Guest blogger John Graham-Cumming initiated and led the successful petition drive to procure an apology to Alan Turing from the UK government. John is the author of The Geek Atlas, CTO of a stealth-mode start-up, and a longtime programmer who has a doctorate in computer security. If you’re in London this Saturday, September 19, come by the launch party for his book at the Brunel Museum.
There's a long tradition in the UK of direct democracy, with citizens
petitioning the Prime Minister themselves. Typically, thousands of
signatures are collected on paper and then delivered directly to the
Prime Minister's home at No. 10
Downing Street in London. The petitioners arrive at No. 10 and
hand the signatures through the open front door.
But the British government has made great strides to bring many
aspects of government relations into the electronic age. Through the
non-profit MySociety.org the
government has created web sites (all with open-source code) for
citizens to interact with local and central government offices.
I used the petitions web site, a collection of Web 2.0 technologies,
and a bit of media savvy to successfully petition the government to
apologize for the prosecution of the seminal computer scientist Alan Turing.
And I did most of it from the top of a red London double-decker bus
using an iPhone.
Alan Turing did three amazing things in his working life: he laid the
foundations of computer science by thinking up a theoretical computer
called the Turing
Machine, he worked through the Second World War breaking Nazi
German codes, and after the war he worked on artificial intelligence
and defined the Turing Test. His
life was cut short at 41 when he had begun to work on morphogenesis in
Alan Turing was also gay and he was prosecuted for “gross indecency” (essentially being gay) in 1952. To avoid prison he agreed to be injected with female hormones as a sort of ‘cure’ for homosexuality. Two years after his prosecution he was dead: he killed himself by eating an apple dipped in potassium cyanide.
June 23, 2009 was the anniversary of Alan Turing's birth (he would
have been 97) and I posted a blog entry entitled Alan
Turing deserves an apology from the British Government. It
generated a few comments and I posted a follow-up entry the next day
with an example of how
I would apologize for my government's actions in 1952.
That night I created a petition on the
No. 10 Downing Street web site asking for a government apology for the
treatment of Alan Turing.
On August 4, 2009 the petition was approved and made public. I
mentioned it on my blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, and posted it to Y
Combinator's Hacker News. At the time I thought I'd have a hard time
getting 500 people to sign. Little did I know the petition would
gather over 30,000 signatures in 37 days and elicit an incredible
apology from the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown preceded by a
personal call to my mobile phone.
This chart shows the number of signatures per day between August 4,
2009 and September 10, 2009. (click for larger view)
The same day the story appeared
on Reddit. Signatures started to come in slowly.
The next day the petition was picked up by the first journalist to
write about it: Jessica Geen of Pink News wrote an online only story
which made the story jump over from being covered just by computer
scientists and into the LGBT community. The LGBT press would turn out
to be a strong ally reporting on the growing petition throughout the
Four days later, on August 9, 2009 the petition passed
500 signatures. This was the magic level needed to get a government
response. I was still pretty skeptical of getting an apology but I
certainly wasn't going to be satisfied by 500 names and kept promoting
it on Twitter, my blog, and elsewhere.
The first really big break came on August 16, 2009 when the Manchester
Evening News wrote
about the petition. Manchester was where Alan Turing died and where
he had worked before his death. There's a great deal of local pride
in Manchester's adopted local boy Alan Turing. The following night I
was a guest on
BBC Radio Manchester's gay hour.
With one celebrity name and national press I began to think the
petition might really get noticed. The following night Richard
Dawkins and I appeared
on Channel 4 News to talk about the petition (Dawkins was filmed
looking regal in his garden; I was filmed in classic programmer
clothing: bad shoes, dirty shorts and a crumpled shirt). The same day
on the BBC World Service and PRI's The World.
Sitting on the bus each morning I would catch up on email regarding
the petition and scan the list of signatures looking for celebrities
who I would then try to contact through their agents. I also plotted
how to get the story in the press. Anyone who wrote about the story
got added to my Turing/Media email list and each morning I would
prepare an update on the story with the number of signatures, who had
signed and any other events, and send it out.
Over the next week many things happened: I appeared on BBC
Radio Ulster, I wrote a letter
to Her Majesty The Queen asking her to consider a posthumous
knighthood for Alan Turing, the veteran human-rights campaigner Peter
Tatchell signed the petition and I received an email from the
writer Ian McEwan to say that he had signed.
I knew it was time to get the story out as widely as possible and so I
emailed two BBC journalists that I knew to say that I thought the
petition was an important story and that they needed to cover it.
Do you think you’d be interested in covering the Alan Turing Petition?
It’s now got backing from Richard Dawkins and has been covered by BBC
Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Northern Ireland, The World Service,
Channel 4 News, The Independent, …
for good background.
There are now 4,800 signatories.
On August 31, 2009 BBC News online covered
the story with a long article about the petition, and its celebrity
backers. The night before I had gone to bed feeling happy that there
were 5,000 signatures on my petition; I woke up to 16,000, by the next
morning there were 20,000. That day I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland.
The single enormous leap in signatures in the chart above happened
because of the BBC News online story.
The same day I received two extraordinary emails. Unbeknownst to
anyone I had written to MI5 asking them to release documents about
Alan Turing's death in an effort to clear up any doubt about whether
his death could have been murder. They denied
The second email
came from a member of Alan Turing's surviving family. The BBC report
had erroneously said that he had no family. But that was incorrect:
Turing's three nieces remembered him well, and he had a surviving
On the bus home I heard directly that Alan Turing's nieces had many
memories of their Uncle Alan. They even still had his teddy bear. I
hung up and sat at the back of the bus and cried quietly. I had
always felt that Alan Turing's treatment was appalling, but to hear
the family speak of the man was too much. I was convinced that I had
to see my campaign, which had started on an impulse, to its
Two days later I raced up to Bletchley Park to film the definitive
report on the campaign with BBC Newsnight's science editor Susan
Watts. The report ran that night and the same day international
coverage of the campaign exploded with stories in the major press
all over the world. The Newsnight story featured an interview with
Alan Turing's nieces and nephew describing the terrible treatment he
had endured and giving their blessing to the petition.
On September 7, 2009 I did a final piece of radio, appearing on BBC
Radio Ulster. The same day I began to feel unwell with what would
turn out to be a nasty bout of flu.
Lying in bed on September 10, 2009 I had to check my email because of
a work commitment the following day. In my Inbox was the following
John – I wonder if you could call me as a matter of urgency, regarding
your petition. Very many thanks!
10 Downing St, SW1A 2AA
Tel: 020x xxxx xxxx
Of course, I called back! I was told that the apology was coming that
night and that “Gordon would like a word with you”. At 19:44 that
evening my mobile phone rang and I was handed the Prime Minister.
“Hello John. It's Gordon Brown. I think you know why I'm calling you.”
Update The nice folks at No. 10 Downing Street and the petitions team released a spreadsheet of the actual day-by-day signatures for the petition period that gives an even clearer picture of the effect of different news outlets (the chart above came from my hand written, sporadic notes). (click for larger view)