Secrets, spies, and free speech – WORD Christchurch

Secrets, spies, and free speech was stunningly topical, and the chair and panellists were knowledgeable and articulate, and pretty funny to boot (I actually got sore cheeks). Discussion ranged around ideas of surveillance, free speech, state control, spying and shutting down debate.

Luke Harding is a Guardian reporter who was written on Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency; Nicky Hager is headline news for his investigative work in Dirty Politics; and Richard King’s book On Offence argues that free speech is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend. Joanna Norris, editor of The Press chaired the session – most appropriately as she is also the chair of the Media Freedom Committee.

Luke Harding

Luke is concerned about mass surveillance and how information is “all being hoovered up and analysed. The rise of authoritarian states has seen state actors trolling individuals, armies of cyber bloggers causing people to retreat and exit from the conversation.

Edward Snowden gave his information to responsible journalists. He is an epochal figure, part of the “biggest, most important story of the 21st century”. Working on this story was fraught. There were incidents of mysterious workers laying down cables outside his work and home, and occasions where the text on his screen would mysteriously delete.

Of the famous laptop smashing incident, Luke said it was “half Stasi, half pantomime”.

Richard King

Richard King had plenty to say about the Australian situation, and bigotry. He reckons “bad speech” should be allowed but we should “call out the bigots and haters”. Beware “the great steambath of censoriousness”:

On questions of principles, slopes are always slippery.

King was a master of pithy and revealing observations”

Julian Assange is the tiny elephant in the room.

The claim that something is offensive is taken as an argument in itself.

Nicky Hager

Nicky Hager classed himself as a moderate in the surveillance debate, seeing the need for monitoring those who could hurt people. At the same time he thinks society’s fear about surveillance is insidious.

He said of leaks: “There is nothing special about a leak being illegal … people are going to feel intruded upon”. Most material didn’t meet the public interest; he stripped out names from some of the source material before publishing it.

We have a government that was faking; manufacturing a sense of friendly, “she’ll be right …”

while major New Zealand corporates were paying to have opponents – including those in public health – smeared.

Politics is so much easier for your side by destroying opposition. It is really East Germany.

He was sharp and funny, explaining the process of how Dirty Politics came to be. Meetings in parks, and an initial plan to tweet out whole blast of information (Whaledump being in the news again today of course).  His source’s motivation is simple:

Whale Oil is a bastard and let’s do him over … he’s a prick”.

Luke Harding, Richard King, Nicky Hager: Secrets, spies and free speech
Luke Harding, Richard King, Nicky Hager: Secrets, spies and free speech

Cover of On offence Cover of Dirty Politics Cover of The Snowden Files

Richard King: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Richard King – writer and reviewer

Cover of The Snowden filesWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

I’m looking forward to seeing a new city. I haven’t been to Christchurch before — or even to New Zealand — and so I’ll be interested to learn a little about it and to see how its reconstruction is being managed. I’m also looking forward to my events. The first one I’m involved in will be on spying and secrecy and will feature Nicky Hager and Luke Harding — real journalists, not mere commentators like myself. I’m hoping to learn, as well as to contribute.

What do you think about libraries?

I love libraries and always have. At university in Manchester (England) I would often use the Central Reference Library — a wonderful building — and I’ve also used the British Library, for which you need, or used to need, permission. Here in Western Australia I often visit the state library, which is a great place to work. While I like the fact that material is now being loaded onto databases, I worry a bit that in digitising their stock libraries are losing a lot of it. The US novelist Nicholson Baker has written passionately, and at length, about this issue.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

Well, sticking with libraries … Up to about the age of fourteen or so I didn’t know how libraries worked. I just used to go in, take the books, and leave. No one ever noticed I was doing it, and I always brought the books back. But strange! I’m a bit dense when it comes cards and IDs and the like. If I don’t turn up for my first event it’ll be because I’ve tried to get through Passport Control on my Trans-Perth travelcard.