Terry, being the self-respecting geek that he is, has a slew of black t-shirts with amusing and/or controversial slogans on them. One of my favourites is one which reads “It’s not F**king phone hacking!” Speedily produced after the ‘phone hacking’ scandal really hit the consciousness of the general public, this t-shirt seeks to highlight an important point in a humorous way. When most people think of the term ‘phone hacking’ what they are generally remembering is the scandal relating to the hacking of voicemails, belonging to celebrities, crime victims and their relatives, and a few notable others. From a technical point of view this was not phone hacking. Phone hacking would refer to hacking the hardware or software of the actual phone, not hacking into the network which provided the voicemail service.
From the perspective of someone directly affected this may seem like a trivial distinction, and I can understand someone finding this slogan quite offensive. After all, upon discovering that your privacy has been systematically violated, not going into the myriad other consequences of this most repugnant of journalism practices, seeing someone latch onto such a technical detail may well feel like a slap in the face. You have been victimised, but some smart-arse thinks that pedantically harping on about whether the terminology is correct is more important. If this is the case then you truly have my sympathies.
So someone suffering from the direct effects of the hacking may justifiably be unconcerned about what they see as trivialities, at least in the short term. And getting the general population to understand the intricacies of anything can be an exercise in frustration. So what’s the harm if the majority of people are labouring under such a misconception? As I see it the problem is that misconceptions can be rather pernicious. Your Average Joanne might not understand the distinction between hacking hardware and hacking networks, and if you were to explain her mistake she may well not care. But what Average Joanne thinks seems to inform what a lot of politicians think, and then you can get real problems.
In their desperation not to be seen as ‘out of touch’, politicians will frequently refer to popular opinion & public understanding. (Any power-hungry politico worth their salt knows that telling the populous that they are stupid, ill-informed and wrong tends not to win you any friends, or votes.) But what if the politician in question doesn’t have the time, ability or inclination to inform themselves properly on a particular subject? Then those half-formed, over-simplified & under-researched opinions swilling about public conversations (and in the media; promulgated by journalists equally incapable of proper fact-checking – see Churnalism) can easily transfer themselves to the lips of the people who are empowered to do something about it. It becomes sheer luck as to whether the MP standing up in the House of Commons, or in front of the Select Committee or Inquiry, actually understands what she or he is actually saying, and whether that bears any resemblance to reality.
A couple of weeks ago Terry posted about the MP Helen Goodman whose woeful inability to understand really quite basic stuff about the internet should really make everyone quake with fear. Some of the comments he received suggested this was unduly harsh. I disagree. I appreciate not everyone can be an expert about everything, and yes in an ideal world a team of policy wonks with all the relevant information (and good communication skills) would be there to stop hapless MPs destroying the internet due to a technical misunderstanding. But none the less I felt Ms Goodman’s response indicated a fundamental lack of respect for her position, the power she holds, and the duty she has to ensure she is appropriately informed.