Phone hacking was bad enough when newspapers did it – but governments?

It’s so easy to hack a phone that you’d have to be particularly naive to be shocked that the Americans may have been listening in to world leaders

Chris Bryant
Saturday 26 October 2013 10:22

Three years ago two chaps from Ireland came to my office in Parliament and set up a little box of tricks. Within minutes they had their own mobile phone base station up and running and we listened to my researcher as he spoke to a friend on his mobile halfway down the corridor. We had already asked his permission, so we were within the law, more or less. But we could have listened to any mobile phone conversation within half a mile, including in the Foreign Office and Downing Street.

So in a sense it’s so easy to hack a phone that you’d have to be particularly naive to be shocked that the Americans may have been listening to 35 world leaders, including David Cameron. “Spies spy” is not much of a headline, you might say. What’s more, good intelligence is vital to national security. Good UK intelligence about Qom proved Iran was lying about its nuclear programme. Better intelligence about Argentina’s intentions might have prevented the Falklands war.

But silence is often more mystifying in politics than noise. Of course Angela Merkel and François Hollande were right to complain about being subjected to surveillance. After all, just on a personal level it’s very disconcerting, as I found when the Metropolitan Police eventually showed me the sheets of paper Glenn Mulcaire had prepared on me, with telephone numbers and strange details of my life.

But what surprises me is the studied silence of Downing Street. True, after his reluctance to tackle phone hacking at the News of the World, there will be a strange irony if David Cameron’s phone has been monitored, but surely we should be angry if the US seeks an illegal advantage over our Prime Minister in international negotiations? And what if the Americans are monitoring other British politicians? Is that material handed over to our security services? Is the Wilson pledge, that MPs’ phones would not be tapped, being honoured or ignored?

Do I feel safer, knowing that the US security services, who are meant to be our friends, are monitoring us all? Not really. Quite the reverse.

I want intelligence gathering to be intelligence-led. Searching for dangerous needles doesn’t require trawling through every haystack on the off chance, and whilst it was bad enough for a national newspaper to hack people’s phones, it is infinitely worse for the state to do so on such an unwarranted, industrial scale.

There’s no time for Brand’s revolution

I love Russell Brand. He’s immensely clever and funny. He can turn his mind to any topic. He can make an argument sparkle with intensity. And he’s right about so many things, not least the gap between rich and poor.

So as Brand delivered his utopian monologue on the sins of the world to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight on Wednesday, half of me was cheering him on, willing him to destroy every pathetic politician-speak answer and castigate every supercilious Paxman facial gesture.

Carried away with his passionate rhetoric I raced helter-skelter with him towards the golden dawn when all men and women shall be equal and free and equally free. And yet, and yet...

Talk of revolution is cheap. Leading people up the mountain is easy. Believing your own dream is simple. But to build the road up the mountain so that others can join you is a damned sight tougher. It requires what R H Tawney called “the intolerable burden of thought” to devise a coherent political programme. It involves sitting through dull, interminable meetings listening to insufferable egotists. Because you have to win by the rules as they are to change the rules to what you think they should be. It means delivering leaflets in the pouring rain and doing deals with people you don’t like very much. There are slings and arrows and oodles of self-doubt to overcome.

And in the end it’s a luxury to sit back and wait for the revolution which Brand so confidently predicts, while all around the poor are being ground down. A luxury my constituents can’t afford. So, correction, I love/hate Russell Brand.

Pirates demoted now to hooligans

On Tuesday I led a debate about the Russians’ arrest of 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists on board the Arctic Sunrise. Geoffrey Cox (magisterially), Ben Bradshaw (angrily), Harriet Harman (pleadingly), Caroline Lucas (Greenpeace-ly) all condemned the fact that the Arctic 30 had been charged with piracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. By chance we also had a prearranged meeting that afternoon with the Russian Ambassador, so we were able to say it all over again to his face. Half an hour later, the court announced the piracy charges had been dropped and replaced with charges for hooliganism (maximum sentence seven years). Better, but not much. These aren’t hooligans. It’s still a sledgehammer to crack a nut, or, as the Russians say, a fly made into an elephant. Greenpeace are bloody irritating, but that’s sort of the point.

Remembering Bryan Forbes

The National Youth Theatre held a memorial for its former president, Bryan Forbes, on Monday. We heard all sorts of tales. How he had plagiarised a one-act play by the Liberal MP and author of The Four Feathers, A E W Mason, to win a drama competition. How he had accumulated 170 bottles of special shampoo “just in case”. How he had been so scandalised by Michael Caine’s scruffiness that he sent him to his own tailor. And how when Paul Roseby laid out an ambitious plan for a multimedia NYT in his interview to be artistic director, Forbes had said “that’s all very well, but short of going down on Greg Dyke, how are you going to pay for it, darling?”

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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