John Graham-Cumming changelog.com/posts

How I convinced my government to apologise to Alan Turing

This is a fancified excerpt of John Graham-Cumming’s amazing story from Go Time #113. To get the full experience you should listen while you read.

🎧  Click here to play the episode starting where John's story begins  🎧


I had lived abroad for a long time, as I am now doing again. But in 2009 I came back to the U.K, and I think I saw a tweet from probably Stephen Fry saying “It would have been Alan Turing’s 90-something birthday today, if he hadn’t killed himself.”

And I knew the story of Turing because first of all I’m a computer scientist, and I’m interested in computer security… So you end up – Turing pops up all over the place.

Alan Turing portrait

And I knew, of course, that he had killed himself, and I knew a lot about the history of the code-breaking stuff, and artificial intelligence stuff… And I was at home, and I just got really annoyed about it. I honestly thought to myself,

You know, the problem here is that we don’t talk about Alan Turing in general, because it’s a kind of shameful thing which is sort of like “Well, he killed himself because he was gay, and because we prosecuted him and we treated him very badly…” So in a very typically British way we sort of forgot to talk about him.

I thought…

Well, if we could get this out once and for all, we could all talk about it, and admit to ourselves it was a bad thing. Then we could celebrate what he did.

So I wrote a blog post on my blog saying, “This is terrible. Britain should apologize”, and somebody in the comments said, “You know, you could start a petition on the number ten website.”

So I immediately went there and created this petition.

Now, I had to wait about a month for it to be approved, and I honestly thought maybe 500 people would sign it. You know, “Who cares about this intersection of gay rights and computer science?” and I was like, “There’s probably 500 people in the world who care about this…” Well, in Britain anyway, because it’s only open to residents.

So sure enough, 500 people did sign quite quickly, and I thought…

Well, I’m gonna give it a go. I’m gonna try and get the press to talk about it.

…and I just worked on it by myself, just trying to get people to write about it. Eventually, The Manchester Guardian wrote about it. Then The Independent, and so on, and it kind of snowballed a little bit.

One of the first famous people who signed it was Richard Dawkins. The cool thing about Richard Dawkins signing it was that I could then go back to the press and say “I know I told you about this before, but now Richard Dawkins has signed it, so what you should write is “Richard Dawkins has signed this.”

So I did that, and eventually I wrote this cool postscript – at the time, the signature names were public, and my father was actually reading them every day and saying…

I think this is so-and-so (famous person).

Eventually, I automated my father.

So what I did was I wrote this ugly Perl script that took the names and then searched on Wikipedia to see if that person had a Wikipedia page, and if on that Wikipedia page it said something like, “So-and-so is a British/Scottish/English/Welsh blah-blah-blah…”, so trying to see if they were a notable person from the U.K. And if they were, then it would email me and then I could get a hold of them and ask them…

I did that with Ian McEwan, the writer; his name was on there, and I found his email address. I emailed him and said, “Are you the person who signed this?” He’s like, “Yes.” And then I was like, “Can I tell the press?” “Yes.”

I did stuff like that, and it grew and grew and grew.

Then just before the bank holiday at the end of August I emailed somebody I had met from the BBC, a journalist called Zoe Kleinman. I’d met her because I’d written this book before, and she’s written a little bit about my book… And I sent her this really cheeky email which said

This is a really important story. You should write about this.

So I was telling the BBC, “Get on with it.” And she very kindly wrote back and said…

You know what - I’m gonna write something. I’m going away for the bank holiday weekend; I’m gonna submit it to the editor. I have no idea if it’s gonna get published.

So she did, and I never saw it.

I went to sleep on the Sunday night, bank holiday Monday, I wake up… I have a graph of the number of signatures, and there’s almost this vertical line in the number of signatures, because it’s suddenly thousands and thousands of people signing.

Turing Petition Chart

Because of course, BBC has this incredible authority. If the BBC says this is something, people read it. It gets copied around the world. After that I was on the TV and all over the place talking about it. At that point, 30,000 people signed it.

And then after that I managed to get the flu, and I was sick as a dog…

And I was lying in bed and I thought, “I’ve gotta look at my email. Maybe something’s going on at work.” I checked my personal email, and there’s this email from this woman (I had no idea who she was) who says…

Can you call number 10 Downing Street? Here’s the phone number.

I googled the phone number and sure enough, it’s the switchboard of number 10 Downing Street.

10 Downing Street

So imagine me - I’m lying in bed, groggy as anything, so I call this number and I’m like, “Okay, this is who I am”, and immediately I get put through to this woman, and she’s like…

The apology is going out tonight. We’ve already placed it in the Daily Telegraph.” (That’s where it was gonna be published.) “I just need to read it to you and I need you to approve it.

So she reads it to me over the phone, and I thought it was great… It’s a text that everyone can read. And then she goes…

Gordon wants a word.

(now, Gordon was Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister.)

I was like…

Okay…

She said…

He’ll call you.

So I hang up and I’m sort of sitting there… I’m now awake, and I’m thinking, “My goodness, is this really gonna happen?”

And my mobile phone rings, and it’s Gordon Brown. There’s no ceremony; nobody calls up and says, “It’s the Prime Minister. Are you ready for it? Suddenly, it’s like…

Hello, John. It’s Gordon…

And you can imagine, Gordon Brown is not a very chatty person, if you recall, and I had flu… So the two of us were on the phone and not really wanting to talk to each other very much…

The first thing he said to me – and I’m not gonna forget this – he said:

Hello, John. It’s Gordon. I think you know why I’m calling…

And I thought…

Bloody hell I’m glad I know why you’re calling! I definitely paid all my taxes and I definitely have never had a parking ticket…

And then we had this very stilted conversation, because I felt terrible, and he’s quite a serious man… And that was it! There you go. So that’s my connection to Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park

After that, obviously, Turing got more recognition, and we were able to celebrate him, and I think it helped give Bletchley a leg up.


The conversation doesn’t end there. Listen to the rest to hear whether or not John supported the pardon which followed the apology, and why. The entire episode is worth your time. You can play it from the start right here 👇

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Discussion

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2020-02-10T14:11:17Z ago

The link at the top goes to Go Time #114 (the Kelsey Hightower episode), rather than episode #113, which is the right one

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