I’m retiring from the House of Lords after 24 years. In doing so I’ve found myself cast in the role of “reluctant whistleblower”.
I believe we are sleepwalking towards a form of unaccountable power the like of which, in the modern era, the UK has never previously experienced. This was the theme of the Shirley Williams Memorial Lecture, which I delivered last Friday, setting out my serious concerns for democracy based on what I have observed during a lengthy spell on the red benches. It is hard to ignore the manipulative impact this train wreck of a government is having on the wellbeing of our nation.
So we now have an elections bill that is set to undermine our long-established independent Electoral Commission; a bill to reform judicial review whose principal aim is to reduce the role of the judiciary; a police bill that weakens the right to legal protest; a plan to “widen the scope of the Official Secrets Act” with no commitment to add a public interest defence for journalists; and even an education bill that seeks to reduce traditional academic freedoms in the area of teacher training!
And with every passing month there are more – each undermining much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that is trampling on long-held rights and conventions with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power.
No government has ever inherited a more comprehensively tested ecosystem of public service broadcasting. That’s why our formats, ideas, talent, humour and values so effortlessly travel the world. But by chipping away at an area of public service the government so clearly loathes, it is undermining something internationally renowned yet distinctively British that it claims to treasure. When you add the commercially illiterate and ideologically vindictive proposal to “purify by privatisation” Channel 4, you begin to see how easily our carefully constructed public broadcasting system can be smashed to pieces.
I’ve always believed, and continue to believe, in our capacity to develop and deepen trust in each other, but a great deal will depend on the continuing integrity of the information we receive. This is the very information on which we base many of the most important decisions of our lives.
For me personally, the most disillusioning event in this process was the government’s robotic response last autumn to a House of Lords select committee report entitled Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.
An incredibly committed cross-party group of peers consulted and took evidence for over a year on how digital technology is impacting democracy. The select committee (of which I was chair) looked at the ways disinformation and misinformation damages every aspect of our lives, from the electoral system through to the wellbeing of children.
In its report, the committee unanimously offered a clear, evidence-backed route through which the government and society might benefit from the technology that social media companies bring to the table, while legislating to avoid many of their damaging consequences.
Responding to our report, the government suggested that its forthcoming digital harms bill would adequately address our concerns. This was lamentably evasive, particularly when the eventual publication of the renamed digital safety dill did absolutely nothing of the sort
What changed? Big tech, like big tobacco, big pharma and big energy before it, got its lobbyists and “influencers” to undermine the intentions of the bill.
The bill will now “reserve the right”, but not enforce personal responsibility on senior management at these tech companies; it seeks to restrict redress for grievances to individuals rather than groups, and it fails to acknowledge the profound societal harms caused by tech-enabled misinformation. It also hands Ofcom the ultimate “hospital pass” in asking them to regulate companies the government has neither the guts nor the will to tangle with.
In establishing Ofcom in 2002, the then secretary of state, Tessa Jowell, said: “The communications industry is not like any other industry: it is central to the health of our society and the health of our democracy.”
That is why being chair of Ofcom is unlike almost any other position of trust. It cannot safely be placed in the hands of anyone with a discordantly ideological turn of mind. So when the prime minister actively, and repeatedly, intervenes to manipulate an ideological ally into the chairmanship of Ofcom, every alarm bell should start to ring.
Our Digital Democracy report, meanwhile, published in June 2020, was full of constructive, evidence-based solutions to many of the deeply troubling behaviours that are emerging from the social media companies on an almost daily basis.
On Monday the former Facebook employee Sophie Zhang testified before parliament. She followed testimony in the US Congress offered by another whistleblower, Frances Haugen, just a couple of weeks ago. There will surely be more such testimonies to come – the floodgates are opening.
The attempt by social media companies to build a defence for hate speech around the protective wall of “freedom of speech” is as disingenuous as it is divisive. Their instinct is to believe they can always ride it out; sadly, they may be right. Because while the government has the power to bring them under control, on present evidence it has no intention of doing so. My final plea to legislators is to please read our report’s recommendations and try to build on them. The resurrection of trust is fundamental to our survival as a coherent society.
I once heard Douglas Hurd, a Conservative politician for whom I had great respect, say: “The duty of government is to steer the ship of state through waters that are inevitably rough, sometimes even treacherous, and bring it back into a safe harbour for another group of honest men and women to assume the same responsibility.”
That perfectly conveys my idea of the process of government which has in the past, and could in the future, be carried out responsibly and well. Which is why I now leave the House of Lords with a pretty heavy heart, because at present I don’t believe that to be the case.