Journalists in the Dock: A new low for British justice, accountability and democracy

By Media Reform Coalition / Thursday December 5, 2013 Read More
by Justin Schlosberg This week, the chairman of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, asked the editor of the Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, whether he loves this country.  This question was significant not just because of the immediate context in which it was posed (the Guardian’s revelations of mass surveillance by security services). It was significant because it revealed just how deeply the discourse of the right-wing media can seep into the consciousness of politicians. A little over two months ago, the Daily Mail ran an editorial describing the leader of the Labour Party’s father as “the man who hated Britain”. Although that article was widely criticised in the broader media and by politicians of all colours, it is difficult to imagine that Keith Vaz would have posed his question had that article never appeared. This is the reality of media power: it’s not just about whether a given newspaper has influence over its readers. It is  about the ‘drip, drip, drip of ideology'[1] such that even when a media ‘message’ is roundly rejected, it can still impact on ways of thinking.  In this case, the sub-text seems clear: to be a ‘patriot’ is to trust in – not question – authoritative power. That the Guardian should be such an outlier in this case – attacked both by the majority of the British press and the majority of Parliament – is testament to the fact that its coverage of the Snowden leaks brings both institutions into disrepute. These are, after all, the two agencies of ‘oversight’ that we depend on in order to keep the security services in check. Just four weeks ago, the heads of Britain’s three security services were in the Parliamentary dock for the first time, questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee. We might wonder whether the patriotism question would have been more appropriately asked of those who continue to oversee mass collection of private data from publics and individuals that have no link to terrorism. Instead, they were given a virtually unchallenged PR platform to rehash their twin-mantra: that the Snowden leaks had damaged national security, and that their surveillance methods are used solely in pursuit of terrorists. None of the Select Committee drew attention to the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever suggesting that the Snowden leaks have in fact damaged national security. Of course that doesn’t mean that they haven’t. Such is the convenience of the national security argument – those who make it never actually have to defend it. Yet the last time it was reeled out in response to another Guardian exclusive (the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks), it turned out to be nothing more than spin. Almost as soon as the spotlight on the cables had faded we discovered, from US officials themselves, that claims of ‘damage’ resulting from the leaks had been deliberately exaggerated. What we do have evidence of, is that mass surveillance conducted by GCHQ is not just aimed at terrorists. One GCHQ document leaked in September boasted about targeting a range of strategic industries including energy companies, financial organisations and airlines. Yet on this issue too, politicians passed up the opportunity to question the official script. There is a recurring pattern of response to allegations of systemic corruption within the national security state stemming from leaks. First, go after the whistleblower. Next, attack the integrity of those responsible for making the leaks public. In the case of Wikileaks, Julian Assange and his sexual exploits provided the ideal target for counter-attack, smear and distraction from the content of leaks. Snowden is less amenable so it is little surprise that the focus has shifted to the Guardian. What is surprising – given the recent memory of WMD, Hutton, Wikileaks (not to mention the furore over Leveson’s supposed threat to press freedom) – is that the great swathe of journalists and politicians in this country should offer such unequivocal support for the state in its completely ungrounded criticism of the Guardian. Keith Vaz actually went further than state officials in insinuating that Rusbridger may have been motivated by unpatriotic sentiment. It was a question that smacked of McCarthyism and carries echoes of those who associate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism, or anti-war protest with disdain for soldiers. It was a question that has no place in a Democratic institution designed to hold power to account, rather than interrogate those who do. That the Guardian could now face criminal charges in relation to its coverage of the Snowden leaks sets a very grim precedent. Even if prosecution does not materialise, it’s hard to imagine any prospect having a more chilling effect on journalism. No prospect of justice for the alleged victims of secret rendition and torture on the part of security services. A public inquiry into those allegations, supported by copious evidence, collapsed in 2011 and has never been re-opened. An interim report was produced but never published, a fact criticised by Amnesty International and the UN Committee against Torture. No prospect of justice either for the victims of the Iraq War, which was prosecuted on grounds of national security threats that turned out to be entirely false. The Chilcott Inquiry is still yet to produce its report nearly 3 years after it finished taking evidence, claiming that the state is unjustifiably refusing to release key evidence to the public. Such is the state of British justice and accountability. For those who do genuinely love this country and its democratic traditions, the options for redress seem increasingly narrow. In the words of Owen Jones, “if the state starts prosecuting journalists for holding power to account, let’s take to the streets”.
[1] R. Silverstone (1999), Why Study the Media?, London: Sage, p. 143 Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, researcher and lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media, Justice and Accountability.
SurveillanceDemand an end to mass surveillance – add your name to the ‘Necessary and Proportionate’ petition supporting the 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.   Related post: The Daily Mail knows all about ‘hate’.