Cynical Tories and Sri Lankan mobs reveal an old truth

Published 21 November 2013  |  
PA
Prime Minister David Cameron prepares to speak at the launch of the Government's 'National Wellbeing Project', in central London.

The problem with commenting on the effectiveness of cover-ups is that we only know for sure about the ones that have failed. It may well be that there are in fact thousands upon millions of intricately worked together conspiracies spiralling their powerful plots around the globe at this very moment, and we just don't know by virtue of their success. But one thing we can say with some assurance. If you're caught trying to cover something up, you've basically just admitted you're doing something wrong.

This was learned the hard way by the Tory party last week when it emerged they had in fact been attempting to, quite literally, re-write history by removing all accounts of and references to any of their speeches from 2000-2010 from the internet. After being quizzed on it by ComputerWeekly.com, the party didn't even actively try to deny it. A spokesperson said: "We're making sure our website keeps the Conservative party at the forefront of political campaigning. These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour's economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hardworking people."

If this was just a matter of removing items from their website, it would be hypocritical, but hardly a crime. The Conservative leadership had campaigned on the promise that they supported "open source politics" where they would use new technology to make Parliament more democratic and transparent, with the internet being at the very heart of that process. In 2007 George Osborne declared: "The democratisation of access to information is eroding traditional power and informational imbalances … No longer is there an asymmetry of information between the individual and the state, or between the layperson and the expert." Going back on that message, and indeed attempting to cover up that you went back on it, is hypocrisy of a grave kind. Although it is true that because they lack a full majority and are having instead to enter coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have had to break more promises than the average British governing party, that isn't an excuse for this kind of shabby cover-up.

But it goes further than merely removing the information from a website, the way one might remove embarrassing pictures from Facebook. Not only are the Conservatives going through their own website, they're also acting like their own Ministry of Truth, removing links to past speeches from Google and erasing records of their speech from the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/, the public record that contains 366 billion pages of preserved internet activity. Although the San Francisco based organisation was unavailable when ComputerWeekly.com asked them what was happening, a short while later the Conservative parties speeches began re-appearing on the site.

Despite the party's failure, the implications here are troubling. The case of Gary McKinnon's cyber-attacks on the NSA and Pentagon systems showed the world how vulnerable even some of the most secure computer systems in the world can be to internet intrusion. The idea that a political organisation, be it anything as small as a pressure group or as substantial as a governing party can go and just attempt to re-write history is worrisome. At the same time, there is hope in the fact that the same internet which made such an Orwellian abuse possible also made possible the exposure of this vile breach of trust. With no internet, there would have been no ComputerWeekly.com, and no band of zealous hacktivists to hold the Conservative party to account.

It isn't just British Conservative MPs who have been reminding us this week of the folly of cover ups. Earlier this week, a Channel 4 film crew working in Sri Lanka, covering the country as part of its reportage in preparation for the Commonwealth Nations, was intercepted by a mob who prevented them from travelling to a northern part of the island nation. Channel 4 has a history with Sri Lanka. Its coverage of events during the civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Tamil Tiger separatist movement has revealed the existence of many concealed atrocities by both sides, including one where government forces massacred 40,000 towards the end of the three decade long conflict in 2009. Channel 4 has said that this kind of flagrant denial of access undermines the rationale behind British engagement with the Sri Lankan government at the conference. David Cameron had said that such engagement would force the government to come to account for what had happened and that it would expose the authorities there to meaningful scrutiny. But if foreign media are being denied basic access to parts of the country dominated by the former separatists, how much honest scrutiny is really possible? Although the reporters have failed to find out the details, the one thing they now know for sure is that the government, and the Sinhalese people, have something to hide, and hide from.

Christians have long believed in the sinfulness of lying. Not only is it a fairly basic breach of the social contract, but it is also ultimately fruitless. Lies are very often insubstantial fixes and in many cases truth will eventually make its way out. But for the Christian, there is a more immediate pointlessness in lying. It doesn't matter if those around you cannot see your shame. God is all seeing. God knows what you have done wrong all too well. Lying will only compound the problem with those you lied to, as well as only further compounding your sin.

More and more with the approaching omniscience of the internet, and its surrounding technologies, we are moving into a state of what, back in the 1970s, the Toronto-based professor Steve Mann called 'sousveillance'. Not merely like surveillance, where the state can always see you, this is where everyone can see everyone else. This better enables society to go about holding the individual to account, and the value of this is eminently demonstrable. Not only does it stop thieves from stealing, it stops police from abusing them afterward. This was seen with the deployment of the camera phone and the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009.

For the Christian though, this is merely an extension of what we already know to be true. God sees all, and trying to hide only makes things worse. Therefore the solution is, as it always is with God, to do only good.

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