Aug 20 2013

Who is winning the information war: security services or the new disruptive journalists?

Greenwald and Miranda

Greenwald and Miranda

Like a lot of people I objected to the treatment of David Miranda at the hands of the UK security officials and I was worried by the pressure put on The Guardian, as related by editor Alan Rusbridger. But I am not so sure about the Orwellian conspiracy/victim framing of the narrative by some on the open Internet side of things.

I don’t disagree with this excellent piece by Nick Cohen, for example, that concludes:

The Miranda affair is proof, if further proof is needed, that we are now stuck in the post-Leveson world where not only journalists but their partners can be detained and questioned for hours on end. Where police officers feel no need to explain themselves to the public, in whose name they work, and whose taxes pay their salaries.

But I think that might underestimate the power the journalists now have. Likewise, I think Simon Jenkins may be over-egging it to suggest the UK is now as bad as Putin’s Russia. Is it possible to see the Miranda incident as a sign of success for the new disruptive journalism? 

The narrative of increasing totalitarian persecution has a few flaws. Firstly, I think it was entirely reasonable for security forces to question someone linked to security breaches. I just think that doing it under terror laws was wrong, especially as Miranda is part of a journalism team.

I am still a little unsure of the Greenwald/Guardian narrative. I am puzzled by why the team chose to fly Miranda through London at all. I am also unclear as to why the Guardian let security officials smash up their hard-drives without making them go down a legal path.* [Someone with more profound doubts about the Guardian and Greenwald is former Tory MP Louise Mensch - good piece by her here]

But those are details. Overall, it’s clear that US and UK officials, long-tortured by WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, are now losing patience with whistle-blowers and their ‘accomplices’ in the news media. Whatever the absolute truth of the NSA/PRISM revelations it is clear that the security service are pushing the boundaries on what they can do with new technologies to increase their information and surveillance. They are also seeking to reduce scrutiny by journalists, as they told Rusbridger:

“You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

That in itself may be worrying but it’s hardly surprising. That is what they are there for. We would all be very cross if there was an act of terror missed because of inadequate data collection by spooks or if a press leak endangered our safety. But it’s also journalism’s job to hold these people to account and let the public know the scope of what they are up to. That’s what worries me about the Miranda incident.

But before we all sink into a slough of digital dystopian despair it might be worth considering this: is this a sign of the strength, not weakness, of revelatory journalism in the digital age?

My book on WikiLeaks and news in the networked era didn’t judge it’s overall impact on politics. It’s clear that the major revelations on Iraq, Afghanistan and the diplomatic cables had local effects and a more general influence on public opinion, but they didn’t change the world. That’s probably a good thing. I don’t want Julian Assange to have more power than elected governments. But I do argue in that book that these new forms of ‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority. It must be, that’s why they reacted like they did at Heathrow this week.

Political journalism has always been and always will be a struggle between those who have power and those who seek to expose its workings. I don’t know how you measure who’s winning at the moment but certainly the rules of engagement are changing because of new technologies and globalisation.


Alan Rusbridger gave an interesting interview to the BBC’s World At One where he tried to clear up some detail. He seemed to say that they smashed the hard drives rather than face a lengthy and expensive legal battle that would have distracted from the process of publication.

Here is lefty lawyer David Green’s take on the legal aspects

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10 Responses to Who is winning the information war: security services or the new disruptive journalists?

  1. Pingback: The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost? | Infoism

  2. Pingback: ‘I am still a little unsure of the Greenwald/Guardian narrative’

  3. Pingback: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.” « Quotulatiousness

  4. Christiaan says:

    Alan Rusbridger explains here why he didn’t take it to court:

  5. Pingback: Soupy One | David Miranda, Picking Through The Issue

  6. Pingback: White House, Downing Street Had Advance Knowledge Of Miranda Detention

  7. richard says:

    presumably the Guardian have back ups of the drives or secure copies at another extra- judicial location….would seem foolish for them not to have done this, so I think we can safely assume that the breaking of said drives was a token gesture

  8. Kman says:

    Glen Greenwald 1he Guardian stated…
    “If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded.”
    Meanwhile Greenwald is travelling through foreign countries with a briefcase that could contain hundreds of thousands of U.S. military secrets that are essential for our the defence of the west.
    Yeah let’s reveal all the secret documents of the United States-amazingly no one is releasing secret documents of China and Russia.

    Robert Kagan once wrote…
    U.S. military power has been in building and sustaining the present liberal international order. That order has rested significantly on the U.S. ability to provide security in parts of the world, such as Europe and Asia that had known endless cycles of warfare before the arrival of the United States. The world’s free-trade, free-market economy has depended on America’s ability to keep trade routes open, even during times of conflict.”…

    My question to both Greenwald and Assange is
    Because of rogue states and terrorists the world has never been as dangerous as it is today―Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism is real, it is serious, it is growing, and it constitutes one of the greatest threats to our national security and indeed, to global security. The one nation which has the most capability to thwart any attacks is the United States – So why do you undermine and attack the very country that provided with blood and treasure, the security which has allowed you the freedoms and made possible to do what you do, and which can only give comfort and information that can only harm America and her allies, and puts us all at risk?

  9. Pingback: Quote of the Week – 21/08/13 | Media Digest

  10. Pingback: How the press reacted to Guardian editor’s revelation about security pressure | b1c1_6

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