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Something scary is happening in this country

    North Korea is a scary place that we too often write off as a laugh. That was the conclusion of Ian Birrell’s excellent Guardian article on the horrors of North Korea. It made you reflect upon your own lax attitude to the comical but deadly regime.

    Of course, finding the humour in the hideous is something the British in particular pride themselves on. So it is with Private Eye. They captured the proposed Royal Charter perfectly.

    Yesterday their irreverence may have gone too far for the Crown Prosecution Service. According to Index on Censorship and Guido Fawkes, plain clothes police officers asked magazine vendors not to sell the latest issue.

    One savvy vendor reportedly asked the officer if he could produce a court order; though he could not, he warned that selling the magazine could be ‘contempt of court’.

    The trial of Rebekah Brooks et al takes place amidst the backdrop of the proposed Royal Charter, and today Nick Clegg chairs a meeting of Privy Council Ministers to implement the final steps of the new regulatory regime that many fear will end Britain’s proud centuries-old tradition of freedom of press from interference.

    As the Telegraph’s James Kirkup reports, Downing Street has refused to say who will attend the meeting – not a move that will assuage fears.

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    Internationally, the NSA scandal continues to rumble on. World leaders have generally taken a relaxed attitude to the revelations in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks – spies will spy after all.

    Those same leaders are a bit more concerned this week after finding out they may have been the subject of security service bugging themselves.

    Our Prime Minister is staying on the side lines of this one – knowing there is an agreement amongst the major Anglophone nations to share intelligence and limit espionage activities towards each other.

    Largely the past week’s revelations are unsurprising. Are governments not now legitimate targets for intelligence gathering from foreign powers? Just today we’ve seen reports of a sneaky Russian ploy involving compromised phone chargers at the G20 meeting.

    More concerning is the blasé attitude taken to the collection of personal data by government of its own citizens since the ‘War on Terror’ of the early-2000’s. The Coalition has appeared unphased about accusations around GCHQ and the US PRISM programme.

    As Big Brother Watch outline in their legal campaign, Britain’s surveillance laws may not be fit for purpose, having been written before Facebook existed and when few people had internet access.

    National security, the protection of a nation’s liberty from attack, should be an important concern to any government – but that does not mean free reign. The importance of liberty to the individual must also be taken into account; any surveillance must be necessary and proportionate.

    Necessary and proportionate bring us to the Lobbying Bill. David Cameron famously warned in 2010 that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal’. The actions of some MPs have brought this concern to the minds of government.

    The proposed solution would be a disaster for free speech, as many disparate groups, including the Centre for Policy Studies, have warned. When we’re agreeing with Polly Toynbee, you know something is amiss.

    I’m sanguine about our politicians and their intentions, unlike, say, comedic filmstars-turned New Statesman Editors. Politicians have our best interests at heart. They want to protect us from the phone hacking that took place from various individual journalists, terrorists who hate our way of life, those who would seek to corrupt our institutions.

    But as Milton Friedman said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

    When government seeks to protect us, they often end up producing vastly inferior results as a by-product.

    My favourite illustration of this is the ‘Cobra Effect’. British rule in colonial India, concerned about the effect of venomous snakes in Delhi, passed legislation offering a bounty for each cobra killed. At first the programme succeeded but canny snake-catchers, concerned at losing a source of income, soon began breeding cobras and killing them for the bounty. When the British realised this they cancelled the programme, causing catchers to release the many snakes they had bred into the wild and exacerbating the original problem.

    The cumulative result of the situations I have outlined - a curtailment of freedom of press because of crimes; increased personal surveillance of the masses; the erosion of free speech and the right to lobby government – and their undesirable outcomes is a sustained assault on the freedom of the British people.

    The Coalition came to power promising a tilt back toward ‘civil liberties’ after the draconian laws and proposals of New Labour. Today is one of those days when those promises make the current direction of policy seem comical, but quite scary too. 

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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