News & Current Affairs
10 August 2014
Sir Humphrey Appleby on 'META' data
George Brandis, is introducing even more draconian data laws to spy on citizens. He made a complete fool of himself on national TV trying to explain metadata.
The situation was so desperate that Abbott had to send out the one adult in his Cabinet, leadership rival Malcolm Turnbull, to calm the horses and explain what metadata was and what Brandis’s new security laws were actually about.
I thought Sir Humphrey Appleby did a pretty good job explaining meta to the world, at least compared to Brandis.
‘That’s not true,’ I replied, before Humphrey could screw things up further. I explained that the chemical in Seveso was dioxin, whereas this is metadioxin.
‘But,’ she asserted, ‘that must be virtually the same thing.’
I assured her that it was merely a similar name.
‘But,’ she insisted, ‘it’s the same name, with “meta” stuck on the front.’
‘Ah yes,’ I agreed, ‘but that makes all the difference.’
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘What does meta mean?’
Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea. So I was forced to ask Humphrey.
‘Simple, Minister,’ he explained. ‘It means “with” or “after”, or sometimes “beyond” – it’s from the Greek, you know.’
Then he went on to explain that metadioxin means ‘with’ or ‘after’ dioxin, depending on whether it’s with the accusative or the genitive: with the accusative it’s ‘beyond’ or ‘after’, with the genitive it’s ‘with’ – as in Latin, where the ablative is used for words needing a sense of with to precede them.
Bernard added – speaking for the first time in the whole meeting – that of course there is no ablative in Greek, as I would doubtless recall.
I told him I recalled no such thing, and later today he wrote me a little memo, explaining all the above Greek and Latin grammar.
However, I hoped these explanations would satisfy Joan Littler. And that, like me, she would be unwilling to reveal the limits of her education. No such luck.
‘I still don’t understand,’ she said disarmingly.
Humphrey tried snobbery. ‘Oh dear,’ he sighed, ‘I should have thought that was perfectly clear.’ It never works.
Her eyes flashed. ‘What I insist on knowing,’ she stated, ‘is what is the actual difference between dioxin and metadioxin.’
I didn’t know, of course. Humphrey sailed into the rescue. ‘It’s very simple,’ he replied grandly. ‘Metadioxin is an inert compound of dioxin.’
I hoped that that would be that. But no.
She looked at me for help. I, of course, was unable to give her any. So I looked at Humphrey.
Um, Humphrey,’ I said, bluffing madly, ‘I think I follow that but, er, could you, er, just explain that a little more clearly?’
He stared at me, coldly. ‘In what sense, Minister?’
I didn’t know where to start. I was going to have to think of the right question again. But Joan said: ‘What does inert mean?’
Sir Humphrey stared at her, silently. And in that glorious moment I suddenly realised that he had no idea what he was talking about either.
‘Well,’ he said eventually, ‘inert means that . . . it’s not . . . ert.’
We all stared at each other in silence.
‘Ah,’ said Joan Littler.
‘Ah,’ I said.
‘Wouldn’t ‘ert a fly,’ muttered Bernard. At least, I think that’s what he said, but when I asked him to repeat it he refused and fell silent.