December 8, 2013
Down The Guardian path
Report from UK for the Herald
LONDON — Even as the British government debates military intervention in Syria, the story of the summer, which dominated headlines and debate until last week’s alleged chemical weapon attack, has been Edward Snowden and the NSA. The story and its gestation have provided the news-consuming public with ample time to consider the main implications produced by the leaks.
Essentially, the issue boils down to behaviour: how security employees behave with secret information, how states treat their citizens, how news is reported and disseminated and to what end.
However, at no point during the development of the story, from the initial PRISM revelations and Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Russia (via Ecuador, almost), to last week’s arrest and detention of David Miranda at Heathrow, has it seemed that the public have been treated fairly.
In a summer of the airing of perceived injustices, we have seen little more than passing glimpses of what is truly going on behind the curtain. The debate should be about intelligence, journalism and security, but the behaviour of the main players involved has left the public collectively scratching their heads.
Until last week, the figures whose behaviour had come under most scrutiny were the main characters in the drama: Snowden, his journalist contact Glenn Greenwald and the shadowy state security apparatuses behind the surveillance of their citizens. However, the detention of Greenwald’s partner Miranda brought The Guardian and its editor Alan Rusbridger back into the spotlight.
The Guardian has been central to the story from the start. It was The Guardian (and The Washington Post) who broke the original news about PRISM on June 6. When Edward Snowden held an online Q&A on June 17 to clarify details about the leaks, he did so through The Guardian’s website. Glenn Greenwald has been identified from the start of the affair as a Guardian journalist. It would be harder for the newspaper to be more involved than it already is.
Despite its involvement, The Guardian has in recent weeks slipped to the sidelines as the story has developed. It is clearly Greenwald’s scoop; the journalist is the person best placed or able to contact Snowden. In many ways this is a positive for the newspaper, as it can avoid dependence on the source as it was unable to with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. But it also means that The Guardian is being kept at length from the news.
For a newspaper that has established itself as the channel for left-wing criticism and the conduit for revelations on state intelligence leaks, this is surprising – and which might explain the paper’s behaviour last week.
In the eyes of many in the UK, The Guardian and its editor are currently caught between wanting active participation in the news and being the news. As the Miranda scandal picked up a head of steam, this conflict was demonstrated on a few occasions: notably, in the revelation that The Guardian had paid for Miranda’s flights, and subsequently in Rusbridger’s “extraordinary” description of having to smash hard drives under the supervision of the British security forces.
When the Miranda story was first reported, the subject was the 28-year-old “partner” of Glenn Greenwald, and the British security services received (much-deserved) criticism for their nine-hour detention of a man who is not a terrorist under anti-terrorism legislation. However, it was later revealed that Miranda was possibly carrying sensitive materials on his laptop that could have been leaked by Snowden, and The Guardian later admitted that the newspaper had paid for Miranda’s flights.
“Miranda is not an employee of the Guardian. As Greenwald's partner, he often assists him in his work and The Guardian normally reimburses the expenses of someone aiding a reporter in such circumstances,” stated the paper in its August 19 article on the events.
Did this mean, as some commentators have suggested, that The Guardian paid for Greenwald’s partner to travel in the knowledge that he was carrying sensitive information? Why run the risk? Why go through the UK at all?
Then came the odd part. Following the “shadowy security services” narrative, Rusbridger recounted in an article on August 20 how two months previously, possibly after the publishing of allegations that the UK spied on its allies at two London summits, representatives of the intelligence services had paid the newspaper a visit and demanded the return of sensitive materials passed to The Guardian by Snowden.
According to Rusbridger, these spooks had informed the editor that the paper had “had [its] fun,” to which he responded by smashing the hard drives of three computers purported to contain the information under the supervision of said spies.
This story, and Rusbridger’s subsequent interviews on the radio and television, has inspired as much bafflement as outrage. If the British security services enforced censorship through the application of prior restraint, this is troubling and of great concern – but why wait two months before revealing it?
Also, what does the editor’s apparent willingness to acquiesce to state censorship say about The Guardian – especially if Rusbridger told the spooks, as it is reported that he did, that the same information was stored outside the UK as well, thus rendering the hard drive destruction pointless.
Coverage in the British media of events in the past week has certainly been divided along vague ideological lines. Newspapers, commentators and media groups considered to be centre-right or right-wing have picked holes in Rusbridger’s (and Greenwald’s) version of events.
Meanwhile, the traditional left has focused on these egregious examples of heavy-handed state security; even Charles Falconer, the Labour peer who tried on August 22 to prevent the Metropolitan police from using information seized from Miranda’s computer in a criminal investigation, while allowing for it to be reviewed by security services regarding allegations of terrorism, was described by the BBC on the day as a “score draw” – a partial victory for either side. (Even here, in initial reports in the British press it was not immediately apparent whether Miranda was being represented by his own lawyers or by The Guardian’s.)
As the story continues to simmer away, The Guardian’s position is increasingly unclear. This is not helped by Rusbridger’s media appearances; the editor comes across as an intellectual, mild-mannered man, who also appears to be a bit excited about being in the centre of a spy thriller.
Rusbridger is also keen to answer all questions put to him, and hosted an online Q&A on the incidents of last week with US Guardian editor Janice Gibson on August 26.
Both the questions and answers were littered with comments on “freedom,” “transparency” and “debate”, the last being something which Rusbridger has returned to several times and has stated as the newspaper’s motivation for publishing the leaks: there must be a debate on the work being done by the intelligence services, particularly if they are spying on their own people.
This is true. The news revealed by Snowden this summer (and more of which is to come) has and should be massively damaging for the UK and US governments, revealing a fundamental lack of trust regarding what goes on in these countries and the governments’ contempt for the citizens they were elected to represent.
Although not entirely surprising, this knowledge is a blow to democratic principles. If people can be spied on when using the Internet, by their government as well as private companies, then they have a right to know.
However, while The Guardian has proved invaluable, not only in terms of releasing the news but also with regard to providing Snowden and Greenwald with a platform from which to do so, the newspaper must be careful that it does not detract from focus by becoming the news itself.
The sensation this summer is that governments have been exposed once more in the act of letting down their citizens. It would be a shame for us to lose sight of this truth by being distracted by the medium, rather than the message.