campaign. Doreen Lawrence's grace these last two decades ensured this was seen as a violation too far.

If these are the essential ingredients of moral authority it's not hard to see why Mandela is the uber-example. His suffering, his response to it and his wider campaign for justice are all of a scale and import without parallel.

He was a political prisoner on Robben Island for a barely imaginable 27 years. He was there as the leader and chief symbol of the struggle against apartheid, a cause which, in retrospect if not at the time, has come to be seen as an ultimate, textbook case of good versus evil. That campaign itself became totemic for other struggles around the world, whether against racism or colonial oppression. Across the globe, black people especially saw their own destinies bound up in the fate of Nelson Mandela.

Above all, the way he responded to the brutality he had endured, his generosity towards his captors and his lack of desire for revenge against the wider white minority they had served established him as a kind of paragon. If secular saint is a phrase with any meaning, it applies to Mandela.

Of course there are risks to such canonisation. It can render taboo any criticism of the canonised's decisions, including the charge that Mandela left too much of South Africa's economic inequality untouched. More important, if Mandela was a saint that makes his work a miracle – a one-off event that cannot be replicated. Better to see the victory over apartheid as the fruit of an all too mortal, political struggle by human beings who, Mandela included, had as many flaws and limitations as anyone else.

For all that, moral authority is a precious commodity in politics. It can unlock things that would otherwise be jammed. In long-running conflicts especially, whether in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, it seems only those admired as having struggled for their peoples over many years, perhaps paying a personal price, are trusted to make peace. When Britons lament the state of today's politics, sighing at the smooth-skinned young men who lead the three largest parties, they are partly grieving the lack of moral authority of those in charge – men who have so little experience of anything outside the political game that they can hardly be blamed for lacking experience of suffering or struggle.

In this, Mandela stands apart, on an entirely different plane. When he is gone, the world will feel a poorer place. No longer will we reassure ourselves that, somewhere, there lives at least one leader who proved capable of true moral greatness. Of course we huddle together waiting for news. Our global village is about to lose its elder.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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George Osborne master of the game of divisive politics | Jonathan Freedland

The chancellor has tried to gloss over a dire financial situation by playing the game he knows best

He's the part-time chancellor, say Labour, but even his most vicious critics would not deny that George Osborne is a full-time politician. He proved that again on Wednesday, when he presented a spending review shot through with politics, from first croaky breath to last.

His primary task was the one he toiled hardest to conceal. His mission, in American parlance, was to put lipstick on a pig, to prettify what remains a dire situation in the public finances. Recall that 2013 was meant to be the year Osborne would announce the beginning of the end of austerity, as he made cheerful progress towards eradicating the deficit in time for the 2015 election. Indeed that plan was the premise on which the coalition was built.

Yet economic growth has been so anaemic, tax revenues still so low, that there is no such end in sight.

Instead, the chancellor came to the Commons to announce cuts that will stretch to the far horizon, long after 2015.

He did his best to divert attention from this unfortunate truth. He made great play of those departments to be spared the knife. And when, reluctantly, he had to name areas where "savings" – never "cuts" – will be necessary, he was at pains to accompany every dollop of bitter medicine with a spoonful of sugar. So the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will have its budget slashed by 7%, with capital spending cut by two-thirds, but Osborne preferred to stress a new scheme to restore the site of the Battle of Waterloo (location, incidentally, of the death in the novel Vanity Fair of a character by the name of … George Osborne).

He made the same move repeatedly, cutting the budget of the Department of Energy and Climate Change by 8%, but hoping to obscure that with a promise on nuclear power. Defra got whacked by 10%, but worry not, there's to be more money for flood defences. The intention was to wrongfoot and present a Scrooge budget in the language of Santa.

The trick worked easiest when the chancellor could speak of health, schools and international aid, those areas whose budgets are circled with a ring of steel first constructed when the Tories were in opposition. Those choices were, and remain, intensely political – a last vestige of the modernisation project of compassionate conservatism, when David Cameron and Osborne sought to reassure the electorate they were the nasty party no longer.

That imperative survives, although it did not deny the chancellor all wiggle room. Two choices were notable. First, Osborne showed he is not above stealing from Labour when he pickpocketed Andy Burnham's long-held idea of dipping into NHS funds to pay for social care. This is one of the perils of opposition. Propose a bad idea, and it'll be mocked; propose a good one, and it'll be nicked.

Second, the education budget is protected but priorities within the ringfence are telling. There are to be 180 free schools, but the Lib Dems' cherished pupil premium is to have funding frozen in real terms: Osborne has favoured Michael Gove at the expense of Nick Clegg.

None of this should obscure the partisan goal of the review: to draw bright, clear battlelines for 2015 – and to put Labour on the wrong side of them. Osborne announced he would exempt the state pension from his cap on welfare spending, implicitly asking: would Labour? The tactic became most obvious in the speech's final stretch, as Osborne put away the nice guy mask and revealed his inner snarl.

He proposed changes to social security motivated less by the need to save money than by the urge to show how tough this government could be. From now on, jobseekers will have to sign on every week. Those who can't speak English will have to learn or lose their benefits. Most striking of all, the newly laid off will not be able to claim benefit straight away but have to wait seven days. That may not sound like much, but for those who have just lost a job that paid little, it could be impossible.

No wonder the BBC's Robert Peston called it a Wonga budget: there will be plenty who will survive that first week by taking out a loan at usurious rates.

Such punitive action will have next to no impact on the deficit. It's all about the politics. Osborne has drawn a line and invited Labour to stand on the other side of it. He wants the Eds – Miliband and Balls – to balk at his proposals so that he can paint Labour as soft on scroungers. Perhaps he will keep coming up with ever more aggressive wheezes until the Eds eventually crack and refuse to follow where he leads. The aim is clear: Osborne hopes to brand the opposition in 2015 the way he branded them on Wednesday – as "the welfare party".

In this, Osborne demonstrated his understanding of a cardinal rule of politics: you define yourself by your choice of both friends and enemies.

He aimed to pose as the friend of doctors, nurses, schoolchildren, the foreign poor, soldiers and spies, all of whom will either see their funding protected or increased. And he was happy to be the enemy of public sector workers, whose "automatic progression" pay is to be scrapped, local government, Scotland and, above all, the unemployed.

This is divisive politics, no doubt about it. But it's a game few play better than George Osborne.


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The Met’s undercover police wrecked the lives of many deceived women | Jonathan Freedland

Will public outrage at the attempt to smear the Lawrence family lead to a full inquiry at which the scandal of infiltration is probed?

The Guardian's investigation into phone hacking had been running for a long time, mainly ignored by the rest of the media until it was revealed that Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl, had, posthumously, been one of the hackers' victims. Suddenly the story broke through, reaching people who had previously been unmoved. Politicians, including the prime minister, until then studiedly mute on the subject, now felt obliged to speak and to promise to act.

It seems as if the revelation of a secret operation to smear the family of Stephen Lawrence will do the same for the long-running investigation by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans into the undercover police of special branch. Once again, the victim commands universal respect and sympathy: the Lawrence family now, the Dowlers then. Once again, this is an act that no one can defend. At last the Lewis and Evans revelations – of a wing of the police force that was a law unto itself – will get the attention they deserve.

The current focus on the violation of the Lawrences is entirely justified. To smear a family in mourning represents a moral low of a very deep kind. It's hard to reject the arguments for a full inquiry, rather than a mere expansion of Operation Herne, the current probe of the police conducted by the police themselves. Indeed, David Cameron and Theresa May would be well-advised to establish one now, rather than resist – as Cameron did on phone hacking – only to concede eventually.

But if there is to be such an inquiry, let it include the full record of the Met's special demonstration squad. It should especially probe the cases brought by about a dozen women who say they were deceived into relationships by undercover policemen – and in some cases gave birth to their children – whose sole purpose was to gain the trust of the activist groups they sought to infiltrate. Speak to the women involved, as I have done, and you are left in no doubt at the scale of the damage done, measured in broken trust, if not broken lives.

The truth is the Lawrence revelations are the tip of a very ugly iceberg, one that too many have ignored or attempted to shrug off for too long. A Telegraph blogpost in January by Cristina Odone, suggested that the deceived women should consider themselves lucky, as they were "hairy and smelly activists whose only hope for sex lies in being targeted by undercover policemen trying to extract their secrets".

So let there be that full inquiry. But it must be sure to explore every aspect of this disgraceful chapter in the Met's history, no matter how dark.


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From memory to sexuality, the digital age is changing us completely | Jonathan Freedland

I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it's altering every corner of human life

In this future, the past has been forgotten. Not entirely: there are still a few rebels who cling to whatever memories they can pass on, in whispers and in defiance of the law. But all they have are fragments, many of them misremembered. Navigating their way around the ruins of a post-apocalyptic London, they travel up Great Poor Land Street looking for Kings Curse or Waste Monster (perhaps the latter name is not so mistaken). They gather in a slum they know as the Limpicks to worship the giant metal figure of the Red Man – unaware they are in the Olympic Village of 2012, bowing down to the Orbit.

Such is the vision set out in Memory Palace, a new novella by Hari Kunzru and also the centrepiece of a V&A exhibition. Like all dystopias, it aims to say something about our own time. Specifically, it urges us to see the value of today's technology, forcing us to realise how much we would miss it if it were gone. In Kunzru's story, civilisation was destroyed by the great Magnetization, when all digital data was wiped at a stroke.

That notion contains a warning about the fragility of memory. Humanity increasingly stores its collective knowledge virtually, in the clouds, making it vulnerable to catastrophic loss. But even without a global disaster, memory is at risk. Things we used to remember – quotations, phone numbers – we now outsource to machines: why learn Kipling by heart, when you can Google it?

More troubling, perhaps, we are depriving future generations of the memory of us. Read the early chapters of Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher and it's clear he, and therefore we, would have only the sketchiest picture of her youth were it not for the stash of letters she sent her older sister, Muriel. There will be no such letters written by the prime ministers of tomorrow who are adolescents today. Though we now reveal so much more – teenagers especially – we leave behind so much less. Texts, tweets and Facebook updates exist in abundance, but they rarely provide the depth of a letter. And few would bet on them surviving 70-odd years.

The Margarets and Muriels of 2013 are trading Instagrams and Vines, but these exchanges will not linger in an attic to be found at the end of the century; they will vanish, along with the photographs that would once have endured for posterity in thick albums, but which will now be lost, either rendered unreadable by the next generation of technology or discarded with the hard drives that held them.

The point is that a fundamental aspect of human life – memory – is being altered by the digital revolution, and it is far from the only one. I confess I long avoided bowing to such a conclusion. In the 1990s, I was among those who wanted to believe the internet represented a shift in scale or form, rather than in kind: emails would be the same as letters, only faster. But increasingly, it seems, that was to underestimate the nature of the change.

Take two areas of human activity, both highlighted this week. Initially it appeared as if "cyber-porn" would be no different from the old variety, the screen merely replacing the mag. Now most people accept that the ease and availability of a dizzying range of pornography, easily accessed by the very young, represents more than a change of platform. Images that are now commonplace were once visible only to those who were determined to seek them out, knew where to go and were not ashamed to reveal their appetite for them. Now they can be reached at a click, without fear of disclosure or embarrassment. There is no shame. And that may well be altering, if not distorting, the sexuality of the next generation.

Friday was Stop Cyberbullying Day. The old response, that bullying is timeless, misses two key differences: as has been argued in these pages, the pre-digital tormentor rarely followed his victim into the home, as he can now, and always had to witness the consequences of his actions in the flesh, which for some probably acted as a brake. In the virtual age, both those constraints have gone.

The effect of the great technological upheaval on politics, as social media mobilises protest in Brazil and Turkey, and on privacy has been well-documented, especially since the Guardian's revelations about state surveillance. But the change manifests itself in other, less obvious ways, too. The global response to the death of the actor James Gandolfini prompted the political scientist Ian Bremmer to remark that "Twitter reduces the famous-person-mourning cycle from days to hours," a comment he made via Twitter of course. The speed with which an event becomes old news has deprived us of the time to process experiences, both public and private.

The American intellectual Leon Wieseltier recently told of his fears for reading. "Reading is a cognitive, mental, emotional action, and today it is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world." What's more, he believes technology is shifting our way of seeing the world, that we have become "happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience", so that we now "ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work".

Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press. But this change is reaching into every corner of our humanness. Once it looked like hype, but now those pioneers seem right: the internet really has changed the world completely – and us along with it.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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From memory to sexuality, the digital age is changing us completely | Jonathan Freedland

I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it's altering every corner of human life

In this future, the past has been forgotten. Not entirely: there are still a few rebels who cling to whatever memories they can pass on, in whispers and in defiance of the law. But all they have are fragments, many of them misremembered. Navigating their way around the ruins of a post-apocalyptic London, they travel up Great Poor Land Street looking for Kings Curse or Waste Monster (perhaps the latter name is not so mistaken). They gather in a slum they know as the Limpicks to worship the giant metal figure of the Red Man – unaware they are in the Olympic Village of 2012, bowing down to the Orbit.

Such is the vision set out in Memory Palace, a new novella by Hari Kunzru and also the centrepiece of a V&A exhibition. Like all dystopias, it aims to say something about our own time. Specifically, it urges us to see the value of today's technology, forcing us to realise how much we would miss it if it were gone. In Kunzru's story, civilisation was destroyed by the great Magnetization, when all digital data was wiped at a stroke.

That notion contains a warning about the fragility of memory. Humanity increasingly stores its collective knowledge virtually, in the clouds, making it vulnerable to catastrophic loss. But even without a global disaster, memory is at risk. Things we used to remember – quotations, phone numbers – we now outsource to machines: why learn Kipling by heart, when you can Google it?

More troubling, perhaps, we are depriving future generations of the memory of us. Read the early chapters of Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher and it's clear he, and therefore we, would have only the sketchiest picture of her youth were it not for the stash of letters she sent her older sister, Muriel. There will be no such letters written by the prime ministers of tomorrow who are adolescents today. Though we now reveal so much more – teenagers especially – we leave behind so much less. Texts, tweets and Facebook updates exist in abundance, but they rarely provide the depth of a letter. And few would bet on them surviving 70-odd years.

The Margarets and Muriels of 2013 are trading Instagrams and Vines, but these exchanges will not linger in an attic to be found at the end of the century; they will vanish, along with the photographs that would once have endured for posterity in thick albums, but which will now be lost, either rendered unreadable by the next generation of technology or discarded with the hard drives that held them.

The point is that a fundamental aspect of human life – memory – is being altered by the digital revolution, and it is far from the only one. I confess I long avoided bowing to such a conclusion. In the 1990s, I was among those who wanted to believe the internet represented a shift in scale or form, rather than in kind: emails would be the same as letters, only faster. But increasingly, it seems, that was to underestimate the nature of the change.

Take two areas of human activity, both highlighted this week. Initially it appeared as if "cyber-porn" would be no different from the old variety, the screen merely replacing the mag. Now most people accept that the ease and availability of a dizzying range of pornography, easily accessed by the very young, represents more than a change of platform. Images that are now commonplace were once visible only to those who were determined to seek them out, knew where to go and were not ashamed to reveal their appetite for them. Now they can be reached at a click, without fear of disclosure or embarrassment. There is no shame. And that may well be altering, if not distorting, the sexuality of the next generation.

Friday was Stop Cyberbullying Day. The old response, that bullying is timeless, misses two key differences: as has been argued in these pages, the pre-digital tormentor rarely followed his victim into the home, as he can now, and always had to witness the consequences of his actions in the flesh, which for some probably acted as a brake. In the virtual age, both those constraints have gone. The effect of the great technological upheaval on politics, as social media mobilises protest in Brazil and Turkey, and on privacy has been well-documented, especially since the Guardian's revelations about state surveillance. But the change manifests itself in other, less obvious ways, too. The global response to the death of the actor James Gandolfini prompted the political scientist Ian Bremmer to remark that "Twitter reduces the famous-person-mourning cycle from days to hours," a comment he made via Twitter of course. The speed with which an event becomes old news has deprived us of the time to process experiences, both public and private.

The American intellectual Leon Wieseltier recently told of his fears for reading. "Reading is a cognitive, mental, emotional action, and today it is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world." What's more, he believes technology is shifting our way of seeing the world, that we have become "happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience", so that we now "ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work".

Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press. But this change is reaching into every corner of our humanness. Once it looked like hype, but now those pioneers seem right: the internet really has changed the world completely – and us along with it.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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Stuart Hall’s sentence is unduly lenient – the judge got it wrong | Jonathan Freedland

Yes, he's 83, but Hall has eluded justice for sexually abusing girls for so long – why should his time in jail be reduced?

It's a rare day when Harriet Harman and the Daily Mail agree. But in their reaction to the sentencing of Stuart Hall to 15 months in jail for multiple counts of child sexual abuse, they are united. Both believe the punishment – which will see Hall's time in prison automatically reduced to seven and a half months – is "unduly lenient". And they're both right.

If you read the judge's sentencing statement closely you can see how he arrived at such a modest penalty. A crucial element was the "discount" awarded for a guilty plea, which reduced the time Hall could have served by a quarter. There can be few complaints about the principle of such a policy: a guilty plea spares victims the pain of having to give testimony in court.

But two other decisions by the judge are much harder to defend. The first was his ruling that Hall should serve time for each of his 14 counts of indecent assault concurrently rather than consecutively. Had the former TV presenter had to serve each sentence back to back he would, by my reckoning, have been ordered to spend just short of 10 years behind bars. Even after the automatic reduction, that would still have been a hefty five years in prison.

To opt for concurrent rather than consecutive sentences was entirely the judge's decision. Indeed he admitted that, "undoubtedly, applying general sentencing principles, consecutive sentences could properly be imposed". If he had followed those general principles, Hall's punishment would have looked much more fitting – and sent the message to other victims, and perpetrators, that the justice system takes the abuse of children seriously.

But it's the second factor that weighed on Judge Anthony Russell that puzzles me most. As the judge put it, addressing Hall in a poorly worded sentence: "Your age is an appropriate factor to take into account because for a man of your age a custodial sentence would be particularly difficult for you." Many people will accept this logic, regarding it as inhumane to be too harsh with a man of 83.

And yet it is a strange logic. The implication is that because Hall got away with it for so long, he should be punished less. If anything, Hall's years of impunity surely make the need for punishment greater. How galling for the victims, who have wrestled for decades with the psychological damage of his abuse, to know that in those same years, Hall was able to enjoy a life of peace, serenity and public admiration. Why should the fact that he eluded justice so long make his sentence lighter?

The judge got this one wrong. The attorney general is right to review it.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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Stuart Hall’s sentence is unduly lenient – the judge got it wrong

Yes, he's 83, but Hall has eluded justice for sexually abusing girls for so long – why should his time in jail be reduced?

It's a rare day when Harriet Harman and the Daily Mail agree. But in their reaction to the sentencing of Stuart Hall to 15 months in jail for multiple counts of child sexual abuse, they are united. Both believe the punishment – which will see Hall's time in prison automatically reduced to seven and a half months – is "unduly lenient." And they're both right.

If you read the judge's sentencing statement closely you can see how he arrived at such a modest penalty. A crucial element was the "discount" awarded for a guilty plea, which reduced the time Hall could have served by a quarter. There can be few complaints about the principle of such a policy: a guilty plea spares victims the pain of having to give testimony in court.

But two other decisions by the judge are much harder to defend. The first was his ruling that Hall should serve time for each of his 14 counts of indecent assault concurrently rather than consecutively. Had the former TV presenter had to serve each sentence back to back he would, by my reckoning, have been ordered to spend just short of 10 years behind bars. Even after the automatic reduction, that would still have been a hefty five years in prison.

To opt for concurrent rather than consecutive sentences was entirely the judge's decision. Indeed he admitted that, "Undoubtedly, applying general sentencing principles, consecutive sentences could properly be imposed". If he had followed those general principles, Hall's punishment would have looked much more fitting – and sent the message to other victims, and perpetrators, that the justice system takes the abuse of children seriously.

But it's the second factor that weighed on Judge Anthony Russell that puzzles me most. As the judge put it, addressing Hall in a poorly worded sentence, "Your age is an appropriate factor to take into account because for a man of your age a custodial sentence would be particularly difficult for you." Many people will accept this logic, regarding it as inhumane to be too harsh with a man of 83.

And yet it is a strange logic. The implication is that because Stuart Hall got away with it for so long, he should be punished less. If anything, Hall's years of impunity surely make the need for punishment greater. How galling for the victims, who have wrestled for decades with the psychological damage of his abuse, to know that in those same years, Hall was able to enjoy a life of peace, serenity and public admiration. Why should the fact that he eluded justice so long make his sentence lighter?

The judge got this one wrong. The attorney general is right to review it.


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Obama is like Apple, Google and Facebook: a once hip brand tainted by Prism | Jonathan Freedland

The president and the web giants are disgraced by this scandal. But we made it possible – by becoming informants on ourselves

Among the guests at the fabled Bilderberg meeting, held this weekend just outside London, are the top brass of Google, Amazon and Microsoft. How appropriate they should be there, alongside luminaries of the US political and military establishment. For this was the week that seemed to confirm all the old bug-eyed conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us.

The Guardian revealed that the US National Security Agency has cracked open our online lives, that it can rifle through your emails, listen to your calls on Skype, watching "your ideas form as you type", as a US intelligence officer put it – apparently in cahoots with the corporate titans of the web.

This disgraces all involved, but it damages the head of the US government most. Barack Obama always had much in common with the Apple and Facebook crowd. Like them, he held out the promise of modernity – a slick, cool contrast to their creaky, throwback rivals. (Obama was rarely without BlackBerry and iPod; McCain and Romney came from the age of the manual typewriter.) But, like those early internet giants, he promised more than just an open-necked, hipper style. He would be better too. Google's informal motto is Don't be Evil. Obama's was Hope.

Perhaps people lost their innocence about Google and Facebook long ago, realising that, just because their founders were kids in jeans, they were no less red-toothed than any other capitalist behemoth. But now the president's reputation will suffer the same treatment. This Prism will dim the halo that once adorned him.

For he has authorised not merely the continuation of a programme of state surveillance that he once opposed, but has actively expanded it. That officers who serve him could brag in a 41-page presentation – one, incidentally, laced with David Brent-style grandiosity, starting with the naffness of the Prism logo – of their ability to collect data "directly from the servers" of the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, will be a lasting stain on his record. In this, he is George W Obama.

There is a mirthless chuckle to be had from a president repeatedly slammed as a "liberal" whose legacy will be marred by a series of gravely illiberal acts.

He promised but failed to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, where men have been held for more than a decade without charge (though Congress shares the blame for that). He has made routine the use of drones, assassinating enemies from the sky – repeatedly taking the innocent in the process, as he's admitted. Last month it emerged that Obama's justice department had spied on a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, tracking his movements, seizing his telephone records and taking two days' worth of his personal emails, in pursuit of a state department leak. That came after Obama had made "no apologies" for seizing two months of telephone records from Associated Press. Little wonder that the high citadel of US liberalism, the editorial column of the New York Times, this week declared that "The administration has now lost all credibility", later softening the blow by adding the words, "on this issue".

It is becoming ever harder for liberals to defend Obama. One forlorn effort I heard this week was that perhaps he did not know what the NSA was up to, even though we're told Prism is now the prime generator of material for the president's daily brief. When you're reduced to saying your hero is not evil, just useless, you know you're in trouble.

As for the web companies, their role remains unclear. Initially they insisted that the access-all-areas relationship described in Prism's PowerPoint presentation is false and there was no such collaboration. Yet one industry insider tells me that "it's very hard to think the companies did not know" the NSA was collecting their data, since such an intrusion "would show up pretty damn quick". That leaves a third possibility: that the Prism pitch was exaggerated, in order to make it a more attractive sell to its potential customers among the US – and UK – intelligence fraternity.

Whatever the truth, it's unlikely to have a lasting impact on the web giants' success. That's partly because of cynicism: plenty of us assumed these big companies abused our privacy anyway. But it's also because our relationship is one of dependence. When it emerged that Starbucks, Amazon and Google had all been paying negligible tax in the UK, it was obvious Starbucks would feel the consumer heat most, simply because it's easy to walk across the street to get a cup of coffee somewhere else. Amazon is harder to avoid and Google all but impossible. So reliant are we on these companies' services, we simply shrug and move on.

And here lies the heart of the matter, the shift in our lives that has made Prism possible. Back in the John le Carré days of cold war espionage, private information was hard to get. Spies relied on papers stuffed in manila files, or operatives hanging around on street corners, forced to gain each bit of knowledge by hand. Back then, people gave up their personal details sparingly and reluctantly.

Now we are liberal with our innermost secrets, spraying them into the public ether with a generosity our forebears could not have imagined. Where we once sent love letters in a sealed envelope, or stuck photographs of our children in a family album, now such private material is despatched to servers and clouds operated by people we don't know and will never meet. Perhaps we assume that our name, address and search preferences will be viewed by some unseen pair of corporate eyes, probably not human, and don't mind that much. We guess the worst that can happen is Google bothering us with an annoying ad or Spotify recommending Taylor Swift.

But if that knowledge goes elsewhere, if governments can get it when they ask for it, or even without asking for it, then that means something else entirely. It means that the intelligence agencies can now watch the entire population, albeit by privatised means, having in effect outsourced the job of spying to the web mega-companies.

That leaves us with a choice. Either we try to stuff this genie back in the bottle and return to the privacy habits of old. Unlikely. Or we demand companies stand firm when pressed by governments to disclose our data. Not easy. Or we demand lawmakers change the rules, restraining the executive branch's limitless appetite for information on us.

It's hard to be optimistic, for technology has made the pickings available too rich, too tempting, for the spies to resist. And, strangest of all, it is us who made this possible – by becoming informants on ourselves.


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Obama is like Apple, Google and Facebook: a once hip brand tainted by Prism | Jonathan Freedland:

The president and the web giants are disgraced by this scandal. But we made it possible - by becoming informants on ourselves

Among the guests at the fabled Bilderberg meeting, held this weekend just outside London, are the top brass of Google, Amazon and Microsoft. How appropriate they should be there, alongside luminaries of the US political and military establishment. For this was the week that seemed to confirm all the old bug-eyed conspiracy theories about governments and corporations colluding to enslave the rest of us.

The Guardian revealed that the US National Security Agency has cracked open our online lives, that it can rifle through your emails, listen to your calls on Skype, watching "your ideas form as you type", as a US intelligence officer put it – apparently in cahoots with the corporate titans of the web.

This disgraces all involved, but it damages the head of the US government most. Barack Obama always had much in common with the Apple and Facebook crowd. Like them, he held out the promise of modernity – a slick, cool contrast to their creaky, throwback rivals. (Obama was rarely without BlackBerry and iPod; McCain and Romney came from the age of the manual typewriter.) But, like those early internet giants, he promised more than just an open-necked, hipper style. He would be better too. Google's informal motto is Don't be Evil. Obama's is Hope.

Perhaps people lost their innocence about Google and Facebook long ago, realising that, just because their founders were kids in jeans, they were no less red-toothed than any other capitalist behemoth. But now the president's reputation will suffer the same treatment. This Prism will dim the halo that once adorned him.

For he has authorised not merely the continuation of a programme of state surveillance that he once opposed, but has actively expanded it. That officers who serve him could brag in a 41-page presentation – one, incidentally, laced with David Brent-style grandiosity, starting with the naffness of the Prism logo – of their ability to collect data "directly from the servers" of the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo, will be a lasting stain on his record. In this, he is George W Obama. There is a mirthless chuckle to be had from a president repeatedly slammed as a "liberal" whose legacy will be marred by a series of gravely illiberal acts.

He promised but failed to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, where men have been held for more than a decade without charge (though Congress shares the blame for that). He has made routine the use of drones, assassinating enemies from the sky – repeatedly taking the innocent in the process, as he's admitted. Last month it emerged that Obama's justice department had spied on a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, tracking his movements, seizing his telephone records and taking two days' worth of his personal emails, in pursuit of a state department leak. That came after Obama had made "no apologies" for seizing two months of telephone records from Associated Press. Little wonder that the high citadel of US liberalism, the editorial column of the New York Times, this week declared that "The administration has now lost all credibility", later softening the blow by adding the words, "on this issue".

It is becoming ever harder for liberals to defend Obama. One forlorn effort I heard this week was that perhaps he did not know what the NSA was up to, even though we're told Prism is now the prime generator of material for the president's daily brief. When you're reduced to saying your hero is not evil, just useless, you know you're in trouble.

As for the web companies, their role remains unclear. Initially they insisted that the access-all-areas relationship described in Prism's PowerPoint presentation is false and there was no such collaboration. Yet one industry insider tells me that "it's very hard to think the companies did not know" the NSA was collecting their data, since such an intrusion "would show up pretty damn quick". That leaves a third possibility: that the Prism pitch was exaggerated, in order to make it a more attractive sell to its potential customers among the US – and UK – intelligence fraternity.

Whatever the truth, it's unlikely to have a lasting impact on the web giants' success. That's partly because of cynicism: plenty of us assumed these big companies abused our privacy anyway. But it's also because our relationship is one of dependence. When it emerged that Starbucks, Amazon and Google had all been paying negligible tax in the UK, it was obvious Starbucks would feel the consumer heat most, simply because it's easy to walk across the street to get a cup of coffee somewhere else. Amazon is harder to avoid and Google all but impossible. So reliant are we on these companies' services, we simply shrug and move on.

And here lies the heart of the matter, the shift in our lives that has made Prism possible. Back in the Le Carré days of cold war espionage, private information was hard to get. Spies relied on papers stuffed in manila files, or operatives hanging around on street corners, forced to gain each bit of knowledge by hand. Back then, people gave up their personal details sparingly and reluctantly.

Now we are liberal with our innermost secrets, spraying them into the public ether with a generosity our forebears could not have imagined. Where we once sent love letters in a sealed envelope, or stuck photographs of our children in a family album, now such private material is despatched to servers and clouds operated by people we don't know and will never meet. Perhaps we assume that our name, address and search preferences will be viewed by some unseen pair of corporate eyes, probably not human, and don't mind that much. We guess the worst that can happen is Google bothering us with an annoying ad or Spotify recommending Taylor Swift.

But if that knowledge goes elsewhere, if governments can get it when they ask for it, or even without asking for it, then that means something else entirely. It means that the intelligence agencies can now watch the entire population, albeit by privatised means, having in effect outsourced the job of spying to the web mega-companies.

That leaves us with a choice. Either we try to stuff this genie back in the bottle and return to the privacy habits of old. Unlikely. Or we demand companies stand firm when pressed by governments to disclose our data. Not easy. Or we demand lawmakers change the rules, restraining the executive branch's limitless appetite for information on us.

It's hard to be optimistic, for technology has made the pickings available too rich, too tempting, for the spies to resist. And, strangest of all, it is us who made this possible – by becoming informants on ourselves.


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When the Israel boycott goes mainstream

Sometimes it takes just a single word. This particular word, used three times in a newspaper article, offered a glimpse of an unwelcome future - one in which Israel is seen all but universally as a pariah state.

It appeared in a Daily Express report on Stephen Hawking's decision to join the academic boycott of Israel. The article focused on what it called the "barrage of vile abuse" and "disgusting" jokes aimed at Hawking by defenders of Israel on social media, quoting the "sick user" who posted that "the antisemite Stephen Hawking can't even wipe his own a**," another who said "He should die already!" and a third who wrote that the physicist was "also crippled in the head".

Appalling as they are, none of those remarks includes the word that struck me. For the Express report referred to Hawking's decision to join the boycott of "the Israeli regime," which is why he was staying away from a conference hosted "by the regime's president," Shimon Peres.

Regime. That's the word reserved for Iran and North Korea. Yet here it was applied to Israel, not in a rant from George Galloway or a fiery polemic in the left press, but in the Express, a paper of the centre-right with little interest in foreign affairs.

As it happens, the word was changed in later versions of the online story (after what I'm told was a very angry phone call from the Israeli embassy to the reporter involved). But the memory of it lingers because it shows how things could end up - with Israel shunned and vilified, not just by activists and campaigners, but by the mainstream.

As I understand it, no anti-Israel animus drove that story; that's not really the Express' thing. The angle instead was appalling abuse directed at a British national treasure. If that abuse had come from opponents, rather than defenders, of Israel, the Express would have condemned it just as vehemently.

But the sad truth is Hawking was speaking out against Israel, not for it. And his status as a national treasure affects how that stance is perceived, making it instantly mainstream rather than fringe or radical. It's too early to tell if his decision will prove a tipping point for the boycott movement, but it could. As I never tire of pointing out, quoting scholar Ze'ev Mankowitz, people don't believe in ideas - they believe in people who believe in ideas. Many people around the world believe in and respect Hawking and will, as a result, now think that perhaps they, too, should boycott Israel.

Avowed opponents of the boycott - and I am one of them - should fear this shift, rendering anti-Israel sentiment less Palestine Solidarity Campaign and more Blue Peter Appeal, a view that is not controversial, or even that political, but apparently held by all right-thinking people. Once that kind of consensus settles, it can be impossible to shift.

Those who resorted to such vile insults against Hawking were obviously wrong. But so, too, were those who, in more elegant language, cast Hawking as some congenital Israel-hater. The painful truth is that Hawking has a long track record as a friend of Israel; he had visited the country four times, given the red-carpet treatment when he went in 2006. But now he has had enough.

Rather than slamming him, those who wish the best for Israel should contemplate what Hawking's move means - that unless the country changes course, ending an occupation 46 years old this week, then Hawking's action will become the norm. The great physicist has allowed us a peek inside the black hole inhabited by the world's pariah nations. That glimpse alone should make us recoil.