WRITTEN ON December 8th, 2009 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Bad stuff, Design: Co-creation, Design: user-oriented, Foundation of Trust, Political engagement

Murdoch’s tabloid columnist David Aaranovitch has stepped up as first cheerleader in Michael Wills’ long-promised riposte to our highly successful and influential Database State report earlier this year for JRRT. He’s no doubt well paid to use forceful language, and strike provocative poses. But he doesn’t get it.

What the hell has Facebook, the greatest of all public noticeboards for the inner landscape of our dreams, got to do with surveillance? Oh Lord, oh Lord, how much of this stuff the entitled middle classes can turn out without blushing.

David: Facebook holds and shares the details of 350m people in ways almost none of them understand. It’s an extraordinary and largely positive phenomenon. But have you ever looked at how it works and considered its implications? This is not a class thing.

He detects a “fashionable paranoia about data and surveillance” and dismisses the concerns raised in Database State as semi-apocalyptic.

My worry that that the report’s authors, far from being dispassionate in their assessment of 46 government databases, had in fact been chosen as much for their ready-made opinions as their expertise. Looking back I understated the problem. Four of the six authors of the report were almost better described as parti pris campaigners than experts.

But David, we chose ourselves. Our affiliations are clearly stated and blindingly obvious. When you rang me and vented at me for 10-15 minutes you had no idea who I was and hadn’t read my blog. Google exists, you know? Even though your boss seems to wish it didn’t.

It seems to have taken you *nine months* to work out the well-documented good work Terri Dowty does. Now you “reveal” it as some great hidden truth. Is this the valuable journalism Mr Murdoch says we’re all going to want to pay for on-line? Don’t you understand it’s perfectly possible to be a campaigner and yet to be well informed? Why do you think people become campaigners FFS? Through wilful ignorance? Because they read facile columns full of class-obsessed and fashion-conscious invective?

You’ve managed to work out Michael WiIls works for the government. But you’ve eaten up his chocolate-covered waffle without a sceptical glance.

Mr Wills also accepts that government must take blame for the poor level of debate because it has too often been “overly defensive and dismissive of criticism. Government believes it is acting benignly and legally and has not adequately recognised the fears of those who believe this is not the case.”

This is tripe. The poor level of debate on technology in public services isn’t because the government hasn’t been shoutey enough. It’s because the government is too assertive and indulges in groupthink, failing to take other views into account. At a shallow level they have a good intention, but they fail to realise the less desirable consequences of their ill-thought-out implementation.

I wouldn’t say there’s a deep underlying malevolence, but the poor manner in which they engage with others who have a different good intention is tantamount to malevolence. Your own article illustrates this very well.

Central to this is their documented failure to listen effectively to the views of scientists (not that I claim to be one, but two of my co-authors are) and also of service users and front-line practitioners. This is why NHS CfH has failed, as even the government now admits, and why the ID Scheme and ContactPoint will fail.

But [Wills’] overall point is this: proper use of new technology by the State allows a far more effective delivery of services to those that need them and a much better level of information about what is happening in society so that needs can be predicted and met. For the poor at any rate, such benefits are more than speculative.

This is true. But would David or Michael understand what proper use of technology is? Do CCTV cameras everywhere, ANPR, centralised databases, state-issued identifiers and audit trails and the removal of barriers to data sharing constitute proper use of technology by the State, allow effective services, and help all of us? That’s the debate we need to have.

We’ve been having it here since 2004 David. Did you ever join in, or were you too busy striking a contrarian pose to whatever was fashionable that day?

Wouldn’t it be better to have user participation in a design process of co-creation? Of course it would, as we’ve said here since 2004 and as the government has belatedly acknowledged in its Smarter Government white paper published yesterday.

Perhaps this is why, unnoticed by the Rowntree report, bodies such as Barnardo’s and the NSPCC had welcomed the Contactpoint database. They, at least, were not operating on the libertarian assumption that almost everything the State does is malign, or that an exaggerated notion of privacy always outweighs something that, to be old-fashioned, we might call the “public interest”.

We didn’t write about this in the report, but it’s not news to any of the authors or indeed to anyone who has taken an interest in this. The untold story is just how and to what extent funding arrangements for these charities has changed in recent years, the extent to which they are now dependent on state funds, and the political price exacted for that dependence. Are there any quality journalists around who might like to look into that? Be warned: it would require research, and not just opinion.

Aaronovitch gripes on about the census and how important it should be accurate. More than five years ago on IdealGov I wrote about how the Finnish census, which is register-based, is so much better than ours and also so much cheaper it can be done annually. It’s because the data quality is good and levels of trust in government are high. What’s more the Finnish government works constantly to try to earn ever higher levels of trust. David – we want something much better than what you’re asking for.

Oddly, the Rowntree Reform Trust, which is largely run by Liberal Democrat grandees, gives as its objectives the promotion of civil liberties and social justice.

There’s nothing in the least odd about that. What are the objectives of your employer News International? To prop up the UK tax base? Hardly. At least the JRRT pays it’s full share of UK tax. That’s why it can act as a campaigning organisation.

I think the libertarians, the aged hippies and the privileged have taken over the argument and that their cultural preferences have tilted the balance against social justice. Of course, the rich have themselves; the poor have only the Government

So the well-paid and powerful columnist can fire off a broadside of ad-hominem and ad feminam attacks, but miss the fundamental point. The poor and needy have every bit as much right to dignity and privacy about their affairs as the wealthy. But now they have no choice but to submit their data to insecure and often ineffective public services.

Informational self-determination – enshrined as a right for example in the German constitution – isn’t a class thing. It should be for everyone, whatever Michael Wills says, and whatever David Aa says. Pfff.

10 Responses to “Aaronovitch: you’re talking t*rd mate”

cyberdoyle wrote on December 8th, 2009 8:43 am :

I am an ordinary lay person. I don’t understand politics or journalism. What I do understand is grass roots opinion and use of the internet. I hold the humble opinion that many of the policy makers in this country simply don’t get IT. The internet is like the industrial revolution, its a digital revolution and the decision makers cannot ignore IT any longer, nor pretend they understand something they obviously don’t.
IT is time to talk to real experts, not the eejits they have listened to for too long. The disgraceful expenditure on the IT implementation in security, NHS, education etc is an example of being taken for the suckers they are.
Time to get real.
keep rocking William. They will hear you eventually. I hope.

John Lettice wrote on December 8th, 2009 8:44 am :

Surely A talking t*rd?

At last an opportunity to tell my NUS anecdote. Many years ago, when I was a student hack reporting NUS conference and Aaronovitch was a stalinist apparatchik, er, much-loved member of the NUS executive, he mounted the podium and observed, “I must be really popular. I’ve just been to the toilets, and as soon as I went in, they filled up.”

Voice from the audience: “Filled up with what?”

uberVU - social comments wrote on December 8th, 2009 10:30 am :

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by williamheath: Here’s just how poor I think Aaronovitch’s column today is http://bit.ly/7zHpO4 Plz comment, Friends. Plz RT #databasestate…

Robin Wilton wrote on December 8th, 2009 11:23 am :

Oh, thanks a lot, William… now I’ve had to go and read Mr Aa’s column. I was going to just dash off a response based on your comments, without reading the source article. After all, if it’s good enough for him…

I think you’re fairly safe; his piece is rambling, ranting, confused and lazy. I’m sorry – I meant to be positive. OK: his piece is carefully and competently crafted to enter via the eyes, arrive at the hind brain, cause the outraged head to nod, and then exit, job done. The fore-brain is left entirely undisturbed, free to devote itself to the Earl Grey and Frank Cooper’s.

What I think surprises me most is the arrogance of someone who seems to assume that that a group of informed people (even if they don’t share his views) can analyse 46 government IT projects and find something objectionable in them… and yet have nothing to say which merits serious consideration.

Of course, a generalist OpEd writer’s snap analysis of the state and intentions of government IT is far more likely to reveal the true privacy and social implications. Thank heavens for quality analysis.If I were a Times reader, I’d drop my toast and write a stiff letter to the editor. No fore-brain required.

Old Holborn wrote on December 8th, 2009 12:03 pm :


Great stuff

William Heath wrote on December 8th, 2009 12:34 pm :

T writes to say: Two audit commission reports that may be helpful – undermining the assertion that ECM is benefiting children:


“Five years after the green paper Every Child Matters and eight years after the child’s death, “there is little evidence of better outcomes for children and young people” resulting from the requirement that local areas in England set up special panels to coordinate services.”…

“The Audit Commission study found too much time and energy being expended on
“structures and process” at the expense of improving the lives of children
and young people and their families.”

Services for vulnerable children in England deteriorated last year and remain the weakest area of councils’ work, the Audit Commission has said.

Haringey, where the Baby P scandal took place, was among four councils to go from a three-star rating to one.

Doncaster, Milton Keynes and Surrey did the same, while only nine authorities achieved the maximum four stars – three fewer than had managed it in 2007.

Guy Herbert wrote on December 8th, 2009 2:35 pm :


If you weren’t so cross, you’d have worked out it hasn’t taken Aaronovitch 9 months to work this out. He’s been prodded by the Cabinet Office. It is clear from internal evidence he has an advance copy of the response credited to Wills. I would not like to guess at the briefing that accompanied it.

Terri wrote on December 8th, 2009 7:07 pm :

It’s all rather interesting. Not only the fact that someone has had to resort to the ad hominem, but that the attack on me provides the perfect demonstration of just how dangerous it is to think you know about people on the basis of a handful of ‘facts’ – precisely what practitioners are being invited to do by Contactpoint, CAF, ONSET et al. It also reveals the growing cult of ‘expertitis’. Is it really impossible to have specialised knowledge (gleaned in a whole decade of research into children’s databases) if you are a musician? (In the same way that it’s impossible for unqualified parents to raise their own children without the input of experts?) Who d’you think you are!

Aaronovitch’s research seems to have consisted of reading the jacket of a book on home education I published 10 years ago. Yup, I was still a musician then and home educating my sons. Throw in a few references to hippies, libertarians and the middle-classes and you probably know my type: a bohemian who lets my kids chill out while I run African-drumming classes and wail songs about peace. If you were a practitioner – or a certain journalist – you could probably visualise me in kaftan and ethnic headband, doing the weekly shop in ‘tofu’n’lentils’… Does the picture change when I say ‘classical music – R3’ and ‘failing local schools’? (believe me, this isn’t Hampstead or even the right-on bit of Hackney). I think it’s probably Aaronovitch who needs to get out a bit more.

David Moss wrote on December 12th, 2009 12:28 pm :

1. Guy Herbert pointed out years ago that David Aaronovitch is just a contrarian. There’s not much more to add.

Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, talking about something quite different, has this to say, which is worth adding:

Then, of course, the media privilege foolish contrarian views because they have novelty value, and also because “established” views get confused with “establishment” views, and anyone who comes along to have a pop at those gets David v Goliath swagger.

2. Dr Goldacre also invents (as far as I know) the most useful phrase — “zombie argument”:

… I can spot the same rhetorical themes re-emerging in climate change foolishness that you see in aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

Among all these, reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down …

Zombie arguments survive, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at realclimate.org, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.

We could add transformational government to his list of climate change, aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories as a home of zombie arguments.

Thank you for that, Ben.

ukliberty wrote on December 15th, 2009 8:36 am :

“The poor and needy have every bit as much right to dignity and privacy about their affairs as the wealthy. But now they have no choice but to submit their data to insecure and often ineffective public services.”

This is an excellent point.