The detention and interrogation of David Miranda at Heathrow airport on 18 August has proven quite a test for the British press.
The basic facts of these events might lead you to expect a show of unity across journalism in defence of their own. Miranda is the partner of an investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald, who has found himself at the heart of one of the great news scoops of the century — the revelation that US and UK state agencies are spying on all of us. It’s the 21st century Watergate, the sort of story that draws ambitious young people into journalism in the first place.
The claim by Glenn Greenwald that the detention was no more than an attempt to intimidate him via his partner may not be the whole story, but there can’t be any doubt that intimidation was an important subsidiary message of the detention.
The day after the Miranda incident the Guardian, not surprisingly, allowed the story to dominate its news agenda and made further revelations about the forced destruction of computer hard drives containing information under the supervision of British security agents in the paper’s London offices.
Most papers had lead news items about the story and three, other than the Guardian, decided it should be the subject of their editorial comment. All three, to one degree or another, identified the threat to investigative journalism and the danger of allowing state power to grow unchallenged.
The Mirror was the clearest and most strident with a leader entitled “Freedom at stake” and an accompanying article by Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti with the headline “You could be next”. The Times and Financial Times were more cautious, balancing their concerns about press freedom with an insistence that Snowden had, after all, broken the law and it was understandable that the state would want to pursue him and stem the release of material in his possession.
More interesting and revealing was the reaction from the rest of the British press.
The Mail and the Telegraph, for example, had lead news items but made no comment at all. Their headlines suggested no special concern for journalism and even a hint of sympathy for the state. The Mail chose to lead with “Journalist’s partner held for 9 hours had ‘secret files’”. The Express also chose not to comment but headlined their story “Police defend detaining partner”.
For most of the last two years the Sun and News International have had their own reasons to parade their commitment to the freedom of the press from any interference by the state. On this occasion, however, they had nothing to say at all. No news story and no editorial comment. No doubt the role of the Guardian in exposing alleged wrong-doing at the Sun and other News International papers got in the way of Rupert Murdoch’s otherwise single-minded commitment to press freedom.
If so, he wasn’t the only one to let dislike of the Guardian get in the way of consistent liberal principle. The most intriguing intervention in the post-Miranda coverage was a comment piece in the Independent penned by one-time Revolutionary Communist Party member Claire Fox. Fox and her cultish associates in the Institute for Ideas and Spiked online have cloaked their very marked move to the right of British politics in the language of anti-state libertarianism.
She couldn’t fail to condemn the detention of Miranda and the draconian law that allows it without appearing wholly unserious, and she duly did. That was, however, really just throat-clearing before her main point, which was to present the harassment of investigative journalists like Greenwald as no different in nature to the belated police investigation of phone-hacking.
“Perhaps it’s understandable that the British police has become blasé about focusing on journalists and their associates. Who needs to resort to anti-terrorism legislation when, post-Leveson Inquiry, the police have three ongoing investigations into the press, which according to the Press Gazette have seen 59 journalists arrested.
“None of these journalists has yet been convicted, many have spent months on police bail, and all have had to endure hours of questioning. Worse, their plight has not been taken up by campaigning journalists of the Greenwald variety because — well — they are the wrong kind of journalists. So while it is terrible if Miranda was an innocent bystander in his partner’s investigations, what about the families of those Sun journalists arrested in dawn raids?”
What Fox does here is to equate the exposure of major state intrusion on all of our lives (via reporting the evidence of a whistleblower) with the generation of celebrity gossip via illegal payments to police officers and other public officials and the hacking of phones. And that’s the most generous description of the activity alleged against the journalists for whom she appeals.
The event at the heart of the Leveson inquiry, let us not forget, was the hacking of the phone of child-abduction victim Milly Dowler. The “three ongoing investigations” she refers to are into police corruption, phone-hacking and computer-hacking. There is no better exemplar of the purpose of investigative journalism than the Guardian exposure of Snowden’s claims. There is no worse example of the degeneration and abuse of that ideal than the actions of News International over the last 20 years. Claire Fox simply conflates the two.
That she does so in the name of individual freedom and liberty is especially ironic. What Snowden and the Guardian’s team of journalists have been doing is alerting us to the fact that the US National Security Agency has access to the email and internet use of all of us — that we are not as free as we may think even in our own homes.
What the Murdoch press have traded in for decades is their untrammelled power to interfere in private lives, to gain access to phones, homes and emails by hook or (more often) by crook. Some of the laws they broke are amongst the few in existence to protect our freedom.
The suggestion that Greenwald and others of his type should be taking up the plight of journalists accused of this sort of activity rather than the plight of Edward Snowden is beyond parody.
It’s impossible to tell without knowing the individuals and the pressures they were put under whether Fox’s chosen heroes are “the wrong kind of journalists” but I don’t think we should hesitate to describe the work they were asked to carry out “the wrong kind of journalism”.