Journalism under attack? The Guardian and press freedom

Posted by Dr John Jewell

The detention of David Miranda, the partner of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow airport over the weekend has attracted widespread criticism, and a little support, from all corners of the political and journalistic globe.

U.S. journalist Greenwald walks with his partner Miranda in Rio de Janeiro's International AirportThe background to the events leading to Miranda’s nine hour detainment at the hands of the UK authorities (under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000) is critical to understanding the whole situation – and what it means for the future of journalism. So let’s backtrack a bit.

Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. Since August 2012 he has written extensively, frequently and critically on a variety of ‘sensitive’ issues concerning mass surveillance. In June of this year, for example, he wrote that the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) had obtained court orders requiring Verizon, a US broadband and telecommunications company, to provide the National Security Agency (NSA) with telephone metadata.

It is common knowledge that Greenwald has worked very closely with Edward Snowden, the computer specialist employed by the CIA and the NSA and who has leaked details of numerous top secret mass surveillance operations to the press. According to documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA broke privacy rules and overstepped its legal authority thousands of times in the past two years. The BBC reported that the incidents resulted in the unauthorised electronic surveillance of US citizens, according to documents published by the Washington Post.

On June 14th, US federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. At present he is in Russia – having been granted a year-long period of asylum by Putin on the condition that the disclosures cease.

This leaves Greenwald as, one could say, the number one thorn in the US governments side because, although Snowden is perhaps no longer a problem to them, Greenwald most certainly is. It is believed that Snowden passed Greenwald between 15,000 – 20,000 documents with details of the NSA’s surveillance operations.

Last Sunday then, David Miranda was detained at Heathrow following a trip to Berlin. He was held for nine hours without charge but his phone, laptop and memory sticks were confiscated.

After his release, Greenwald told the Guardian, ‘this is a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process. To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and GCHQ. The actions of the UK pose a serious threat to journalists everywhere’.

The editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, in a column devoted to the threat faced by journalism in the digital age, wrote of the ‘international dismay’ that the arrest had caused. He argued that the state was building a surveillance system where before too long it would be impossible for journalists to maintain the confidentiality of sources and that governments, whilst paying lip service to the need for public debate, are seeking to silence whistleblowers with a vengeance. For Simon Jenkins in the same paper, it now appears that journalism is a ‘terrorist’ occupation and that Miranda’s only offence was to be ‘part of the family’.

This was where the Guardian became the story as it emerged that Miranda was more than just a partner returning from abroad. He was in Berlin for a week visiting Laura Poitras, a documentary film maker who had worked with Greenwald on the NSA revelations. The New York Times revealed that that the Guardian had paid for the flights.

To be fair to the Guardian, both Greenwald and his editor Rusbridger were upfront about the importance of Miranda to the journalistic efficiency of Greenwald. And none of this detracts from what has, rightly in my view, been called a ‘gross misuse’ of terror laws. Under what basis could Miranda have constituted a terrorist threat?

For Nick Cohen in the Spectator, basic freedoms were being violated by the state and the events were another indicator of how Britain has changed for the worse; detaining Miranda at the request of the US in order to find out what Greenwald was going to do next.

But some journalists, politicians and the police have defended the detainment. Tim Stanley, writing in the Daily Telegraph, stated, ‘the actions of the British authorities make perfect sense. It knows that Greenwald is linked to Snowden and it knows that Snowden has access to stolen information related to UK security. So why wouldn’t it take the opportunity of Miranda stepping onto British soil to interrogate him? They’re really only fulfilling their job description’.

Former Tory MP Louise Mensch told the BBC that Greenwald had admitted that Miranda was carrying ‘classified, stolen intelligence data encrypted on hard-drives. He wasn’t stopped because he was somebody’s husband and he wasn’t stopped because he was a journalist’.

For me, the most sensible commentary of all has come from Richard Sambrook, former Director of Global News at the BBC. He highlighted various undeniable truths presented without the myriad of differing agendas which often encumber and obfuscate debates on national security and journalism. To paraphrase a few points: those involved in revealing secrets of national importance should not be surprised if the security services then take in an interest their activities. Which doesn’t mean that those issues of national importance should not be reported, of course.  Secondly, governments, police and the intelligence services should recognise that journalism is not terrorism and terrorism laws should not be used to intimidate journalists.

Today, however, we seem to be careering away from these (one would think) rather basic principles of a functioning democracy. One of the most alarming episodes recounted by Rusbridger in his aforementioned column on Miranda’s arrest , concerns a visit to the Guardian’s offices by two GCHQ experts who stood and watched whilst two of the newspapers hard drives were destroyed. Leaving aside the barely credible scene of a government in 2013 forcing the destruction of press property, do we really accept that these two experts believed that, in the digital age, the information was on those machines and those only?

Not at all. Rusbridger’s account points to a very clear act of intimidation. Bully boy tactics of little finesse and sinister purpose.

Aside from this act, Rusbridger was left in no doubt by senior government officials that the government would seek to close down the paper’s reporting through legal means if it could not force them to hand over, or destroy,  material on which they were working.

Is it any wonder then, with the majority of the NSA stories being completed for publication in New York and with Greenwald resident in Brazil, that the Guardian is considering moving its reporting base from London? Where at least it would be free, in theory at least, from the physical attention of the Government and GCHQ?

The arrest of David Miranda and the revelations about the destruction of Guardian material should alarm those members of public who still believe that the British government acts in the best interests of democracy and freedom. It is evident that, in the words of Kirsty Hughes of Index on Censorship, ‘it seems that the UK government is using, and quite likely misusing, laws to intimidate journalists and silence its critics’.

A similar version of this article also appears on The Conversation website

3 thoughts on “Journalism under attack? The Guardian and press freedom

  • August 21, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    In reply to both you and Prof Sambrook, I point you to this article from Germany (link below) and further suggest that this is (yet another) indication that the old nonsense about journalists being unclubbable thorns in the side of authority is just so much self-mythologising piffle. When push comes to shove, whether it’s a football manager throwing his weight around or the Cabinet Secretary issuing steely commands or viewers “outraged” by the lack of a visible poppy, most journalists on mainstream media will comply. They may put up a good show of resistance or talk convincingly about why this singular event makes no difference in the long run but they will comply.

  • August 22, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Fair point Tim – and most of the time that doesn’t matter very much. But occasionally there are circumstances where it matters a lot, and I would judge this to be one of those moments.

  • August 22, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    (PS It’s a very good Spiegel article!)

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