The ABC case: forty years on

L-R: Duncan Campbell, Crispin Aubrey and John Berry, pictured after their arrest in 1977. Pic: Crispin Aubrey Legacy Fund

It’s hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years since two journalists, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, were arrested outside the North London flat of ex-soldier John Berry. All three were then charged with various offences under the Official Secrets Act.

I became a fairly active member of their defence committee, which was also supported by the National Union of Journalists and civil liberties groups. A first trial at the Old Bailey in September 1978 collapsed after one of the members of the jury was identified as a former officer in the Special Air Service. A second trial opened on 3 October 1978. The prosecution admitted that much of the information was in the public domain, and charges under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act were dropped on 24 October. All three were finally found guilty on 17 November 1978 of the Section 2 offences, but received non-custodial sentences.

Crispin Aubrey died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012. His family set up a fund in his memory to continue his work and carry on the campaigns with which he was involved. The fund is organising a public discussion in Bristol on Friday 3 November to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the case, and all are invited. Among the speakers will be John Berry and Duncan Campbell. The invitation explains:

Every post-war generation has had its own whistleblower who has tried to expose the extent to which governments monitor public communications. For the 1970s it was the ABC trial. This shone a light on the darker corners of state surveillance and sparked a ferocious attempt by the government to criminalise journalists. At this special event, hear from those involved and the contemporary relevance in our post-Snowden world. This unique panel discussion will look at the events from those involved and consider how much has really changed and the threats to journalists and whistleblowers today.

The event is free, but a £5 donation to the Fund is requested in order to continue its work. Get tickets in advance here.

Duncan Campbell’s own site has many items of interest to do with the case and trial.


Why I’m not on Facebook

I bookmarked this 2016 article in the Washington Post98 personal data points that Facebook uses to target ads to you – sometime ago, after coming across it on John Naughton’s blog. As it still sums up exactly why I refuse to succumb to Facebook, I thought I would link to it now.

While you’re logged onto Facebook, for instance, the network can see virtually every other website you visit. Even when you’re logged off, Facebook knows much of your browsing: It’s alerted every time you load a page with a “Like” or “share” button, or an advertisement sourced from its Atlas network. Facebook also provides publishers with a piece of code, called Facebook Pixel, that they (and by extension, Facebook) can use to log their Facebook-using visitors.

Here are three more links to more recent material. I’m going to keep on adding to this post with links to other articles as and when I come across them. It should prove a useful aide memoire.

Article by Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo (another link from John Naughton).

the political momentum of the Russia probe seems to be on a collision course with Facebook’s longstanding presumption, myopia and generalized illusion that it is the custodian of a national (and international) community as opposed to – let’s get real – just a website. It feels like this might be a moment or maybe the moment when the truthiness of Facebook’s rights and privacy and community talk simply collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness.


You are the product, says John Lanchester in this piece from the London Review of Books.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

In this September 2017 article in the Guardian’s Long Read series, Franklin Foer tells us how Facebook wants to advance our individual ‘transparency’. No longer will we be able to have different images for the different groups with which we are involved.

Though Facebook will occasionally talk about the transparency of governments and corporations, what it really wants to advance is the transparency of individuals – or what it has called, at various moments, “radical transparency” or “ultimate transparency”. The theory holds that the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives. With the looming threat that our embarrassing information will be broadcast, we’ll behave better. And perhaps the ubiquity of incriminating photos and damning revelations will prod us to become more tolerant of one another’s sins. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Zuckerberg has said. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
The point is that Facebook has a strong, paternalistic view on what’s best for you, and it’s trying to transport you there. “To get people to this point where there’s more openness – that’s a big challenge. But I think we’ll do it,” Zuckerberg has said. He has reason to believe that he will achieve that goal. With its size, Facebook has amassed outsized powers. “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” Zuckerberg has said. “We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

An end to end view

Reader Larry Marotta has kindly sent me a link to a job currently being advertised working for Police Scotland, thinking I might be impressed with its contents. Indeed I am. The job is for the Head of the force’s new ‘Design Authority’. In case we don’t know what that might be (or why a police force might need one) it is defined as ‘the custodian of the Target Operating Model ensuring alignment to the strategic vision for the organisation taking an end to end view using a business value focused perspective.’ Not surprisingly, the ad has attracted much derision, ably reported here in the Courier and the Sun.
Meanwhile, another Police Scotland recruitment campaign, this time for new police officers, has also been rightly criticised.

It shows a trio of what would once have been called ‘sonsie lasses’, encouraging more women to join the force with the caption ‘These Ladies are more than just Pretty Faces’. This campaign prompted the Daily Record to dub it with a nice piece of alliteration a ‘Female Force Farce’.
When the new Design Authority head is appointed, one of the first things she or he should do is to insist on clear, concise language being used throughout the organisation. Design is all about communicating effectively, and the words used are just as important as the way in which they are displayed. In order to earn that £80K a year, the new person is going to need a heavy-duty broom to sweep away the mountains of HR crap jargon that has obviously built up in the force’s corridors. Good luck to them!

Wake up Wonderful

If you can’t ensure that the temperature in your bedrooms is sufficiently low enough to allow your guests to get a decent night’s sleep, then perhaps you shouldn’t leave this card around for them to snap. Especially so when it contains a rather embarrassing typo. A most unsatisfacory night for the family Foster, parked up in the ‘luxury’ surroundings of the Norwich Premier Inn last Saturday evening.
Hat tip: George Foster

Books do furnish a room*

It was a wee bit disconcerting on Tuesday to see my name pop out of Patrick Barkham’s diary piece on Guardian’s op ed page – but then it turned out to be a reference to my namesake, who likes to dress as a badger, live in the woods and eat worms. Chacun à son goût.

Barkham’s piece was a nice article about how he likes not only to tidy and rearrange his own shelves but also to nose around other people’s. ‘Displaying the books we love or the books that made us, or even books to impress, is a civilising impulse,’ he says. And who could disagree?

 My own books now flow through shelves in five separate parts of the house. The main living room has four shelves of what you might call general stuff, a theme which is repeated in a large bookcase in what we loosely call the ‘dining room.’ Upstairs in the spare room, four floor-to-ceiling fitted shelves contain most of the fiction. This was once arranged A-Z by author, but has become hopelessly disorganised over the last 15 years. Another small bookcase is in the main bedroom, filled mainly with novels which Jacqui has already read. I plan to get round to most of them someday.

Then there is my office. It’s a small room, only about ten feet square, but it has shelves on all the walls which are completely full. The books overflow onto the desk, table and floor. These are mainly my working books: once mostly design, typography and printing history, but now with so much stuff on the RAF and the Second World War that the less used material has been displaced into boxes in the dining room.

I once cut out a picture of John Updike from a magazine, and still have it in a plastic wallet. It showed the great man hard at work at his typewriter in a room full of books. (This picture of him looking up from the typewriter, which I found online, must have been taken at the same time but the one I have is from a different angle.)

Pic: © Jill Krementz

This is the ideal writing life I imagine for myself. It may come to pass one of these days, but I fear that I am more likely to reach the being-eaten-by-worms stage first. Perhaps my namesake will gobble them up afterwards.

* The title comes of course from another writing hero, Anthony Powell. I also have another picture clipped from a magazine, showing him in his book-lined study.

Escape, Hide, Warn

I saw this laminated warning notice about what to do in the event of a terrorist attack on the door of a museum in Rodez, on my recent holiday in France.  Sensible advice, simply illustrated, and easily understandable even to me with my very poor French.
The town of Rodez hosted the finish of Stage 14 of the Tour de France on Saturday. A lifetime ambition of being at such an event was however thwarted by having booked to fly home from the local airport at 1725 local time – so we missed it all. And it was one of the most dramatic stages so far, with Chris Froome taking back the yellow jersey from Fabio Aru after beating him up what the BBC called the ‘short but punchy finish.’ Very bad planning!