Double standards? Why unsupported claims of ‘threats to national security’ are the real threats to press freedom

By Media Reform Coalition / Saturday October 19, 2013 Read More

By Justin Schlosberg

Last week, MP’s announced plans to formally inquire into the Guardian’s coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks, prompted by a letter from former Defence Secretary Liam Fox. The letter accuses the Guardian of double standards in its coverage of the leaks, given its role in exposing the phone hacking scandal, and reiterates claims that the leaks have damaged national security. It’s interesting that Dr Fox should use the term double standards to describe the Guardian and its supposed reckless disregard for national security. Two years ago almost to the day, Fox was forced to resign as Defence Secretary having himself been accused by MPs of breaching national security and of lying about bringing his best friend – Adam Werrity –  along to official meetings with foreign governments. Fox had even allowed Werrity to hand out business cards with the government’s portcullis logo, despite not being a state employee or having any security clearance. Yet there is no standard more ‘double’ than those invoked by the dominant conservative press in all matters relating to the Snowden leaks. Take the Mail columnist Stephen Glover, for example. Last November, he greeted the Leveson recommendations for press regulation reform with the hysteria and hyperbole that characterised much of the wider media reaction, suggesting that “not since the early 1640s — when Parliament issued an order to bring publishing under control by creating official censors — have so many politicians lined up to take a swipe at the free Press.” Four months later, Glover remarked that “the BritishState protects its own. Whitehall does its utmost to safeguard former Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants from investigation by invoking the usually bogus defence of national security.” The piece was in response to claims of an institutional cover up of alleged government complicity in the torture of a prominent Libyan Dissident, when Colonel Gadaffi was still in power. It would be reasonable to deduce from such comments that Glover would be deeply concerned about similar invocations of national security in regards to press coverage of the Snowden leaks. After all, the government has yet to provide a single piece of evidence or even hypothetical example of how national security could have been damaged by the Guardian’s coverage. The best that critics can muster is the somewhat laughable suggestion that terrorists have suddenly got wind that the security services are seeking to monitor their communications. Instead, Glover accepts without question government claims that the “leaks to the Guardian have caused the greatest damage to Western security in history” and that the Guardian has produced a “handbook for terrorists”. But it is not just about the rants of right-wing mid-market columnists. Even the Independent has demonstrated apparent complicity – wittingly or not – in state manipulation of the media. Four days after the detention of David Miranda – partner of Guardian journalist and Snowden confidante Glenn Greenwald – the Independent ran what it claimed to be an exclusive story stemming from the Snowden leaks. The story claimed that a UK under-water listening device had been constructed to target the Middle East, and that this may have been the substance of the material Miranda was attempting to carry through Heathrow when he was detained. The implication was that the Guardian was now co-operating with the authorities and the Independent had taken the initiative over Snowden’s revelations. But Greenwald promptly retorted that he had spoken to Snowden, who had confirmed that he was not the source of the Independent’s leak. Greenwald’s only explanation was that the story must have emanated from the UK authorities themselves, perhaps in an effort to disinform or distract attention from the Guardian’s vehement response to Miranda’s detention. Alarmingly, the Independent’s article was authored not by left-bashing tabloid columnists, but by senior and highly respected journalists on a par with Greenwald. If the latter was right in his counter-claim, these journalists were either victims of a security service ‘plant’ or worse, complicit in it. The last time journalistic independence was cast under the media spotlight in this way was in the aftermath of Hutton report in 2003. Billed as a report on “the circumstances surrounding and leading up to the death of intelligence analyst David Kelly”, it instead provided a quasi-legal judgement over the public furore raging between the government and the BBC. Kelly was the source of a controversial BBC report suggesting the government had lied in building its case for war in Iraq, and he died in mysterious circumstances shortly after being publicly outed by the Ministry of Defence. But Hutton all but entirely absolved the government of any wrongdoing and lambasted the BBC for a ‘catalogue of errors’ in its handling of the report. In contrast to the wider reaction against the Guardian’s coverage of the Snowden leaks, the implied threat to journalistic freedom in Hutton’s report produced a united front among competitive broadcasters. Far from siding with the government against their competitor, ITV and Channel 4 News were more defensive of the BBC’s position than the BBC itself. They pushed the boundaries of impartiality rules by amplifying cries of ‘whitewash’ in response to the report and offering portentous warnings of implications for ‘fourth estate’ or watchdog journalism. It is worth highlighting one example from an ITV news bulletin at the time, alluding to the structural constraints on journalists scrutinising the security state:

Does [Lord Hutton] really understand the conditions under which the fourth estate has to operate? […] For someone like Kelly to go and talk to someone like [BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan], express his reservations, was a difficult and some might think brave thing to do and I think the difficulties of all those contacts, the difficulties of finding out what’s really happening in the intelligence community – all of that completely absent from the report.[1]

We might be forgiven for thinking that journalists had learnt lessons ten years after it was revealed that Britain had gone to war on the basis of false claims about threats to national security.  The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion had rightly prompted unprecedented apologies from journalists who had bought the government’s line. But we needn’t delve so far into the history books to see how hollow national security warnings can be. Just three years ago the storm surrounding the release of US diplomatic cables, courtesy of Wikileaks, prompted the usual deferential response from the media, uncritically rehashing claims that the leaks posed a greater threat to national security “than all of the espionage performed by the KGB during the cold war”.[2] Yet within just two months, US officials were privately briefing journalists that claims of ‘damage’ resulting from the leaks had been deliberately exaggerated. In the same month, it was reported that a Bangladeshi paramilitary unit, labelled a ‘death squad’ by human rights organisations, had resumed its killing spree following a brief hiatus. The hiatus came after it was revealed in a cable leak that they were trained by British forces. But the faux debate about ‘national security’ had succeeded in smothering such stories and the fading media spotlight heralded a return to business as usual. The widely reported assertion that the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes are used only to target terrorists has already been exposed as questionable at best. Leaked NSA documents last month revealed that Brazilian oil company Petrobras had been targeted and that in addition to counter-terrorism, the programmes are used for economic, diplomatic and political purposes. This story barely got a mention in the British media. It was Orwell who said that “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.  But even he might have been shocked at the pervasive spread of propaganda against the Snowden leaks that has surfaced over the last two weeks, and the complicity of great swathes of the British press and broadcasting spectrum. That rival newspapers should oppose the Guardian in any public controversy is unsurprising. But in the context of the sustained and indignant campaign waged by editors against Lord Leveson’s modest proposals for press regulatory reform, it is certainly a double standard.  

[1] Tom Bradby, ITV Lunchtime News, 29 January 2004
[2] Bill Neely, ITN Early Evening News, 29 November 2010.