August 20, 2013

“You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:29

Things are getting surreal at the Guardian:

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 Pro.

Update: Charlie Beckett at the LSE’s Polis blog:

The narrative of increasing totalitarian persecution has a few flaws. Firstly, I think it was entirely reasonable for security forces to question someone linked to security breaches. I just think that doing it under terror laws was wrong, especially as Miranda is part of a journalism team.

I am still a little unsure of the Greenwald/Guardian narrative. I am puzzled by why the team chose to fly Miranda through London at all. I am also unclear as to why the Guardian let security officials smash up their hard-drives without making them go down a legal path.* [Someone with more profound doubts about the Guardian and Greenwald is former Tory MP Louise Mensch — good piece by her here]

But those are details. Overall, it’s clear that US and UK officials, long-tortured by WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, are now losing patience with whistle-blowers and their accomplices in the news media. Whatever the absolute truth of the NSA/PRISM revelations it is clear that the security service are pushing the boundaries on what they can do with new technologies to increase their information and surveillance. They are also seeking to reduce scrutiny by journalists, as they told Rusbridger:

    “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

That in itself may be worrying but it’s hardly surprising. That is what they are there for. We would all be very cross if there was an act of terror missed because of inadequate data collection by spooks or if a press leak endangered our safety. But it’s also journalism’s job to hold these people to account and let the public know the scope of what they are up to. That’s what worries me about the Miranda incident.

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