Letters: July 2024 edition

A former spy chief responds to Nick Davies’s phone-hacking revelations. Plus: a new plan for reforming the House of Lords
June 5, 2024

Spying danger

The methods used by certain newspapers to retrieve the voicemail messages of the famous now seem laughably simple in an age when mercenary spyware is used by foreign powers to surveille their exiled dissidents. Spyware allows attackers to view everything, including messages on encrypted apps, as well as to track locations, collect passwords and harvest information.

Nor do the most advanced attacks have to rely on the victim clicking on a phishing email, as happened in the Russian attack on the Democratic National Committee in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Now all that needs to happen is that the victim receives a message with a malicious attachment that does not even have to be clicked.

Nick Davies has exposed the use of criminal means to spy on the heart of democracy. We should recognise that this massive pollution of our domestic information space came from within our society. It will be bad enough, as major elections approach, to face the likelihood of hostile states compromising our information space with disinformation and AI deepfakes. We do not need to add to that misuse from within our own society.

The phone-hacking scandal is a tale not only about the past behaviour of our press, but a warning about the misuse of power.

David Omand, former director of GCHQ


Vacuum of accountability

David Allen Green writes that public inquiries are now used to get to the bottom of serious state failures because parliamentary mechanisms for accountability are failing. They have repeatedly struggled to achieve the honesty, insight and frankness of exchange that might uncover wrongdoing and failure when there is still a chance to address it.

In some ways, it is worse even than he describes. It is not just that information could have come to light earlier: it often did but was ignored. As we have seen in the report from the infected blood inquiry, politicians, public servants and others were well aware of what had happened but did little to alleviate the suffering of victims and their families, resisting change, accountability and justice for decades. This pattern is repeated again and again: those with power know that chronic ­failure is taking place but lack the resolve to address it. In May, we saw the fourth report into shocking, systematic failures in maternity care in a decade. We know this is happening, but seem incapable of acting to change it.      

Though public inquiries have proved more effective at uncovering truth—with their powers of compulsion to force testimony and the release of information that would otherwise be hidden—they have found it hard to get the state to act in response to their findings. Inquiry reports into healthcare failures are filled with similar recommendations, decades apart. Findings from the Lakanal House fire investigation will likely be repeated in the final report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Accountability might abhor a vacuum—but even public inquiries struggle to force those with power to enact real change.    

Emma Norris, Institute for Government


Imperfect protest

There is no hypocrisy in the position Alan Rusbridger describes. Campus free speech issues prior to this have almost always been about a group wanting to invite a speaker (usually from the conservative/right-wing end of the spectrum) to speak in an auditorium, and the speaker being threatened or prevented from speaking by leftist activists. No one is preventing the pro-Palestine side from inviting speakers to campus to address the community in an auditorium. What is objectionable is the setting up of illegal encampments on the campus grounds.

WFT, via the website


Good on the students for protesting against a hideous campaign of violence. But the selectivity is disturbing. US arms are key to the Saudi air campaign in Yemen that has killed 15,000 civilians. 

The civil war there has claimed nearly 400,000 lives. Where are the student protests if they care so much about oppression and human life? Do lives matter more when people who are Jewish do the killing?

Fairly Accurate, via the website


Put one’s house in order

The trouble with most plans for reforming the House of Lords is not only that they risk losing the merits Bill Keller finds in the present system, but that they are next to impossible to implement. To set up new processes of election/selection to an entirely new body would be an enormous legislative task requiring far more parliamentary time than any government will sacrifice. 

Yet it is possible, with relatively little legislative or logistical effort, to make the Lords (effectively) smaller, (indirectly) elective and (reasonably) secure against government cronyism, while retaining all the qualities Keller wants to preserve. 

Within the existing upper house, a chamber of 400 should be established to which all powers of the Lords should be transferred. After a general election, three quarters of the seats in this chamber should be assigned to political parties in the proportion in which they are represented in the Commons—the remainder being assigned to crossbenchers. Some seats might be reserved for elected mayors, so ensuring representation of the country’s regions. Otherwise, individuals would be elected from the relevant caucus in the entire upper house (rather as the seats for hereditaries are currently filled). 

Hereditaries could stand in such elections but would not have a vote. Dubious prime ministerial appointees would be unlikely to make it through such a competition. Lords not chosen for seats could still offer expertise as non-voting members of committees—and a separate, similar, but much smaller Chamber of Lords Spiritual could deal with church matters. 

Governments would thus normally be able to get their business through the Lords, but the crossbenchers would ensure assent was not automatic. The risk that an elected upper house might claim constitutional parity with the Commons would be obviated, while the charge that the House is undemocratic would lose its force. And a single bill regulating procedures in “the Other Place” could do it all.

Nicholas Boyle, University of Cambridge


A qualified hope

My heart goes out to Alice Garnett and her fears over global warming. I share them and I’m a baby boomer. For any gen Zer who cares to look, future prospects must be truly terrifying. Yes, there are many so-called “solutions”, though only the high-tech ones seem to get publicity in the profit-motivated, tech-oriented economic and political spheres. 

The truth is that technology alone will not rescue a liveable planet. We therefore need to look with determined realism at the future—a future that is already upon those who have suffered major flooding, drought, storms, wildfire and harvest failure—and recognise two things. One is that, in the rich world, we simply have to live and organise priorities quite differently, not just individually but collectively. The other is that we need to plan for how we can get the most out of life under the very difficult circumstances that are on their way. There are, in fact, many individuals, groups and networks engaged in such work, and the more people who join them the more power they will have. 

One of these networks is the Deep Adaptation Forum, which connects people who are experiencing enormous fear and grief around climate change and ecological decline to a network of mutual support, enabling them to adapt emotionally to the truth they recognise. The stated purpose of the forum, of “embodying and enabling loving responses to our predicament”, is unconventional and refreshing. 

There are many such forward-thinking groups. They don’t offer “solutions” in the conventional sense, but they do offer realism, collaboration, imagination and support, which together constitute the form of hope that is appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves.

Teresa Belton, Norwich


Bonds of faith

Andrew Brown’s reference to the Old Catholic Churches is misleading. “Old Catholic” is a term that includes a number of national churches that have at various times separated from Rome, and is far wider than the Union of Scranton, with which the Nordic Catholic Church allies itself. 

The term “Old Catholic” primarily refers to the Union of Utrecht, which brought together the Old Catholic Churches of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Poland. These are Churches with which the CoE and Anglican Communion have been in full communion since the Bonn agreement of 1931, and with whom Anglicans would discern a shared sacramental and pastoral practice. 

Brown’s reference does not do justice to the rich intellectual, scholarly and liturgical tradition of Old Catholicism, and neither is it the case that Old Catholics have a strong sense of their own infallibility: indeed, such arrogance would be entirely alien to their way of life and thought. The word “Old” notwithstanding, they have a contemporary and inclusive engagement with social issues; same-sex marriage has recently been endorsed and implemented by the Old Catholic Church in Switzerland, for example. Women and men are ordained as priests and as bishops.

I write on behalf of the Society of St Willibrord in Britain and Ireland, which, under the patronage of one of the first English missionaries to the Germanic peoples, has existed for over a century and continues its work of affirming and strengthening the cordial relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches.

Bishop Peter Eagles, Norfolk


Redemption story

The model for genuine apology and repentance in politics is surely John Profumo (“In the age of apology, does forgiveness mean anything?”). He resigned from the government and the Commons in total disgrace in 1963 after attempting to deny his affair with Christine Keeler, but then disappeared completely from public life and devoted himself to working for a charity in the east end of London.

Stephen Wright, via the website


Down to a science 

I am a PhD student in astronomy and I am amazed (in a good way!) at how perceptive and accurate Marcus Chown’s article is. Coverage of science in the popular press is dire, to say the least, so it has been great to read an article by someone who really knows what they are talking about. More, please!

Ian Kemp, via the website


Crumbling courts

I was a civil litigation solicitor for nearly 40 years. The county court provided access to civil justice for ordinary citizens and small businesses and was the mainstay of much of my caseload. I am shocked by the current state of the system. As David Allen Green says (“The quiet collapse of the county court system”), if there is no access to justice or remedy at this level then ordinary people will lose faith and possibly the compensation they deserve, even their business. 

If wrongdoers know they will not face pursuit to judgment and enforcement, if debtors know they will not be sanctioned if they do not pay up, the fabric of civil society will begin to crumble. Some will resort to criminal enforcers rather than the limbo of a court case...

The problem now is that every aspect of the state has been ignored, allowed to decay, left underfunded and understaffed. Each area is crying out for substantial investment... Both the criminal and the civil justice systems are failing the public. Another serious crisis in the making.

Nigel Day, via the website


Old school 

Many of us will have read your review of Charles Spencer’s book with surprise. I attended both prep and public schools in the 1950s and 1960s—antediluvian times to many of your readers. Yet so little from the review was familiar. I remember no paedophiles or sadists among the teaching staff. Beatings were fair and relatively rare—if we got it, we were due it. I was a particularly badly behaved child but can recall only one such occasion in nine years, and that was administered by a prefect, not one of the staff. 

Yes, there were oddballs, and one prep school tutor who had the hots for the school handyman, but he was an excellent and entertaining English teacher and we loved him. More of a problem was the quality of the teaching, especially at public school, where only our physics master (an especial oddball) stood out. He was dedicated to his charges and frankly inspirational. Otherwise, all was drabness.

For sure, I was horribly homesick on my first night, but there were no tears and we all adapted quickly. Human beings are social creatures and by being enthusiastic at sports (but never terribly good) I avoided bullying, and so did almost all boys. Were we exceptional, or lucky?

John Dyer, Poole


Shit show

Sarah Ogilvie makes an interesting and pertinent comment (“The joy of lex”) about the problem with the UK’s water services, but she does seem to be voting for the use of the word “poo” when there are other, “more grown-up” words available. 

What she means, and what the problem actually comes down to, is shit. I use the word advisedly. The weaker substitute only diminishes the shocking truth of what is going on, and infantilises any sensibly angry discussion about the matter. 

We have in living memory had many usable words—faeces, stool—to serve the same purpose. But the fact is that our water is not safe. It is, literally, full of shit, only matched by the shit flowing out of the mouths of the CEOs of the various water companies up and down the country. Any proper democracy would hold those responsible to account by taking action, rather than continuing to hold “dialogue” with these utilities, diminishing the seriousness of their behaviour by the use of cutesy language. 

As long as “poo” remains in the lexicon of the problem, everyone will continue to be able to talk around that problem and no one will be happy. Or safe.

Gilbert O’Brien, St Leonards-on-Sea