Take, for example, an article in the Mail, 8 October, headed ‘The Guardian Has Produced a “Handbook” that Will Help Fanatics Strike at Will’, followed by the straps ‘Security officials say there was no public interest in Guardian’s expose’, and ‘They also claim terrorists now know where and where not to communicate’.
The slant of the article is thus clearly apparent before one even reads it, and the piece itself is dependent entirely upon anonymous ‘security officials’ and ‘Whitehall insiders’ who claim variously that ‘the publication of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden is considered to have done more damage to the security services than any other event in history’, that
‘there was no public interest in publishing top-secret information which details the precise methods used by agents to track terrorist plots’, that ‘fanatics were signposted to the places they should avoid when communicating’, and that ‘the Guardian had helped to produce a “handbook” for terrorists’.
Every one of these anonymous quotes is highly contentious, yet there is not the slightest attempt to quote opposing or even merely sceptical viewpoints.
The same day’s paper also carried a report of a speech by the head of MI5 Andrew Parker. Again, the headline and the accompanying straps give the clearest possible indication of the line taken by the article: ‘Guardian has Handed a “Gift” to Terrorists, Warns MI5 Chief: Left-wing Paper’s Leaks Caused “Greatest Damage to Western Security in History” Say Whitehall Insiders’; ‘MI5 chief Andrew Parker called paper’s expose a “guide book” for terrorists’; ‘He said the coverage is a gift to “thousands” of UK-based extremists’; and ‘Secret techniques of GCHQ laid bare by Guardian’.
Much of the rest of the article consists of generous quotes from Parker, and although there is a short quote from a Guardian spokesman, not only is there no acknowledgement that Parker never once mentioned the Guardian by name but precisely the opposite impression is given – repeatedly and emphatically. The Telegraph, 9 October, published the speech in full.
It should be abundantly clear by now that for the Sun and the Mail it is absolutely axiomatic that Snowden’s revelations via the Guardian have irreparably damaged national security. Sceptical or dissenting sources are very rarely quoted, and pronouncements by government ministers and ‘security chiefs’ (as they are habitually called) are taken entirely at face value. For these papers, national security is whatever these people say it is, an attitude epitomised by Stephen Glover’s remark that Rusbridger is ‘a newspaperman, not a security expert. The high-handedness is amazing. Mr Rusbridger thinks he can determine which stories might harm national security — and which will not. According to the experts, he is hopelessly unqualified to make such a judgment’.
From such a perspective, it is thus perfectly acceptable for newspapers to give large amounts of uncontested space to those calling for the prosecution of journalists. For example, Louise Mensch who, in the Sun, 13 October, opines in an unctuous piece headed ‘May Must Prosecute Guardian’ that ‘if Theresa [sic] doesn’t prosecute the Guardian, she is giving a green light to any blogger or reporter to give our agents’ names to anybody they like. She has been a true Iron Lady so far. She mustn’t stop now’. Or Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, who gave a speech, reported in the Telegraph, 24 October, under the headline ‘Publishing Edward Snowden Security Secrets a “Criminal” Act, Says Former Terrorism Watchdog’, in which he asked, rhetorically: ‘Is it anything other than criminal to seek to publish such secrets?’ and stated that ‘it is worth investigating whether there were any conspiracies to breach the Official Secrets Act’.
Or Liam Fox, given a Telegraph column of his own on 9 November in which to ask: ‘Does the Guardian newspaper’s publication of stolen secrets amount to irresponsible and potentially criminal behaviour?’, a question which the article answers with a resounding and emphatic ‘yes’. In it he reveals that ‘I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the issue’ and a further article in the same day’s paper explains that his letter to the DPP states:
‘In recent days there have been further accusations that the Guardian passed the names of GCHQ agents to foreign journalists and bloggers. Would such activities, if true, constitute an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000 or other related legislation, particularly the passing of details of identified security personnel?’ He also asks: ‘Under what conditions and by what procedures would a decision be taken to prosecute any individuals responsible for such activities and how would such a process be initiated?’
In any other democratic country, such threats to journalists would immediately be the subject of stories and indignant comment in most newspapers, but in Britain the threats are made in and, effectively, by, newspapers themselves. There is, unfortunately, absolutely nothing new about this – the majority of Britain’s national press has a long and deeply dishonourable history when it comes to attacking those few journalists brave enough not to be cowed the moment ‘national security’ or the ‘national interest’ are mentioned, and fortunate enough to work for those few media organisations which will facilitate their work.
Most newspapers are far more likely to endorse attempts by the state to censor such journalism than they are to condemn them, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by their behaviour over, to take but a few of the most egregious examples, the ABC show trial, the BBC series Secret Society, the programme Edge of the Union in the BBC series Real Lives, and the Death on the Rock edition of Thames Television’s This Week slot.
On almost every single occasion that governments have argued that a piece of journalism should be suppressed on the grounds that it endangers ‘national security’ or the ‘national interest’ it turns out that it does absolutely no such thing – it merely embarrasses the government of the day. So why do most newspapers so unhesitatingly and eagerly take the government side on these occasions? The answer has to do with profound ideological affinities between those who run the country and those who own and run most national newspapers, affinities which transcend mere party allegiances. In Britain, most of the national press is by no stretch of the imagination a Fourth Estate acting as the public’s watchdog but an absolutely crucial part of the Establishment – and all the more effective for its constant and remorseless peddling of the rhetoric of the ‘free press’. It is a key part of the all-pervasive ideological machinery designed to keep things as they are – and all the more powerful for having rendered itself largely invisible by becoming so naturalised and taken-for-granted.
That is at least partly why in Britain, quite unlike in America and elsewhere in Europe, public debate about Snowden has turned as much, if not more, upon the behaviour of a newspaper as opposed to that of GCHQ and the NSA. So when the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) on 7 November, which they agreed to do only on condition that they saw all the questions in advance, the obsequiousness of the politicians was matched only by the fawning of most newspapers, whose breathless and gushing tones wouldn’t have been out of place in the Boy’s Own Paper. Inevitably the papers seized with relish on the trio’s peevish and aggrieved comments on the media, who turned out to be the real villains of the occasion.
A particular gift to the headline writers was the soundbite from the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, that
‘the leaks from Snowden have been very damaging; they have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping it up and our own security has suffered as a consequence’.
Far less widely reported, however, was that when the committee chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then asked: ‘Do you have any additional information you can share with us … as to actual hard evidence that terrorists or potential terrorists have been looking at these reports and have changed their plans or the way they operate, as a result of them?’, Sir Iain Lobban, head of GCHQ replied: ‘Not in this public forum, Chairman. Yes, in a private forum’ (). And that was very much that.
Having themselves shown no interest in the real issues raised by Snowden’s revelations, it was clearly of no concern to most newspapers that the ISC did exactly the same. So, for example, there was nothing in the ISC hearing, and nothing in most papers’ reports of the event, on Tempora (the programme that allows GCHQ to hoover up vast amounts of data from the cables that carry internet traffic in and out of the country, information that is shared with the NSA), and nothing on why neither the ISC nor the cabinet nor the National Security Council were informed about its existence in the first place; nothing on the bugging of world leaders who are supposed to be our allies; and nothing on the immense damage done by GCHQ and the NSA by cracking much of the online encryption on which hundreds of millions of users rely to guard data privacy, actions described by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, as ‘appalling and foolish’.
It was left to Nick Pickles, the director of Big Brother Watch, to draw the obvious conclusion, namely: ‘As the US president, world leaders and international experts express concern about the scale of surveillance and the need to review the laws and policies involved, today was perhaps more unique for the fact parliament found three people who think there is no need for reform’.
Big Brother: a Caring Sibling
The truth of the matter is that the remarkably incurious ISC and those newspapers which are remarkably eager to take the government side against journalists who expose wrongdoing by the state are both expressions of precisely the same culture. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, 2 December 2013, the reason why Americans have been so shocked by Snowden’s revelations and Britons so unmoved has to do with profound differences between the cultures of the two countries.
In America, people believe that their government is supposed to work for them, that it should be their servant, not their master. Hence the Constitution begins with a declaration of where sovereign authority belongs: ‘We the people’. That is why the Snowden revelations are so shocking to Americans: they expose an arm of government acting without the permission, or indeed the knowledge, of the American people and their representatives in Congress. And that is why it is axiomatic for reputable American newspapers to subscribe to and try to live up to the Fourth Estate ideal.
Britons have no such starting assumptions. The people are not sovereign here, they never have been. We speak of parliamentary, not popular, sovereignty. We are used to power flowing from the top down, from the centre outward, and most of the time we accept it. We act as if it’s natural for the state to be in charge and it’s an act of generosity when it deigns to let in a little daylight. If an arm of the state insists on total secrecy, that seems reasonable to Brits in a way few Americans would ever accept. It’s not a natural instinct for Britons to see, say, GCHQ as their employees.
Or as Ben Macintyre put it in The Times, 30 August 2013, ‘we cannot quite believe that Big Brother is not, for the most part, a caring sibling with our best interests at heart’, with the consequence that, in one of the most developed surveillance societies on the planet, ‘we are more reassured than dismayed by being spied upon’. In such a culture, it really is no wonder that the majority of the national press is prone to act as if it were an arm of the state, and that a play called Pravda could be written about it. It is surely high time that it was revived.
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 final 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.