Patrice Riemens on Wed, 21 Aug 2013 07:38:29 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Alan Rusbridger: David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face (Guardian)

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face

As the events in a Heathrow transit lounge ? and the Guardian offices ?
have shown, the threat to journalism is real and growing

By Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian, Monday 19 August 2013

In a private viewing cinema in Soho last week I caught myself letting fly
with a four-letter expletive at Bill Keller, the former executive editor
of the New York Times. It was a confusing moment. The man who was
pretending to be me ? thanking Keller for "not giving a shit" ? used to be
Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor who will soon be a
1,000-year-old time lord. And Keller will correct me, but I don't remember
ever swearing at him. I do remember saying something to the effect of "we
have the thumb drive, you have the first amendment".

The fictional moment occurs at the beginning of the DreamWorks film about
WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate, due for release next month. Peter Capaldi is,
I can report, a very plausible Guardian editor.

This real-life exchange with Keller happened just after we took possession
of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected
that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of
secret material would be severely constrained in the UK. America, for all
its own problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press
freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope,
unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a
news organisation planning to publish material that informed an important
public debate, however troublesome or embarrassing.

On Sunday morning David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn
Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through Heathrow airport on his
way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live. Greenwald is the
reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based
on the leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald's
work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for western
governments. But, as the debate in America and Europe has shown, there is
considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the
right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and
privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of
intelligence; about the use of closed courts; about the cosy and secret
relationship between government and vast corporations; and about the
extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their
communications intercepted, collected, analysed and stored.

In this work he is regularly helped by David Miranda. Miranda is not a
journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do
his journalistic work. Greenwald has his plate full reading and analysing
the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media
requests from around the world. He can certainly use this back-up. That
work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly
unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any
electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian's work on the
Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of
flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the
environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be
back to pen and paper.

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK's terror laws,
which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who
have no connection with "terror", as ordinarily understood. Suspects have
no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated
for up to seven days. Under this measure ? uniquely crafted for ports and
airport transit areas ? there are none of the checks and balances that
apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or
charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their
material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

Miranda's professional status ? much hand-wringing about whether or not
he's a proper "journalist" ? is largely irrelevant in these circumstances.
Increasingly, the question about who deserves protection should be less
"is this a journalist?" than "is the publication of this material in the
public interest?"

The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because
it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments ? while claiming
to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden ? are
also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the
whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a
little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of
informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and
corporations are up to.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government
official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There
followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of
all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but
there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall
favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call
from the centre of government telling me: "You've had your fun. Now we
want the stuff back." There followed further meetings with shadowy
Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back
or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this
subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked
mystified. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would
move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route ? by
going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were
working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or
destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint,
near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table
in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks ? the thumb drive and the
first amendment ? had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to
the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations
and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage
of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do
our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being
reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that
Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the
Guardian's long history occurred ? with two GCHQ security experts
overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just
to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could
possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off
the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of
symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue
to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just
won't do it in London. The seizure of Miranda's laptop, phones, hard
drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald's work.

The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance
will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most
journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the
absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance,
when or if it comes ? and, increasingly, it looks like "when".

We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible
for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting ? indeed,
most human life in 2013 ? leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those
colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state
to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day
have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause,
under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow
transit lounges.

Alan Rusbridger is the chief editor of The Guardian.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: