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Innovation

Why Turing matters

I've just written one of my most satisfying stories for years. It wasn't much cop in journalistic terms: rattled off in a few minutes, it was based on a story in another publication and bolstered with a quote from yet another.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor on

I've just written one of my most satisfying stories for years. It wasn't much cop in journalistic terms: rattled off in a few minutes, it was based on a story in another publication and bolstered with a quote from yet another. No phone calls, no fact checking, no independent views. Yet I don't remember being quite so moved by the ordinary process of assembling the sentences for a very long time.

The story, of course, is that Alan Turing has received an official posthumous apology from Gordon Brown. The crime of what happened to Turing cannot be righted by this or any other act, but the symbolism goes a long way to turning a single — if very deep — tragedy into something that can do a great deal of good for a long time.

It is tremendous that as a result of this, more people will know of and perhaps come to understand the importance of intellect in the service of a greater good. The story of Bletchley Park is still new and somewhat raw, but it shows the resilience and capabilities of a free society dedicated to its cause, in the face of a ferocious enemy utterly devoted to injustice and the ascendency of self-serving power.

That this story should be so intimately coupled to the subsequent injustice and abuse of power perpetrated on Turing is both ironic and important. As we approach 2010, it can be hard to imagine a society where homosexuality is criminalised and, by common consent, rightly so — but it takes very little effort to see that such ideas are still widely held, even celebrated, and by groups who claim to support the very principles of freedom, tolerance and justice that Turing helped to defend.

By officially recognising the injustice, the UK government has said what cannot be said enough: that homophobia is a terrible force that hurts those who hold it — and destroys those against whom it is aimed. We will never be free of prejudice, but we can choose not to follow it, to recognise it for what it is and to fight it. We may not have the genius of Turing to help us or the dangers of wartime to sharpen our resolve, yet we have his example and his fate to remind us why such things are utterly necessary.

With luck, the story of Turing will become part of the body of national myth which celebrates the best of our culture, warns against the worst, and so helps us decide how to behave towards ourselves and others. It's hard to think what could have more potential or lasting importance.

You don't often get to report on that.

A good day.

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