ITN vs LM revisited and undergraduate thoughts on the British Library

Ordering the copies of texts and materials held by the British Library (BL) can be an exciting experience for new scholars and I would suppose any scholar who loves the nuts-and-bolts side of their work. Collection times at the humanities reading rooms can feel like Christmas if you have found that one juicy text or pile of texts that you have wanted to get your hands on for some time. Fresh discoveries and the unexpected find can be an exhilerating source of anticipation.

That was the mood which struck as I discovered that the BL held among its collections the back issues of the now-defunct Living Marxism (known after 1997 as LM). This magazine will form one of the cornerstones of my History Undergraduate Dissertation; if we imagine a basic four-column structural plan, the temple of the Dissertation is supported at one side by the work of Deborah Lipstadt and Richard J. Evans and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy and on the other by the writings of David Irving and Living Marxism. Perhaps the analogy is fudged; the Dissertation is, after all, the subject-container for content which involves the discussion of this literature. That would make Irving and LM the sacrificial offerings. Or the Scriptures. Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.

And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication in LM 97 of allegations that ITN journalists had exaggerated, misrepresented or even staged atrocities during the Bosnian War in 1992. The case lit up the world of literary London in the late 1990s and attracted much fanfare, much of the support which LM received coming from writers and journalists who defended the publication on free-speech grounds. By LM 105, the campaign to raise war-fighting funds for the magazine’s defence had adopted this line. The editors and publishers fought the legal battle in the public domain by asserting a resolute commitment to their rights to publish the work of Thomas Deichmann, a German writer and electrical engineer whom Nick Cohen described as a “power-worshipping fruitcake” and a “crank”. The back of LM‘s print editions adopted a fundraising campaign logo in the shape of barbed-wire (central to the original Deichmann article in LM 97 alleging misrepresentation in the ITN report) which had been ‘redacted’ in the censor’s black pen.

This information is now in my possession thanks to the archiving practices of the BL. I am uncertain how they procured their copies of LM, possibly deposited at the time of the magazine’s publication or donated after LM folded in 2000. But my initial fears that the Dissertation would have to rely entirely on second-hand accounts of the magazine’s contents, like ferreting through Eusebius to find quotations of lost ancient works, have been allayed. When I first read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, one of the most widely-read and compelling accounts of the intellectual and moral crisis of the post-1989 political Left in the Western world, I pondered where Cohen had got hold of his sources for the discussion of the LM trial. The magazine which ITN sued was at its peak reaching a readership of around 10,000. Aside from copies tucked away in the attics and personal collections of bibliophiles or the magazine’s former staff, I would not have been surprised if no physical traces of the publication readily existed. I seriously doubted that physical copies would be procurable, not least for an undergraduate student researching for a dissertation.

However, thanks to the BL, I was able to take a look at the records for the entire back catalogue of LM, requesting and collecting their copies of issues LM 97 and LM 105 for my first source reading. They have the dubious honour of being the first pieces of primary sources to enter my notes for the Dissertation, which is still awaiting final formal proposal and approval by the Department of History. Honour is something which really belongs to the BL; preserving the physical copies of the weird and the bizarre for posterity should be the archivist’s bread-and-butter. I felt proud to be handling the copies of this quite ignominious publication knowing the work that must have gone into keeping it safely stored in the BL’s possession. For this reason and much else besides, I sincerely hope that the BL does not cave to the pressure of critics and boot out undergraduate researchers by raising the membership age back up to 21. It would be a terrible blow to my new plans for the Dissertation and I have no doubt would adversely affect the plans of many others – even if, as many older academics plead, “we want out British Library back!”.

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#Bellogate is making history at UCL

From the vantage point of the hour of 20.00-21.00 in Central Standard Time in Illinois, I have been tracking a story that has bypassed most of the UK’s sleeping student population. The student email system at University College London has been compromised after an unknown party gained access to the UCL Provost’s email account along with its mailing privileges; most crucially to send mass emails to ‘all-students@ucl.ac.uk’.

The beginning of the episode around one hour before midnight may have been timed to cause maximum disruption to IT services, with the UCL ISD Service Desk open between the hours of 09.30-17.00 and out-of-hours IT issues served by an automated system called NoRMAN. The Provost has issued no response to the crisis and it is likely that he along with other senior UCL faculty and managerial staff, are asleep. Emails continue to fill student inboxes, some recognised as spam but many occupying the folders normally protected by anti-spam filters.

One UCL student's inbox 20.43GMT, identity protected.

One UCL student’s inbox 02.47GMT on 09/10/14, identity protected.

Over 2,000 emails have been sent since the original ‘bello’ message, which included nothing but the text ‘bello!’ was sent to all UCL students at 22.47GMT on 08/10/14, ostensibly from the account of the UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur. Some students have claimed that the account itself is an imposture and that no authentic provost@ucl.ac.uk address prior to this existed, the closest addresses being michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk and provosts.office@ucl.ac.uk. In any case, the email accounts of approximately 29,000 UCL students and several thousand recent alumni are now in receipt of thousands of spam, joke and absurdist emails by the hour. Additionally, #bellogate became the UK’s top trending topic on Twitter within two hours of the first message being sent.

The breach appears to have placed the UCL student mailing list in the public domain, allowing pranksters to sign up the entire student body to mailing lists for football clubs, political parties, fan clubs and pornographic websites, to name but a few categories most prominent in the discussion of ‘#bellogate’ on Twitter. The Cheese Grater, UCL’s main student magazine, provided a screenshot of an email which linked all UCL students to the One Direction Fan Club:

Students from UCL’s longtime rival King’s College London (KCL) have capitalised on the situation with many prank messages apparently emanating from the KCL campus, including at least one message which signed up the UCL student body to the KCL application system as ‘Flight Lieutenant Bello’:

There is no indication as of yet whether the breach can or will affect mailing lists of other UK universities or whether similar vulnerabilities can be found in other .ac.uk networks. The episode has a precedent in New York University’s November 2012 ‘Replyallcalypse’, in which an email sent erroneously from an older sever by the NYU Bursar exposed the potential to access the entire NYU student mailing list through the ‘reply all’ function.

UCL management and UCL ISD services are yet to comment on the situation as of time of publication. As of 03.15GMT on Thursday 9th October 2014, prank and spam emails continue to flood the inboxes of UCL students. Academic schedules and class plans for UCL remain officially unchanged though communications between staff and students will almost certainly be paralysed as inboxes fill to capacity and new messages are ignored.

The episode may be recorded as one of the definitive student pranks of the 2010s or the exposure of major security vulnerabilities in university IT systems.