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We are in a curious and uncertain period for the British state, its antiquated constitution and ways of doing politics. A number of serious challenges are on the horizon and it is unclear how much longer the political framework of the Westminster system can remain intact. The traditional attitude of the British elite has been to ‘muddle through’, introducing reform in a piecemeal manner in response to popular demands for change, while doing its best to preserve the core features of a monarchical system based on executive dominance of a ‘sovereign’ parliament via royally acquired prerogatives and patronage. A huge gulf exists between the empowered governance made possible by digital technology and the antiquated reality of the Westminster system. In …

Do you expect the machine to solve the problems? In this wide-ranging interview with the Director of the Open Rights Group members of Open Democracy discuss bulk collection, state bureaucracies, the pre-crime era and trust. Rosemary Bechler (RB): Few of us understood the full import of what Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions, was saying at the Convention of Modern Liberty in 2009 when he referred to the then just published paper by Sir David Omand on the effect of modern data mining and processing techniques on intelligence work. Omand had stated that public trust in the organs of the state was going to be crucial, because from then on, ”Finding out other people’s secrets is going to mean breaking …

From the University of Cambridge comes ELECTION, a weekly politics podcast; asking the questions that no one else is in the run-up to the British General Election with the most interesting people inside and outside the political arena. Here below are the sixth and the seventh podcasts. #6 – Rae Langton on Charlie Hebdo, hate vs free speech & blasphemy What constitutes hate speech? Does the Press do more harm than good in our democracy? When should words become the government’s business? We put these questions to Professor Rae Langton – award-winning philosopher and the world’s ‘fourth most influential woman thinker’ – and discuss whether free speech can ever be reconciled with a need to suppress hateful voices. The team then discuss the fallout of Ed Miliband’s ‘second kitchen’, whether politicians can – or should – keep their families out of the media spotlight, and the lessons from the Israeli election result.

The debate over the impact of Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks has been obscured by “muddle and fog”, particularly in the United Kingdom, according to Alan Rusbridger. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief said the lack of response from British politicians, journalists and the public following the revelations was “very frustrating”. Politicians in the UK have found the subject “toxic”, complex and difficult to discuss, but  the issues are too important to be ignored, Rusbridger said. “The penny has dropped recently that, love or hate Edward Snowden, he has laid out a huge canvas of issues that concern us all,” he said. In a lecture, 21st Century Surveillance State: Implications of the Snowden Revelations, at the University of Oxford this week, Rusbridger told his audience it was time to move the debate …

More than rights, a set of guiding principles is needed to counterpose to the reigning ideals of ‘security’, ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’. Alternative ideals, perhaps, such as democracy, health and environmental sustainability?  See part one.  The net has the potential to revolutionize democracy with an informed citizenry empowered to deliberate and decide on key issues. Yet current trends strengthen anti-democratic forces. In addition to concerns over privacy, there is an urgent need to address how the public realm is being hollowed out by corporate interests and advertisers. The ideal of democracy presupposes a shared public sphere in which citizens can construct, debate and decide on collective projects. This requires access to quality information and while the net has certainly increased the …

Under the rubric of state security on the one hand and commercial openness on the other, we are being lulled into an online world of fear and control where our every move is monitored in order to more efficiently manage us. This article launches a new section of the Great Charter Convention dedicated to debate and analysis of democracy, politics and freedom in the digital age. It is clear that we are at a crucial historical juncture. The issues around state power and surveillance raised by Edward Snowden’s revelations should be an important theme in the upcoming general election, while the symbolic double anniversary of Magna Carta (aged 800) and the web (aged 25) offers an opportunity for critical reflection on how …

The mass media forms a key channel through which instances of human rights violations are made public. However, the media can only publish a small proportion of stories, as media practitioners are required to sift through wider information, deciding what to cover. A media ethnography conducted in Mexico in 2006, before and after the presidential elections, can illuminate what journalists are trying to do in their human rights coverage and how their outlooks and contexts condition the incidents that are covered. Parts of the Mexican media played a significant role in the country’s democratic transition since the 1976 Tlateloco Massacre, resulting in a general shift among journalists away from a cozy and financially lucrative relationship with the government. This led to the growth of new ‘market-oriented’, as opposed to ‘state-oriented’, newspapers. Both usually have a human rights beat investigating citizens’ complaints about infractions committed by state institutions. This often involves collaboration with the independent human rights commissions established in the 1990s. Within this context, this case of Mexico suggests the mixture of outlooks and contexts affecting processes of extracting human rights news from wider information can be put into four categories: newsworthiness, journalistic aims, economic aims and political aims. A human rights story is more likely to be published by a newspaper the more it corresponds to these criteria. The first factor, newsworthiness of a story, appears to be tricky to define; many of the editors interviewed claim it was a ‘sentiment’ that was ‘uncertain’, ‘improvised’ or ‘arbitrary’. Still, their explanations suggest some common criteria for newsworthiness. Firstly, published stories generally concerned incidents where human rights were transgressed rather than respected. One editor of El Universal explained ‘human rights are there to be taken care of … Therefore it is news when they are violated.’ Other aspects of newsworthiness included novelty, exclusivity, impact, representativeness, and timeliness. In particular, the potential political impact of a violation was considered greater, and therefore more ‘newsworthy’, if it involved multiple victims or was particularly severe, as in the case of a 13-year-old girl who was denied a legal abortion after she was raped. Editors also sought to publish stories that were representative of wider problems, such as inequality. The idea, as an editor of El Universal put forward, was ‘that when we talk of inequality or poverty, people have a point of reference’.

There are two stories in the media this week that touch on the nature of a free society. The first is headline news in the major newspapers and television networks, while the second is largely relegated to the Buzzfeed-esque websites. I’m referring to the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, where 12 people were killed by alleged Islamic terrorists, and that Mia Khalifa has become the most popular porn star on the internet’s more saucier websites. If people make a connection between the two stories it will probably be Islam. Charlie Hebdo is well known for courting controversy by offending the religious, especially Muslims. The attack is presumably motivated by their publication of cartoons featuring Mohammed and general mockery. Ms Khalifa, as someone who works in pornography, no doubt offends a wide array of people from anti-pornography feminists to the intuitively prudish. However, she has attracted a great deal of abuse online, including death threats, because she is a Lebanese-American and many people in the Levant take exception to her career on religious grounds.