We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Big Brother may not be watching you – but the BBC is

Stephen Lewis of the Sterling Times message board sent this link.

Follow it, please. Now would be a good time.

Mr Lewis has found a report on the Radio Nederlands website stating that the BBC, the BBC, is to monitor message boards for hate speech on behalf of the authorities.

Once upon a time the only official way your home could be searched was by a policeman backed by a warrant issued by the courts. OK, as a libertarian I could raise certain objections even to that, but it was the evolved and generally agreed custom of my country and that counts for a lot. Then the privilege of search spread first to customs officers and then to tax-gatherers, until now practically any parasite of an environmental health officer or social worker can walk in.

Count on it. The same process is happening with restrictions of freedom of speech. Fifty years ago the legal right to impose restrictions was the preserve of the courts. Many of the restrictions were ridiculous: the Lord Chamberlain censored naughty bits out of stage plays until as late as 1968. However, in terms of political speech, freedom fifty years ago was greater than freedom now. Speakers in Hyde Park Corner could and did call for the gutters of Mayfair to run red with the blood of the rich and the copper would just say, “steady on mate, steady on.” Part of the reason for this freedom was that the right to restrict was itself restricted to the justice system.

It’s a sign of a half-way healthy state (half-way being about as good as states get) that it is very clear who is doing the state’s dirty work.

Now, it seems, the job of spying on British citizens has been franchised out to that “much loved” institution, the BBC. As Mr Lewis says, that is not their role. Later on in the post some Radio Nederlands commentary is quoted saying that it might be better to have “trained journalists” doing the monitoring than others. Not surprising, I suppose, that the trained journalists at Radio Nederlands rate their fellow trained journalists at the BBC as the best people to employ for this task. I must disagree: if I had to choose I’d rather be spied on by professional spies. At least they live in the real world, and in particular have the peril of Islamofascism very much in the forefront of their minds. I’d trust them way above the BBC to be able to tell the difference between clear statements warning against Islamofascism and genuine hate speech 1.

When it comes to judging others – judging us here, for instance – the BBC is very likely to imply that anyone who says out loud that a kind of death-cult has infected to some degree a disturbingly high proportion of the Muslim world is thereby an Islamophobe.

But when it comes to judging themselves, or judging the groups they have a soft spot for, the standard is very different. You can see the double standard in operation by the BBC’s choice of Jew-hating ranter Mahathir as official BBC “expert” on Islam for an upcoming forum. (See Biased BBC here and passim.) Tell you what, Beeb guys, if you want to monitor “hate speech” why don’t you start with him?

  1. I do not make this distinction between real and apparent hate speech in order to say we should forbid one and allow the other. I am a free speech absolutist. That means I must support the political right to make truly hateful hate speech, however vile, while also asserting my right to condemn it. This includes hate speech about Muslims and hate speech by Muslims. But the distinction between real and apparent hate speech is crucial in terms of moral assessment and national security.

16 comments to Big Brother may not be watching you – but the BBC is

  • Kelli

    This story raises several questions (and all my hackles, whatever they are).

    1) Given the global nature of the internet, how are the benevolent guardians of the BBC to know where ethnic tensions are emanating from, unless of course they track offensive posts to their source, which seems awfully time consuming and difficult?

    2) What languages are the guardians fluent in? It seems to me that this exercise will be beyond useless if ONLY English chat is monitored–akin to shining a searchlight on a single corner of a dirty room (and then, not even the dirtiest one).

  • mad dog

    I think Customs and Excise act by “Royal Perogative” and has always had more draconian powers of search and entry that the police and government other agencies.

    The police get their powers from laws passed by Parliament and appered on the scene somewhat later than the collectors or Her/His Majesties Revenues.

    Of the two I believe the Customs and Excise are more “instantly able” than the police to conduct searches. One motto in British business is, “never muck about with the VAT man…”

    I suppose one useful thing about the BBC is that at least there is some legal option of not paying a licence fee – unlike her majesties taxes!

  • S. Weasel

    Hm. There’s not enough meat on this one for me to know what to make of it. The BBC’s own series of message boards is huge…are we sure they aren’t just talking about monitoring their own stuff?

    Does anybody know anything about their traditional radio monitoring activities? If they do go paddling around the wider net, one assumes they’d run into the same kind of difficulties and limitations once the conversation moves off-shore.

  • Verity

    S. Weasel – So? Who are these journalistic ‘monitors’ to be making decisions about what is hate speech, even on their own boards? More thought facist graduates of lefty educational establishments, paid for under penalty of imprisonment by the British licence fee payer? Maybe it’s a job promotion for some who have performed the curtailing of centrist or rightist comment with such relish in the Have Your Say page on their website.

    Is such ‘monitoring’ of the speech of the citizenry in the BBC’s charter? If not, who gave them permission to curtail a traditional liberty? The BBC has worked its way up from being a service to being a power centre with absolutely no democratic base. It needs to be clipped way back.

  • John Q Public

    Kelli, you could no be more wrong about the difficulty of tracing someone’s identity the Internet especially, though not necessarily, if you have the help of a server host’s ISP. Privacy is a very hard thing to achieve on the ‘net unless you’re willing to go through some torturous contortions to do so, for example I understand Google logs every search query along with the searcher’s IP. I know I couldn’t do without Google but I don’t much care for the fact that they know more about me than my GP.

  • S. Weasel

    Who are these journalistic ‘monitors’ to be making decisions about what is hate speech, even on their own boards?

    Well, in a free market, they would be the owners and operators of the board, and therefore absolutely entitled to censor anything they pleased. In the BBC’s case, of course, their funding is enforced by government, so the story is a little more complicated, though I still don’t blame them for trying to keep message content within the law.

    The law is wrong, of course…desperately wrong. The progressive criminalizing of speech is one of the most frightening trends of recent years. And funding the BBC by extortion is wrong, too.

    But internet space isn’t really public space – somebody, somewhere is paying the bills on individual sites, and that guy gets to call the shots.

  • Verity

    S Weasel – ‘somebody, somewhere is paying the bills on individual sites, and that guy gets to call the shots’. In this case, the someone paying the bills is the British public, so that’s something like 20 million people with a right to call the shots, not all of whom are radical left.

    You say you don’t blame them for wanting to enforce the law. Well, I do. Who appointed them to make judgement calls in this ill-defined area? Law enforcement is not part of their remit, although you wouldn’t guess this from the tactics of their debt collection agency Capita. It’s one more bullying tactic to teach the public who’s the boss.

    Why do I feel that what they will be “enforcing” is their own narrow socialist/facist Weltanschuung with a view to stifling debate?

  • S. Weasel

    When I stopped monitoring the BBC boards some months ago, it was the lefties who were howling about censorship and their posts being ‘disappeared’. I suspect they were being pulled for wobbling off-topic – at the time, every thread ultimately became about the impending war in Iraq. Which really did not belong in the area devoted to, say, the Food Programme.

    Of course, the overall slant of the board was heavily from the left, but I’m more worried about what the BBC broadcasts in that way than what they permit to stand on their message boards. They hardly have a lock on internet discussion, but they have a gigantic and unfair advantage in broadcasting.

    They run wretched message boards, by the way. The servers are slow, the software is hinky, and they won’t let posts through overnight, when no-one is around to monitor them. And you can imagine what the typical poster is like.

  • To ‘S. Weasel’: if you follow the link to Radio Nederlands within the Sterling Times one, and then click the blue heading “Defining hate” you will read the commentary which is quoted. It very much gives the impression that the monitoring will *not* be restricted to the BBC’s own boards.

    I concede their right to police their own fora, subject to the objections raised by several posters to them funding all their activities by coercion. But as I said, it seems the BBC will not restrict their spying to their own territory. I would be happy to be proved wrong.

    The BBC Monitoring Unit at Caversham already supplies digests of the foreign media to several customers, including the Foreign Office – but at least that is only collating and translating material that is, by definition, for public view.

    This monitoring of the private activities of British citizens is new. I think that they have some inkling that it is below the belt, and that is why it is being kept distinctly quiet.

    To ‘mad dog’: I am willing to be corrected on the antiquity of the search powers of Customs Officers. Perhaps I should have known from the many folk songs and tales about smugglers evading “The Revenue”.

  • Zathras

    Just curious about something…assuming the BBC does intend to monitor boards not its own, how would it do this? How would it avoid getting swamped by the sheer volume of communication on the Internet? What would be the consequences for the BBC if it started passing along “hate speech” that the authorities decided was not hate speech — or conversely if it failed to detect communication by people who later actually did something violent and related to what they said online? How many people would it assign to watch for “hate speech” and how many law enforcement employees would need to be detailed to follow up on reports of same?

    Mind you, I don’t think the whole idea is a good one (assuming once again that what we are talking about goes beyond the BBC’s ability to censor its own boards) on what we in the US are accustomed to call First Amendment grounds. My point is only that it appears as if what the BBC proposes to do may be difficult without at least the commitment of substantial resources.

  • S. Weasel

    Ten people, according to the link, Zathras. Their source is a UK the trade magazine Broadcast, for which I can’t find a web site.

    Upon further examination, BBC Monitoring appears to be a sort of high octane clipping and translation service. It’s part of BBC World Service, so it isn’t funded by license fee, but mostly by the MoD and the Foreign Office. Plus subscription sales. It probably wouldn’t have anything to do with the BBC’s boards.

    I can’t find any mention of this topic on their site, though they do mention plans to expand into “multimedia sources” in the year ahead.

  • Guy Herbert

    Natalie writes: “I think that they have some inkling that it is below the belt, and that is why it is being kept distinctly quiet.”

    I’d suggest that this is more to do with the “customers” for BBC monitoring services. Historically the BBC (paralleling media networks in other countries) has provided discreet radio expertise and program content recordings for various secret and semi-secret government purposes. That’s what Caversham is about. However, the Corporation is very sensitive about being seen (particularly abroad) as part of the intelligence services, even as a subcontractor, because at the same time it is trying to operate a worldwide independent news network that’s not just another state-controlled propaganda outfit. Its “customers” by their nature don’t like any public understanding of what they do.

    It is unsurprising given the BBCs now vast web organisation, that it should be providing similar content-monitoring services on the net. The web is broadcast, in the sense that sites and message board postings are open to the public, not sold individually, and that they can be publicly influential. So to the mind of BBC and defence bureaucrat they are a natural part of the Corporation’s province. The desire to do the monitoring and to supplant alternative media for strategic purposes may even explain the rapid expansion in BBC web-presence.

    I’d bet they are logging blogs, too.

    In essence, the monitoring isn’t about “hate speech”. It’s about monitoring. Hate speech is just a prepared justification to hand for when the monitoring comes to wide notice. It’s a common strategy with all sorts of control measures to present them as motivated by the need to suppress wrongs that nearly everyone recognises and has strong feelings about. If someone who opposes what you are doing knows they can be characterised as supporting racial hatred, slavery, or the sexual abuse of children, then it tends to diminish the amount of opposition you face.

  • Dave F

    Well if the Beeb go looking for hate speech throughout the web, they are certainly going to find milliins of posters writing billions of words that Auntie will feel qualify. As eni fule no.

    But what on earth does anyone think can be done about it? It will be a very good thing if the hate speech laws can be shown immediately by this means to be completely unworkable and unenforceable. Not to mention uninterpretable.

  • Guy Herbert

    I was suggesting, Dave F, that they aren’t really looking for “hate speech”. What they are doing is monitoring and producing digests for intelligence purposes as a co-opted government agency. Hate-speech is a convenient cover-story.

  • Verity

    Guy Herbert – Well I for one would rather think they were employed in something worthwhile, like intelligence on terrorism, than having a dark, fascist remit like monitoring free speech.

  • Alan

    Having experience of the Sterling Times message board, I tend to be suspicious of any interpretations by them. They tend to have rather extreme views, and it’s quite hypocritical of them to pretend to defend freedoms when they have recently expelled a large number of their long term, loyal members for daring to express views which differed, even slightly, from those of the new American moderators. Their membership has been reduced to a handful of mutual “back slappers”, and they have a very open anti-BBC agenda.

    They have every right to follow these policies, but I do think that people need to be aware of the real nature and purpose of Sterling Times, and not just take them at face value.