At Prime Minister’s questions on 16 October 2013, the former Conservative Defence Secretary Liam Fox asked David Cameron:
May we have a full and transparent assessment of whether the Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is bizarre that from some the hacking of a celebrity phone demands a prosecution, whereas leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable is seen as opening a debate?
As we shall see, this was by no means the first time that the phone-hacking hare had been set running during the Snowden affair, but what is interesting here is that Cameron’s reply (a) shows that the Guardian had been put in a Catch- 22 situation by agreeing to destroy the computers; and (b) appears to encourage one or more select committees to investigate whether the Guardian had broken the law:
I commend my right hon. Friend for raising the issue. I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways the Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files. It knows that what it is dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think that it is up to Select Committees in the House to examine the issue if they wish to do so, and to make further recommendations.
In a debate in Parliament on 22 October 2o13, Julian Smith, Conservative MP for Skipton and Rippon, launched a lengthy, innuendo-laden and inaccuracy-strewn attack on the Guardian. According to Smith, the subject of the debate was ‘to highlight where the Guardian has crossed the line between responsible journalism and seriously risking our national security and the lives of those who seek to protect us’. Such charges are highly contentious, but they informed the entirety of Smith’s speech, at the end of which he stated that:
The Terrorism Act is clear about the illegality of communicating information about our intelligence staff and, specifically, GCHQ. The Official Secrets Act is equally clear about the illegality of communicating classified information that the recipient knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be to the detriment of national security. Last week, I wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to ask him to investigate whether the Guardian has breached those two Acts. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to ensure that the police expedite their investigation.
In response, James Brokenshire, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, agreed that the Guardian’s reporting of the Snowden material had done ‘huge damage to national security’ and echoed Cameron in claiming that ‘in many ways, the Guardian admitted that when it agreed to destroy files when asked to by the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood’. However, he also added that ‘it is obviously not for Ministers to direct the police to arrest or investigate anyone … It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a crime has been committed and what action to take’. They cannot have been left in much doubt, however, by this and numerous other political interventions, about what actions the government would distinctly prefer them to take.
Smith cropped up again on 28 October when he asked Cameron: ‘Following this morning’s revelations in the Sun [sic] on the impact of the Snowden leaks, is it 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?’ Cameron’s response was, to all intents and purposes, to suggest that if the Guardian didn’t censor itself, the government would take on the task:
We have a free press and it is very important that the press feels it is not pre-censored in what it writes. The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be. That is why the Guardian destroyed some of the information on disks it had, although it has now printed further damaging material. I do not want to have to use injunctions, D notices or other, tougher measures; it is much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. However, if they do not demonstrate some social responsibility, it will be very difficult for the Government to stand back and not to act.
Finally, one cannot ignore the remarkable spectacle of Rusbridger being hauled before the Home Affairs select committee as part of its enquiry into counter-terrorism. As Roy Greenslade pointed out on 3 December2013
What was remarkable is that the whole thing happened at all. With the British press having obtained the right to its freedom from political control in the 17th century, here was parliament calling a newspaper to account for exercising that freedom. Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs? What makes them think they have the right to do so? Do they act for the people or against them?
That said, the questioning of Rusbridger by Paul Flynn and the Labour MP for Walsall North, David Winnick, did give Rusbridger an excellent opportunity to make his case. In particular he repeatedly pointed out that, contrary to the impression given by much of the press, the Guardian had not identified anyone named in the NSA files. Furthermore, he also revealed that the DA-notice committee had not raised any concerns about the published material. This is particularly important in the light of Cameron’s ill-informed remark about D notices quoted above.
DA-Notices are issued by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) which operates a voluntary code between the media and UK Government departments which have responsibilities for national security. According to the DPBAC, the Committee and its Notices are ‘a means of providing advice and guidance to the media about defence and counter-terrorist information the publication of which would be damaging to national security. The system is voluntary, it has no legal authority and the final responsibility for deciding whether or not to publish rests solely with the editor or publisher concerned’.
On 7 November the Committee met and discussed, among other matters, the Snowden affair. The minutes of this part of the meeting at worth quoting at some length, not least as they appear to have received no media coverage at all:
Although views were diverse it was agreed that 99% of the media remained committed to the DA Notice System. It was, however, important to distinguish between embarrassment and genuine concerns for national security. The Vice-Chairman [Air Vice-Marshal Vallance] felt that much of the material published by the Guardian fell into the former category. They also understood that the Guardian’s initial unwillingness to engage was due to a misunderstanding of the DA Notice Code and in particular its commitment to confidentiality. The Editor feared that if he shared details of his story with the secretariat it might potentially attract an injunction . Education was required on both sides; the PM’s remarks on 28 October being an example of misunderstanding on the Government side of how the system operated. He recommended an approach to No 10 offering a briefing on the DA Notice System. The Vice-Chairman went on to say that this lack of understanding seemed to highlight a greater malaise on the official side where there was worrying evidence of disengagement. For example, the DPBAC Chairman [Jon Thompson, Permanent Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence] had not attended the last two meetings, no Cabinet Office representative was present and the Home Office and FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] principals had both sent representatives. By contrast, the Media Side were well represented and its members made significant efforts to attend.
‘Statutory Control’ of the Press
During this period, British newspapers had loudly and incessantly complained, as indeed they had done from the start of the announcement of the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011, about the danger of, as they saw it, ‘statutory control’ of the press. They might, therefore, have been expected to spring swiftly and vociferously to the Guardian’s defence. Instead, the Mail, Sun and Telegraph, along with the weekly Spectator, did their absolute utmost to undermine the paper and to bolster the government’s case. And even those titles which did not join the attack considerably underplayed both the significance of Snowden’s revelations and the impropriety of the government’s pressure on the Guardian.
It is possible to distinguish a number of separate themes in the press campaign against the Guardian and on behalf of the government, which I will deal with in Part 2.
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media in the School of Arts at Brunel University, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. His most recent book is the edited collection The Media and Public Shaming (I.B. Tauris, 2013).
This is the first part of an edited extract of a paper which appeared in Ethical Space, Vol.11, Nos. 1-2, 2014, and is reproduced with permission and thanks