Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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10.5 The impact of the war on terror on British civil liberties

During this section, you have encountered a range of views on what has changed in Britain since 9/11 and the effect government responses have had on civil liberties. We finish this section with interviews recorded in May 2008 with Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet (and thus closely associated with the Government for part of this period), and campaigning journalist Henry Porter, who holds strong views on the state of civil liberties in contemporary Britain, and what should be done to defend them from further attack.

The interview consists of two sections:

  • the first asks how the traditional role of the state has changed since 9/11 and whether it has had much of an impact on civil liberties
  • the second confronts the question of whether there really is the need for a new Bill of Rights, as Porter and others have argued.

The presentation of these different views gives you the opportunity to survey the material studied this section, to reflect on different views, and to develop your own ideas about the impact of security issues on civil rights.

Activity 47 Interview with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram

Read the transcript of an interview conducted by Paul Lewis below.

Please click ‘Reveal comment’ to read the interview.

Comment

Interview with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram

Paul Lewis
Hello. I’m Paul Lewis and in this audio I’ll be discussing with Henry Porter and Sir Richard Mottram, the effects that 9/11 and other terrorist activities have had on Civil Liberties in Britain.
Henry Porter is a campaigning journalist and prominent spokesman for civil rights. But first I spoke to Sir Richard Mottram, who, during Tony Blair’s government, was permanent secretary to the Cabinet for security, intelligence and resilience. I asked him how much he thought the states’ traditional functions of guaranteeing the security of its citizens had changed since 9/11 & 7/7.
Richard Mottram
Well I don’t think it has changed actually. I think that what's interesting about this country is that we didn’t discover terrorism after 9/11 or after 7/7. We’d actually had previous terrorist campaigns. We had a long history of tackling those within government and that experience I think has actually informed our approach in some quite interesting ways.
PL
And what in fact can the government really do to combat the terrorist threat?
RM
Well I think that you can do four sets of things which is what this government’s counter terrorism strategy is about and if you look around the world you see that other countries also have similar sorts of strategies. You can think about trying to prevent terrorism and that’s a really difficult thing to do. You can have a framework of laws and intelligence agencies and police, which pursue terrorists, bring them to justice. You can seek to protect your infrastructure to make it harder for a terrorist to attack and since you won't absolutely succeed in all of this in any significant campaign, you also need to put in place arrangements for civil emergency prepare – you need to prepare for this and a range of other contingencies. And the government, if you look at if you look at this government and if you look at what was done under the previous terrorist campaigns you can see all of these things. If you look in other countries, you see the same broad suite of approaches.
PL
What do you think we learnt from the IRA experience? Did we derive any particular lessons from there which are standing us in good stead?
RM
What I think we learnt from the Irish Campaign and Irish terrorism were a number of important lessons, which are relevant today. One is that you need to frame the way in which you tackle terrorism, always on the basis that you’re engaged in a battle of ideas. What terrorism is about is seeking to influence opinion on the part of the terrorist to produce an effect and you need to think about all that you do in relation to countering that effect. And then obviously, you also need to do other significant things like you need to change the balance, the calculus with the terrorists about how likely they are to succeed in their campaign. And you need obviously to protect your infrastructure and we did a number of things to try and do that. So I suppose that what we learnt really was this is fundamentally a battle of ideas. Think about the whole way that you tackle the problem in terms of how it will influence perceptions both here, and in the case of Irish terrorism, in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland and more internationally. In the case now of international terrorism you’d have exactly the same considerations.
PL
Richard Mottram is talking from previous government experience and his perspective reflects that. So how does someone outside of Whitehall see things? I asked Henry Porter how he would sum up the impact on British Civil liberties since the terrorist attacks.
Henry Porter
I think the most acute impact is in terms of surveillance. Surveillance has been hugely extended in every part of our lives. So that would include travelling down a motor way Your number is picked up by automatic number recognition cameras. Your e-mail Internet postal communications are no longer secure from the government’s possible scrutiny and monitoring. About half a million a year of these are intercepted and that was the last figure. So judging by the rise in the number of surveillance warrants, I suppose they are, conducted under RIPA, which is the Regulatory Investigative Powers Act, which is now running at about a thousand a week. I think that probably the e-mails and Internet connections are going to be a much bigger figure when we next get it. So those are the two crucial ones. Alongside that, I think is this movement of government databases to join up to link up and share information. So that’s sharing information horizontally and sharing information vertically. So information going up to the top and in that you will eventually have, I don’t think we have them yet, profiling mechanisms software to alert the Authorities to various types of person. But that merger is taking place now under the transformational government programme. And in a sense always in the background of any argument when you produce an argument saying well, this is you know invades my privacy and will endanger the privacy of people in the future, my children’s generation, who won't have nearly enough, nearly the freedoms that I’ve grown up with is this sense of security. We need it. The over-riding priority is security against terror. And you know then they add international crime syndicates. But the real impact of 9/11, which we didn’t really see at the time, we never saw it coming. We didn’t even see it coming after July 7th when Tony Blair said we must not let our way of life be changed. Our way of life has been profoundly changed and government has used this. It's not actually going to do much to fight terrorism. It may you know it may collect the odd terrorist but its real impact is to change the relationship between the State and the individual. And the State has moved using terrorism as an excuse, against the individual. And of course whenever you talk to anyone from government as I frequently do, they say: ‘oh no, no, no. It’s all supervised. We’ve got Parliament, we’ve got mechanisms, we’ve got…’ -. But the real truth is at the end of my street without any consultation among residents a number of cameras have appeared. Now there are about eight – little black globes, taking pictures – not of traffic but of people. Now that is a mechanism, an apparatus, which the Stasi would have given their eyeteeth for.
PL
Now clearly this is an infringement of privacy. Has this information been used, do you think, against people to restrict their behaviour or to punish behaviours?
HP
Well I think the Forward Intelligence groups and the police are definitely using it to anticipate - estimate numbers at demonstrations; see the sorts of people who are congregating. For once just recently actually a very large operation descended on the London City Hall where there was going to be a demonstration by anarchists and – the usual group. And there were so many police there that the anarchists you know and they have their right to their view; they have their right to demonstrate; they have their right to make their views heard – just didn’t appear. The oppressive numbers and the oppressive surveillance and the fairly aggressive attitude of the police just put them off and they didn’t appear. Now to many people that sounds like a good idea but to me that is suffocating some essential part of our democracy which has been alive to my mind basically since the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381.
PL
So these are really sort of background conditions of surveillance in a sense which are in place. Are there concrete measures that are being taken at the moment, do you think, which are in course of legislation implementation, that further constitute a threat to liberties?
HP
Well there are. But you know it's interesting. If you look at such things as the Civil Contingencies Act, or even the Enquiries Act, which would seem on the surface to have absolutely no bearing on terrorism or the fight against terrorism, the movement is to give the Executive much greater power over Parliament and therefore individuals. And if you look at the Civil Contingencies Act, which is really an astonishing Act that it slipped through Parliament barely touching the sides, and this is all done in this kind of new, urgent atmosphere that our absolute priority is to fight terrorism. Well, I mean, ditto with the ID Cards Act. That wouldn’t have gone through had we not had 9/11 although it does absolutely nothing to counter terrorism because all the Madrid Bombers had ID Cards. It doesn't, there’s no way – just because you’ve got an ID Card you don't stop the explosion. And in fact actually most bombers, certainly of an Islamist persuasion, want you to know their identity afterwards. So identity is not a problem for them. What it does is penalise other people and intrude in their lives in a profound way.
PL
So given there is still a real terrorist threat, what should the government do to counter it or prevent…?
HP
Well you know I’m a great critic of government but I really do think that the intelligence services, both MI6 and MI5 have really got their act together. MI5 was a very honed instrument when it started taking over Northern Ireland from MI6 in the, I think it was about the mid Eighties and it moved into Northern Ireland and did very well. And it came to this problem a very fit organisation. And now it's much, much larger. The last two heads have said that we’re watching anything between twenty five and thirty plots, that’s groups of people who appear to be intending some sort of attack or financing it or whatever. And all the time they’re improving their game. So you see, I’m not a sort of Liberal pushover in the sense that I think oh well, lets just let the terrorist blow up my children on the Tube, no. What I think is that we should refine our aim to the people we think are going to cause trouble in our society and not penalise across the board so that everyone has their privacy invaded and they’re intruded upon in whatever communications they make or even in their travel arrangements. I mean, a lot of this law comes from statutory instruments and secondary legislation of various sorts. And the Home Secretary announced, quite blandly, in January, that we would all be giving when we travelled abroad, thirty pieces of information including our mobile telephone numbers, our credit card numbers, our destinations, flight details outside the country and so forth. An astonishing intrusion. An astonishing cheek. Government completely failing to understand that they’re our servants. That we’re the boss and they have absolutely no right to demand this information on a general basis.
RM
You have to tackle this problem on a number of dimensions so it is I think important to have a framework of law, which helps you to tackle the problem.
PL
Richard Mottram again.
RM
Where some offences have a particular terrorist dimension you need to be able to prosecute in relation to them. And so the law has – some of the law has been changed. But I’d say that those changes in the law are in a sense secondary. The important point is what is your objective? And your objective is to do two sets of things. Your objective is to enable citizens of your country to go about their lives reasonably freely. And that’s an important objective in its own right. And not to compromise the way in which they live their lives because you’re trying to deal with terrorism because that is in effect to be defeated by terrorism. And then to have a framework, a focused framework, of how you seek to tackle it. And what the government has done, as you can see a mixture of things. You can see certainly changes in the law, some of which have a very high profile, which may not be too much to do with the terrorist effect. And alongside that a whole series of practical measures particularly to strengthen the capacity of the intelligence services and the police working together to get a handle on the problem. And roughly speaking I think since 9/11 you will see that expenditure on counter terrorist capability in this country will have trebled between 2001 and 2011. So there are a whole series of practical measures you can take to focus down on how do you find the very small number of people who are attracted towards the extremist doctrines to the point where they might take terrorist action.
PL
You said some changes in the law might or might not be associated with terrorist activities. What else would they be associated with?
RM
Well the point I was trying to make was that a lot of terrorist offences are prosecuted under the law generally because very importantly in my view the best way to seek to defeat terrorism, particularly of a home grown kind, is always to present it for what it is, which is a crime and the participants in it are criminals. And through that process and the whole way in which a crime will be dealt with and they will be prosecuted fits within the general framework of how in our society people are treated, you know. So all the standard approaches with the minimum number of modifications. But the purpose of that is to give the community confidence that you’re not picking on particular people and applying particular measures and at the same time to sort of to de-legitimise those who seek to argue that this is something different. This is something that you know if I go and kill someone for a cause, I haven’t actually committed murder. Well if I go and kill someone for a cause, I have committed murder and I should be prosecuted for murder. Someone shouldn’t say well it's sort of okay because you did it for a cause. Now obviously terrorism has both a domestic and international dimension and some of this gets quite complicated. But the fundamental point is seek as far as possible to treat this as a problem within the general framework of the law and law enforcement and all the rules that go with that and minimise the number of variations you have.
PL
Do you think as a whole this kind of package or developings of a group of measures now are actually limiting the civil rights of British citizens as a whole? What impact does it have on civil rights?
RM
It has some impact on civil rights because there are certain things that are prohibited under the law to do with inciting terrorism for instance. Which you could, which there’s quite an interesting argument and debate to be had about how far that impacts on the free speech of individuals in relation to accessing terrorist material, in relation to all sorts of detailed things like that. It impacts potentially on your rights as a citizen if you are arrested because you can be detained subject to judicial process for currently up to twenty-eight days and so on. But I wouldn’t myself argue that these changes have fundamentally shifted the balance between the citizens’ rights and the human rights of all of us as a community too far towards the State. Now the reason why I wouldn’t myself argue that is because I believe that these processes in our society are superintended by, are governed by, are the responsibility of people separate from the executive. And as long as we maintain that independence of process in considering whether people should be prosecuted in the process of prosecuting them in the decisions of courts in appeals against decisions of courts and so on. Then I think that’s a fundamental guarantee of people’s civil liberties and a very important one in my view.
PL
So a number of people do sort od talk about a fundamental shift occurring in the nature of British democracy – for example the balance between the executive in judicial branches. Henry Porter talks about the crying need for a new Bill of Human Rights to recalibrate the relations of the citizen and the State. You don’t see this as a major problem at the moment?
RM
Well I don’t myself think it's a major problem because I think what we haven't done is undermined a fundamental framework of human rights which is protected in law, in which people have a right to go outside this country, to get judicial decisions in Europe and so on. And actually a framework which Ministers find very irksome on occasion which I always take to be and officials perhaps, you know – as a former official myself - we find some of this framework very irksome. It gets in the way of what we think is the right answer. I personally have always taken comfort from that because I think that’s the sort of society we should have. So I don’t myself believe that this has been shifted fundamentally but it is very important that the protection is maintained, that judicial independence is not compromised.
PL
As well as judicial independence it is the role of Parliament that Henry Porter sees as fundamental to achieving the balance between security and human rights that has traditionally been in place in Britain. He argues that this cannot be achieved if it is left to the executives in Whitehall to decide this, that they alone should decide how to improve surveillance and security measures.
HP
Parliament has to be much more vigorous and people have to understand what is going through Parliament. I mean I have been very struck in the last eight or nine years by a change of attitude and it may have actually happened over a longer period of time. But I do think that people are remarkably unaware, given the media we have in this country, about what is going on and what's going on particularly in Parliament and the issues that surround them. And therefore there’s much less pressure on Parliament to debate these things. You know last year I actually did a little – this is 2007 – I did a little survey of how many MPs were around in Parliament on Thursday. Well basically very few. The Speaker was always rushing to get up North on his ’plane. Basically business had ended after Prime Minister’s Question Time. Very little was going on. And that seems to be given the amount of legislation being passed I mean there are about twelve thousand to thirteen thousand pages of legislation going through Parliament maximum during Blair’s years. Now that compared to the previous Tory administration and Labour administration to about seven to eight thousand pages. It's that much more to read and understand. And why we keep on being caught out by measures which suddenly come into force it's because nobody’s really properly read the stuff. Nobody read in the Serious Organised Crime Police Act that Blair was proposing to ban people from demonstrating within a kilometre of Parliament Square. Nobody read it. It just suddenly came out. Nobody really understood until it actually happened. Every offence had became arrestable. And with that the police extended their DNA base to catch anyone they wanted to have on their DNA base basically.
PL
Now do you think the balance in Britain is different from other countries, or established democracies, continental democracies, with regards to the pursuit of security and the preservation of liberties in this sense? Is Britain different? Is it outside the trend?
HP
Well you know, we have got a difficult problem and it's different to most of the European countries. But we also have the longest, one of the oldest democracies in the world and you would have thought that with our Institutions we’d be able to balance better than I think we are doing, the interests of security and personal freedom. There has been I think since New Labour came in a very, very strong feeling that we should in some respect end this individualism, which is a threat to society. And I think that spreads right across the board and is in the background of so many Labour policies. Again, I think we’re missing the point that once these freedoms go and I’m particularly concerned about databases and the way that they move together, once these freedoms go it's almost impossible to get them back because it's so difficult to deal with a very, very large State database.
PL
I asked Richard Mottram whether he felt there was a different balance between the preservation of civil liberties and the pursuit of security in Britain compared to the rest of Europe.
RM
Well I think that the area of sensitivity really lies around sort of specific legislative measures. Say things like incitement and so on to terrorism and being in possession of literature and all those things which obviously are sensitive sort of on the cusp area, the question of the period for which you can be… detained and so on. And I think the assumption might be that we have a particularly draconian approach here. Actually it partly reflects the nature of our legal system compared lets say with the legal systems in continental Europe. In continental Europe you could, let’s say in France, you could be detained for many more days than twenty-eight if you were suspected of a terrorist offence while you were being investigated within the framework of their rather different approach to their system of legal investigation. So when you get into the detail of it all I think you would discover that we do not have a particularly draconian approach. And I think you could also argue that although we have a very significantly enhanced intelligence effort tackling this problem we also have quite a strong tradition of caution and accountability in relation to that effort and similarly caution and accountability in relation to the police. And I could think of European countries again where those things wouldn’t necessarily apply.
PL
So how would you respond to Henry Porter’s argument that we’re currently seeing the most serious attack on personal freedom in this country ever seen during peacetime?
RM
Well, I think that where I have sympathy for what he says is that there is a language about some aspects of these issues which is surprisingly uncaring about what I would regard as some fairly fundamental democratic rights that we enjoy and the fundamental importance of living within a State which is governed by the law. So there’s rhetoric and there are processes which certainly – processes of surveillance, you know the most obvious example is CCTV. There is concern about – which I think is misplaced – about the activities of the police and the intelligence agencies and so on. These are all things to worry about in a free society because if you get that balance wrong and if you allow the creeping erosion of judicial independence, you allow unaccountable intelligence activity, you don’t properly hold the police to account for what they do and so on. Then you would produce a society which was very undesirable to live in. But I don’t think there’s much evidence that that’s what’s happened in this country.
PL
The government have been taking steps to increase the powers of detention in this country, up to ninety days in some circumstances. I wondered if this was something that Richard Mottram saw as a further threat to personal freedom.
RM
I think this is essentially an argument about when is the best time to take a precaution against an extremely or a highly unlikely event. So on the side of the position of the government and some police is you can clearly envisage circumstances in which to be able to detain a suspect for only – only – perhaps only is the wrong word – for up to twenty-eight days subject to judicial supervision would be insufficient. In circumstances where let’s say there’d been multiple attacks and a massive terrorist problem of a kind that we’ve not seen yet in this country and where the whole resources of the State and the police and the intelligence agencies were simply overwhelmed. And there might be a risk that you were missing really important potential suspects if you were limited in that way. But that’s a very remote and extreme case. And the alternative approach would be to say well if and when I find myself in those circumstances then I will take the necessary measures. Argument against that is that might be just the wrong moment – plenty of examples of Parliament legislating in a panic for things in very undesirable ways. My own view is that the case for twenty, for going beyond twenty-eight days has probably not been made very effectively. And what I think is interesting is that the way in which this argument has been framed has always struck me as a very odd way of framing it because it's expressed in terms of detention, which is a slightly more than a slightly emotive word, in terms of you could be detained by the State for twenty-eight days and you could now under the new proposal be detained for forty-two days or you could have been detained for ninety days. In none of these cases is this actually what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is for defined periods, provided you get the approval of a judge you can be sort of rolled over, deprived of your liberty. So this could indeed have been presented in a much more comfortable, for me anyway, which would have been to say, to have said, given the nature of terrorism, given the complexity of teasing out the issues, we will allow for, subject to judicial supervision, a certain number of times judges could agree that you could be re-detained so to speak. Why wasn't it presented in that way? Well, I don’t know. But I think partly because actually it suited a political rhetoric to emphasise the opposite. In other words to play up the detention and to play up the length of the time and to say this shows that we’re really taking this issue very, very seriously. Because I think about things more from the point of view of an official, I suppose I’ve always found the rhetoric probably counter productive.
PL
With Richard Mottram arguing for the government to make the case for longer detention times more effectively, perhaps this is the time for a new Bill of Rights to be drawn up to counteract the perceived loss of Civil Liberties. I asked Henry Porter what would be in it.
HP
Well I think the Bill of Rights would be pretty much a standard Bill of Rights guaranteeing much of what is guaranteed in the Human Rights Act, which was brought in just after Labour came in to power. A good thing in my opinion at the time except it doesn't guarantee the rights that it says it does.
PL
From the European Union, this is?
HP
Yeah – it was brought in from – yeah and it was originally actually drafted all those years ago by British lawyers. I think it was brought in from Europe and the Bill of Rights it was kind of presented as a magnificent tool but it seems to me that it isn't that because one thing – one area it doesn't really guarantee is privacy. And that is a front line in this modern age where you know everything can be tracked and listened to and absorbed by the great and very speedy apparatus run by the State. So I believe that the Bill of Rights should guarantee the rights properly that is entrenching them, placing them beyond Parliamentary adjustment and unless there is a vast majority in favour of altering something. But I do think it should be because you can't trust Parliament. If you’ve got a weak Parliament which is being threatened by the Press and it has got a very over-ambitious executive and Whitehall has got a very long range agenda, then I do think that you need to place these things beyond the control of Parliament. And one of the things I think that should be done is that if you have a couple of Privacy Bills. One Privacy Bill like Canada, which applies both to commercial outfits; that is telecoms, airlines etc., banks, and so forth and also to the government to protect the individual and in fact assert – that information about me – is as much personal to me as my body or my image. And I really do think that we need to change our view. But it's curious that in this country which Orwell endlessly remarked was sort of full of these very private people obsessed with their hobbies and their gardens and their routines, that we of all the Western societies have kind of caved in and said ‘I don’t mind if somebody knows about me. I’ve done nothing wrong’. That really, infuriating argument.
PL
What else would there be apart from privacy? Is that the main plan?
HP
Well, I think privacy is my absolute – I mean freedom to assemble; freedom you know to protest. You know, the usual ones of belief, marriage you know, privacy, family life and all those things that – the Human Rights Act. The smaller it is, the more pure, the more like the Ten Commandments, the easier it is for Judges to say yes or no, this does comply or the government hasn’t in this respect. It does of course change and take away Parliamentary sovereignty but I keep on arguing to people – Parliament isn't sovereign. It's – look at what's happening – you see legislation passed without Parliament hardly murmuring. Parliament isn't sovereign, but what is sovereign is the Executive in Whitehall and they can do pretty much what they want, whichever Party they have. There’s a very long and persistent programme or project in Whitehall on certain things. And one of them is on privacy – invading people’s privacy. But to just go back on the sovereignty part. I mean I went to the Human Rights Joint Committee. That’s House of Lords and House of Commons and argued this, and said, ‘look, we need privacy – we need privacy and it's the crucial thing.’ And I could see around the room Labour peers and MPs, Conservative Peers and MPs and Lib Dems and so forth, all nodding. So I can't see where the problem is, why we don’t just legislate. Well I think we won't legislate until people really understand how much of their life is disappearing. And by the time they really get the picture, which is probably when my children are having children, which will be in about ten years time I would say, it will be too late.
 

Activity 48 Questions related to the interview

Now that you’ve read the above interview, note down some answers to the following questions.

  1. How would you describe the government response to 9/11 and 7/7, and what do you think has actually changed?
  2. To what extent have the steps taken been part of a response to the perceived terrorist threat, and how far have they affected civil rights?
  3. How strong is the evidence to support the view that a new Bill of Rights is necessary?

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