Monday 3 December 2012

Alan Travis – Whitehall, the Guardian newspaper and Lord Leveson

The 25 April 2012 L Notice issued by the Cabinet Office complains about an article in the Guardian newspaper published the day before. A little detective work reveals that the article they are talking about is Government revives plan for greater data-sharing between agencies by Alan Travis, home affairs editor.

That article refers to a "recent speech" made by Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister. Neither the Guardian nor the Cabinet Office identifies the speech. A little detective work suggests that it is Mr Maude's keynote speech given to the Information Commissioner's Conference on 6 March 2012. That, at least, is the assumption on which we proceed here.

If the Leveson Rules are to look like anything more than the whimsical exercise of power by the Executive then perhaps we could see a few guidelines on identifying the evidence in disputes more precisely.

In his speech, Mr Maude says:
In May we will publish proposals that will make data sharing easier ... It’s my mission to get Whitehall sharing data much more effectively ... The National Fraud Authority and Cabinet Office will shortly set out the design for a counter fraud checking service as the first step to improving our intelligence sharing architecture ... the Fraud, Error and Debt Taskforce is committed to continuing to remove barriers to sharing information ... Sharing data is a key enabler in our ambition to see public services provided digitally by default ...the census is another area where I want to bust the myths around the complexities of data sharing ... we aim to find effective ways of using and sharing data for the good of everyone ...
It follows that the claim made in the L Notice that "this is not a question of increasing the volume of data-sharing that takes place across government" is simply untenable – the Guardian didn't misrepresent Whitehall's policy.

The L Notice states that because the coalition government "scrapped ID cards" they can't be accused of attempting to legislate for a "database state". That doesn't follow. Mr Maude's proposal to remove the legal barriers to data-sharing – also referred to as "old-fashioned assumptions", "cultural barriers", "complexities" and "muddled myths" – would precisely result in a database state. As Mr Maude says:
... the technology has moved on and so can we. There is now an option to share data momentarily allowing us to check for matches – with no Big Brother database in sight ... In a world of dispersed data sets, we can bring fragments together instantaneously and momentarily to corroborate – without ever creating a central database ... It’s about bringing together the data at a point in time - to provide the necessary confidence - and then disaggregating it again. At no point does information need be held on the same server to be correlated ...
Same effect. A database state.

The L Notice is entitled Digital public services: putting the citizen in charge, not the state. It is not clear why. Mr Maude's speech provides no support whatever for that contention – nothing in the speech suggests that citizens will be put in charge.

Examination of the evidence suggests that the Guardian misreported nothing and that the L Notice is simply wrong.

Sometimes, though, you need to stand back, otherwise you can't see the wood for the trees, the issues need to be judged on principle, and all things considered, particularly the need for the Guardian to keep its Leveson Publication Licence, the ineluctable conclusion must be that the case stated in the L Notice is upheld and triumphantly vindicated, and Mr Travis should perhaps undergo a brief and voluntary period of re-education to assist him in his stated desire to practise his chosen profession respectfully and humbly.

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