'We're sleepwalking into disaster'
David Puttnam's House of Lords leaving speech rang an alarm bell for the UK. We spoke to the film-maker and Labour peer about the mother of all mic drops
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“I believe we are sleepwalking towards a form of unaccountable power the like of which, in the modern era, the UK has never previously experienced.” Lord Puttnam
Early on in his career, the acclaimed film producer David Puttnam got the chance to interview Hitler’s close ally and former armaments minister, Albert Speer. Puttnam had put in a successful bid for the film rights to ‘Inside the Third Reich’, the book Speer had written about life inside Nazi Germany.
The hours he spent in conversation with Speer were to prove formative for the young film-maker. He learned how the ambitious architect had gradually lost his moral compass: “It was hugely powerful and I started to realise we're all vulnerable,” says Lord Puttnam. “People are ambitious, you can get sucked into situations, you can be seduced into being someone that you didn't want to be. And that became a kind of leitmotif for my career.”
Not only did this theme – of our inherent vulnerability – reappear in his many films, but it also informed his political career. And it was at the heart of the powerful speech he gave on 15th October, to announce his retirement from the House of Lords after 24 years as a Labour peer.
In the Shirley Williams Lecture, Lord Puttnam sent out a heartfelt plea to the UK, to “wake up” or risk sleepwalking into “self-inflicted disaster”. He pointed to the raft of legislation currently sailing through parliament – a series of bills which have the potential to undermine the judiciary, the Electoral Commission, the media and our right to protest.
“And with every passing month there are more – each of them setting out to chip away at and undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that’s trampling on long held rights and conventions, with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power.”
It’s strong stuff, but the moment which has caused the biggest stir is when he draws a parallel between the “fascist playbook” of the Third Reich and some of the techniques and tropes being used by the British government today.
We were delighted to speak to Lord Puttnam about what he sees as the very real dangers facing our democracy. We’ll share the full interview soon but this short film includes some highlights, including an explanation of why he chose to draw the controversial comparison between the UK and 1930s Germany:
Lord Puttnam told us that he had been growing increasingly disillusioned with the quality of debate in parliament for some time, but that the final straw for him was the government’s “lamentable” response to the House of Lords select committee report on how digital technology is impacting democracy. He was chair of the committee which looked at the many ways in which disinformation can damage individuals and the state. The report, which Puttnam describes as the “best piece of work I’ve ever done in my life”, came up with more than 40 recommendations to manage the “deeply troubling” behaviours of social media companies, but he claims he was “gutted” by the government’s failure to act on them. Six months after the report was published, the 6 January assault on Capitol Hill happened, an event that was incited by far right groups on social media.
Lord Puttnam has been a long-standing defender of our digital rights, our data and our democracy. So when he tells us the UK is in a “very bad place” and that it’s time to “wake up”, it’s probably time we started listening.
The real cost of the Covid contracts scandal
A damning new report from the public accounts committee has found that the Test and Trace system failed to achieve its main objective of cutting infection levels, despite being handed an “eye-watering” £37 billion of tax payers’ money.
We’ve been investigating the unfolding scandal around Covid contracts for months now. Earlier this year the Citizens and Byline Times reported that more than £3 billion had gone to line the pockets of prominent donors and associates of the Tory party.
We recently followed this up with a fresh look at some of the top names involved. The investigation revealed a staggering £121.7 million increase in profits for 12 firms linked to the Conservative Party, with some among their number recording profits of over 9000%
We also reported on private testing company Dante Labs seemingly using lax data protection laws to advertise genomic sequencing to customers, as well as covering the news of Dante-owned Immensa Health Clinic sending out 43,000 false-negative Covid test results.
The Wolverhampton lab was awarded a £119m government contract in September 2020, just four months after it was incorporated, and despite having a limited track record in diagnostics.
South-west England, which was served by the Immensa Health Clinic, now has the highest case rate of any region, with 760 cases per 100,000 people. As Dr Kit Yates, Independent SAGE member and mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, pointed out in the Guardian this week, it’s “inconceivable that telling 43,000 people they were negative when in fact they were positive, making them believe they could safely go in to schools and workplaces where they may have infected others, did not have an impact the prevalence of Covid in the south-west.”
Much has been written about the financial cost of the Covid contract scandal – the billions of pounds of public money wasted on products and services that were not fit for purpose, the huge profits made by private companies, many of which had previously donated to the Tory party – but the Immensa scandal illustrates the human cost. Thousands of people infected, needlessly, some of whom will get sick and die.
Instead of playing down the link between the Immensa lab failure and soaring cases in parts of the country, the government should be announcing an immediate and transparent investigation.