The Case For A Technology Aware Lobby Correspondent

We cover all manner of stories here at Hackaday, including awesome hardware hacks, the latest trends and inventions, and in-depth guides to fascinating technologies. We also cover a few news stories from the wider world outside our community, usually when they have some knock-on effect that has an impact on us. Recently this last category of stories has included laws which present a threat to online encryption and privacy in the UK and in the European Union, for example. They’re not the most joyful of news, but it’s vital for everyone with an interest in online matters to be informed about them.

A Long And Inglorious History

The infamous Clipper chip. Travis Goodspeed, CC BY 2.0

Those of us who have followed the world of technology will know that badly thought out laws with a negative impact on technology have a long and inglorious history. Some like the infamous backdoored Clipper chip encryption device die an inglorious death as industry or the public succeed in making them irrelevant, but others such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA live on for decades and present an ongoing malign influence. Most recently our ongoing coverage of dubious drone stories included a hefty dose of equally dubious action from lawmakers.

When considering these pieces of legislation it’s easy to characterise the politicians who advance them as gullible idiots easily swayed by any commercial lobbyist with a fistful of cash. But the reality is far more nuanced, while some of them may well be tempted by those lobbyists  they are in most cases neither gullible nor foolish. Instead they are better characterised as clueless on technical issues, and thus easily swayed by received opinion rather than by technological reality. If there’s a fault in the system it’s that the essential feedback which provides the checks and balances is missing, and oddly while sitting here writing this story, the responsibility for this comes close to home. The solution doesn’t lie in changing the politicians, but in changing how they are treated by journalists.

Technology Meets The West Wing

President Nixon addressing the White House Press Corps in 1971. White House Photo Office Collection, Public domain.

Perhaps a couple of decades ago one of your pieces of required viewing was the hit TV show, The West Wing. It followed the White House staff of the fictional President Jeb Bartlett, and among its lead characters were his press and communications team. Many of the plot lines followed their relationship with the White House Press Corps, the team of accredited journalists whose job is to report on happenings in the upper echelons of power, and to hold the president to account. Where this is being written they are called the Lobby Correspondents after the central lobby of the British Houses of Parliament, and you will no doubt find similar accredited parliamentary journalists wherever there are countries with a free press.

The lobby correspondents are all specialist political journalists at the peak of their game, and what they don’t know about the inner workings of government isn’t worth knowing. Give them a fiscal policy story and they will write a pithy and insightful analysis which will successfully hold the politicians to account in the eyes of their readers, but sadly were you to give them a story with a technology angle the same can not be said. It takes a strong person to admit when they know little about a subject, and since journalists are in most cases paid to pretend to know something about everything, when faced with a complex technological issue they prefer to rely upon received opinion as what they know about it, rather than get to the real issue. The required cog in the machine of holding politicians to account is thus broken in the case of tech stories, and we’re all poorer for it.

If there’s a solution to be found for this problem, it lies in treating political coverage of technological issues as seriously for example as social or a fiscal ones. Despite the attractive perks that no doubt come with lobby accreditation, this sadly doesn’t mean that we as Hackaday writers should be authorised to walk the corridors of power. The Prime Minister doesn’t need to see me bearing down on him with a question about encryption, instead he needs to be standing at his lecturn facing the same type of political correspondents he does at the moment, but whose employers have ensured have at least a grasp of technology issues.

A Bit Of Basic Technology Education Should Be Essential

A quick scan through the ranks of British lobby correspondents reveals education in history, law, literature, English, French, and the Politics, Phlosophy and Economics, or PPE, degree which produces so many politicians. It would probably be inappropriate to demand instead that they all have physics or engineering degrees, but if no candidates with a technical background are available than there should at least be a job requirement for a basic grounding in technology. American universities have courses with titles such as “Physics for Poets“, which teaches scientific method alongside basic physics for non-scientists, and these as well as courses exploring such matters as the workings of the Internet and issues surrounding online privacy should be a career essential.

When we covered that Gatwick drone story a few years ago we ended with pleas for better evaluation and official investigation of drone reports, but we also concluded there was a need for responsible journalism on the matter. In the five years since then that has failed to materialise, and it’s not difficult to spot in that the other side of the same coin when looking at the lobby journalists. With technology issues now more central to our lives than ever before, there has never been more of a need for those who would exercise control over it to be held to account. Sadly we have to predict that even when another five years has passed, we don’t expect to be seeing a more technologically informed press corps fulfilling that need.

Featured Image: “Jim Mattis talks to the press”  Department of Defense, via The Journalist’s Resource







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