Today marks the first anniversary of the publication of the Leveson Inquiry’s report. In this two part series we republish thoughts from Media Standards Trust’s Martin Moore on the events since then in which he argues that the actions of government security agencies pose a much bigger threat to press freedom than self regulation. Below is a continuation from Part 1.
In July, a senior editor and a computer expert at the Guardian destroyed a number of computers with angle grinders. The computers contained files leaked by Edward Snowden on the activities of GCHQ and the NSA. The destruction was directed by the UK intelligence service and was overseen by technicians from GCHQ.
In August, David Miranda was stopped while in transit through Heathrow airport. He was held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000). He was interrogated for nine hours and various personal items taken from him and not returned. Subsequently the authorities said he had been stopped based on the belief that he was engaged in espionage and was promoting a “political or ideological cause”. Miranda was promoting no such cause, unless the authorities define ‘journalism’ as a cause.
In October, the Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons and said that the Snowden files were ‘dangerous’ for Britain: “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security”. He encouraged parliamentary committees to investigate the Guardian’s actions. In a subsequent debate he went further and threatened the Guardian with pre-publication censorship:
“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.
Some MPs went further still. Julian Smith MP wrote to the head of the Metropolitan Police asking him to investigate the Guardian and calling on the police to compel the Guardian to cooperate.
This is what it looks like when a government attacks press freedom. Smashing computers in news organisations. Using existing terrorist laws not meant for journalism. Threatening pre-publication censorship and prosecution.
In the US The Washington Post also has access to some of Snowden’s documents. It has published a series of stories based on those documents. It has written opinion pieces about the NSA and Snowden, including one calling Snowden a patriot. Has the US government attacked The Washington Post? No it has not. Has it sent intelligence officials to destroy its hardware? It has not. Obama has even acknowledged the benefits of the debate triggered by Snowden’s leaks. ‘There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board’ Obama said. Though this does not mean the US government applauds Snowden, far from it.
It is not surprising that the UK government should be angry about the Snowden leaks. Nor is it surprising, though it is depressing, that the government should threaten a newspaper that is publishing stories based on the leaks. Governments do not like their secrets exposed, and it would be strange if they did not react strongly to the possession of 58,000 intelligence documents (the number — we are told — that were leaked to the Guardian).
Much more surprising – and more depressing – has been the reaction of much of the British press. The Sun accused The Guardian of ‘treason’. The Daily Mail called it ‘The paper that helps Britain’s enemies’. The Telegraph has uncritically reported claims by the government and intelligence agencies that it has helped terrorists around the world (‘Terrorists are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’ after Snowden leaks’).
The press attacks on the Guardian are framed as patriotic attempts to promote security. Yet the arguments made and language used do not balance security with freedom to publish. Indeed, these papers urge the government to constrain the Guardian’s freedom, and egg on the most vociferous MPs. The MP Julian Smith even referenced The Sun’s coverage to ask if it was not ‘time for any newspaper that may have crossed the line on national security to come forward and voluntarily work with the Government to mitigate further risks to our citizens?’ (HC Deb, 28 October 2013, c666).
To what end are these newspapers doing this? If the government does investigate and prosecute, or institute new laws to better secure ‘national security’ then we will live in a more secretive country, one in which news organisations have to be careful not to publish material that may, in the Government’s view, damage our safety and security.
If that sounds familiar it is because most non-democratic states in the world have laws that prevent media organisations from publishing information that may threaten the security of the state. In Russia, for example, the law on Combating Extremist Activity (2002) can be used against media organisations whose behaviour is considered dangerous to the State. In Syria for decades the government was able to exert control over the media through the state of emergency law. In Belarus you can serve up to five years in prison for insulting the president.
Laws such as these give broad powers to the state to prevent publication of material they do not like, or that they believe may damage their reputation internationally. Stories, for example, like MPs’ expenses.
We live in a world of leaks. Storing vast quantities of information, removing it from government or corporations, distributing it, and publishing it, has become straightforward. Leaking, to a general or a restricted public, will become more, not less, prevalent. Manning and Snowden are not anomalies, they are forerunners.
When such leaks happen, what would the government and security services prefer? Would they prefer that future Snowdens simply dumped their documents on the web? Or would they prefer that future leakers approached responsible news organisations?
No doubt the intelligence agencies would most like leakers to come to them. Yet technological, political and societal developments are such that it would be foolish to imagine information available to more than a hundred thousand people will remain secret indefinitely. The information Snowden had access to was reportedly available to 850,000 people.
We need models of how to use these leaks responsibly. We need media institutions that have the capabilities, the expertise, and the journalistic ethics, to properly assess and manage these leaks. Attack these institutions and we encourage data dumping. What whistleblower will now choose to go to The Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Mail or The Sun?
The actions of certain UK newspapers will discourage responsible whistleblowing and cow brave journalism that is in the public interest. Worse, it could encourage the government to behave in a way that discourages other news organisations from accepting data in the future. Fearing, for example, that the government will enter their offices and smash their computers.
We cannot rely on the UK government to restrain itself. Nor can we rely on our media to defend media institutions from government interference. This is why Britain needs to have an equivalent of the United States’ First Amendment. Something that Leveson recommended in his report but which, bizarrely, was ignored by most newspapers:
‘In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press’ (Leveson Report, Summary of Recommendations, #33).
Sadly, no newspapers have taken up Leveson’s call for a press freedom law. Instead, quixotically, many have tilted at imaginary windmills of their own making. They have chosen to rail against a voluntary system of independent self-regulation that will not constrain their freedom, rather than defend a newspaper that is being subjected to state interference under existing laws.
The rhetoric of press freedom seems to have disappeared into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, where up means down, left means right, and almost everyone has forgotten what freedom really means.
This article originally appeared in the New Statesman on 25 November 2013. It is re-posted with permission and thanks. The article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.