Spooks & The Press: Journalism’s Future

Backbencher August 29, 2013 1
Spooks & The Press: Journalism’s Future

Information tug of wars between the Guardian and GCHQ: What is the future for Investigative Journalism?

The detainment of David Miranda, partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, under schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act by UK border authorities has triggered debates over the process of news gathering and the role of investigative journalism in the digital age. Rather than posing any credible ‘terrorist’ threat himself it was the information David Miranda was carrying that interested UK authorities as the state and journalists currently engage in an information tug of war between protestations for both secrecy and transparency. The recent actions of the UK Government and police against The Guardian may have transformative consequences for future investigative journalists and are ‘intended to send a message of intimidation’ to those who collaborate with the whistleblower.

Editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger believes the Miranda incident was an attempt by the UK Government to conflate terrorism with journalism by trying to criminalise the disclosure of sensitive documents relating to the NSA leaks sourced from Edward Snowdon.  The 2000 Terrorism Act grants police the power to seize property, with the only constraint being the need to ascertain whether the person in question ‘is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism’. In the case of David Miranda, it is very difficult to see under what basis he posed a credible terrorist threat. Simon Jenkins talks of how journalism is becoming labelled as a ‘terrorist occupation’ and while this is perhaps a step too far, the Government does seem intent on placing obstacles in the way of the Guardian’s reporting of the NSA revelations. Further proof of this is evident in the visit of GCHQ experts, with authority coming from Number 10 Downing Street, to the Guardian offices with the purpose of forcing the destruction of press property. This symbolic act can only be ‘intended to send a message of intimidation’ to the wider journalistic community when considering additional copies of the information on the destroyed hard drives still exist in both New York and Brazil.

The UK Government and the exercise of state powers are also forcing investigative journalists to find new and innovative ways of protecting both their sources and themselves. The Edward Snowdon leaks on the actual extent of the surveillance conducted both by the NSA and GCHQ reveal a global surveillance system in place where eventually it might prove near impossible for journalists to maintain confidentiality of sources. Evidence of the consequences of this can be demonstrated by the recent closure of an award winning legal website called Groklaw, run by reputed blogger Pamela Jones. Pamela explains that the surveillance of emails by the NSA and other national Governments means that there is now no ‘shield from forced exposure’ for those sharing information using the site. Groklaw promises its sources anonymity and the closure of the Lavabit encrypted email provider removes the means by which this can be guaranteed. Surely, both citizens and journalists should still have rights to a degree of privacy in relation to their digital personas?

Yet the NSA leaks have exposed the extent to which intelligence services around the world regularly tap into our digital lives, mapping our online movements, conversations and relationships using collected metadata. Memos from GCHQ reveal their unparalleled powers and abilities to access and record almost all our emails, web service uses and phone conversations as companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft are revealed as collaborating with intelligence services. Surely it should be the citizens holding the Government to account rather than vice versa? It is also not for our Government to decide the limits of public debate and discussion on this issue, where news stories are legitimately in the public interest. The journalist maintains a specific privileged position in holding our elite and Government to account in fulfilling its duty to inform and educate citizens without unnecessary state interference. Instead UK Government officials informed the Guardian, ‘you’ve had your debate and there is no need to write anymore’, clearly applying significant pressure on the newspaper to scale back its investigative activities relating to the Snowdon story.

In stark contrast to this, President Obama stated that he welcomed the debate sparked by the leaks of the NSA surveillance activities with discussion on the topic very much present in the US media. In commenting on the actions of GCHQ in destroying the hard drives held by the Guardian, the White House press secretary indicated that the US would not resort to such action. As opposed to the UK, more robust protections for journalists are underlined in the US by the First Amendment protections safeguarding free speech. Hence, the Guardian has shared material with news organisations in the US while over here in the UK there has been little debate in the press about the actions and powers of GCHQ. Perhaps this is down to a combination of the D notice issued by UK authorities in London to deter reporting of the leaks by Fleet Street and the intimidation and retribution currently on display in attempts make the reporting conducted by the Guardian increasingly challenging. German newspaper De Spiegel talks of how British citizens naively place trust in their intelligence services, but perhaps we are simply less surprised and more cynical of both the press and our security services in a post 9/11 and post phone hacking world.  Either way constructive investigative journalism operating in the public interest is integral to the functioning of our democracy and must not be stifled by those it holds to account.

Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE

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