Politicians fail to recognise our fundamental interests are as important as their own self interests, writes Joyce McMillan
A couple of weeks ago, a strange straw in the wind drifted across my desk, in the shape of a column written for the Independent by the company’s group content director, Chris Blackhurst. In it, he described a recent chance encounter in a corridor at Westminster with a senior Labour woman politician, whom he described as being “incandescent” with rage over the Guardian newspaper’s decision to publish material made available by Edward Snowden, the analyst for a private intelligence contractor who was so shocked by the extent of US government surveillance of personal communications, both within the US and worldwide, that he leaked a substantial tranche of information to the media, before fleeing the country.
In a slightly convoluted piece, Blackhurst expresses his opinion that the ex-minister’s rage was real, although he fails to explain why her “incandescence” and her “genuine anger” had taken no less than five months to develop, since the Guardian first published material leaked by Snowden in May. And then, instead of defending the Guardian against the grandstanding of politicians whose own scrutiny of the security services has been neither very effective nor very transparent, Blackhurst writes the following sentence: “If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, then who am I to disbelieve them?”
The short answer, of course, is that he is a senior journalist in a supposedly free society, with an obligation to freedom of speech and open public debate that should override any automatic duty of compliance with government and its agencies. And as this week at Westminster unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that, behind the high-profile row about the government’s proposal to set up a new press regulator under Royal Charter – a confused measure that will probably have little impact on the operation of most newspapers – something much more threatening to media freedom was brewing around parliament, in the shape of an aggressive fightback by the security services against the allegation that they have been exceeding their powers. It clearly took the security establishment some months to work out how to react, while the Snowden revelations about the monitoring of billions of day-to-day phone and e-mail communications – and, last week, about the hacking of the private telephones of major allies, including that of the German chancellor Angela Merkel – continued to raise concern about the mushrooming scale of their activities.
Now, though, it seems they have concluded that the best form of defence is attack; and they have begun to allege that all those who publish leaked material about their activities, including the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, are personally to blame for recklessly undermining national security, and increasing our exposure to terrorist attack. The woman politician Chris Blackhurst met at Westminster, with her sudden “rage” five months after the fact, was clearly echoing this line of argument, acting out with added vigour the series of reactionary attitudes Labour politicians now have to demonstrate if they want to be taken seriously at Westminster. And the same line was repeated word for word, in the Commons this week, by the Prime Minister, who came perilously close to threatening that media freedom, in future, may be conditional on compliance with whatever the government defines as “responsible” behaviour.
Now, of course, we have seen plenty of examples of media irresponsibility in Britain in recent years, although not, I would argue, in this area; and of course, there are detailed aspects of the activity of security services which should not be revealed, for fear of directly undermining operations. What is staggering, though, is the assumption of the security establishment – and increasingly, it seems, of many politicians – that senior journalists and editors have no significant role in holding security services to account, and should essentially just do as they are told by government agencies. In a fascinating discussion on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, on Wednesday, leading establishment figures Dame Pauline Neville Jones and David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, could be heard arguing that Britain’s parliamentary and judicial scrutiny of the security services is so perfect that the press should simply leave them to it; while Kirsty Hughes of Index On Censorship, and the UN rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue, expressed mounting shock that a country which once prided itself on the defence of freedom could have travelled so far down the road of simply accepting that the “war on terror” justifies whatever the security services choose to do – even when, as with the spying on Angela Merkel, what they do bespeaks a very strange mindset indeed.
And as for the politicians on whom we rely for proper scrutiny of our security services, in those areas which genuinely cannot be made public, it has to be said that over the past two decades, our political class have shown themselves ever more incapable of making rational risk assessments about the dangers we face, and of balancing the demands and recommendations of the booming security sector against the obvious damage done to the fabric of our society by aggressive, uncivil and hugely costly security measures. Of course, it is true that most voters care not a jot about these issues, so long as they are left in peace to get on with their lives.
In the end, though, every society has to face the truth that freedom matters, as does the the privacy and dignity of the individual citizen; and that it underpins everything that makes a society worth defending. Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany under the relentless gaze of the Stasi, knows that. And like many observers across the international scene, she will also know, from her own experience, that the language now being used by some senior British politicians, and by leading members of the security establishment on both sides of the Atlantic, is not the language of freedom and democracy; but the age-old language of authoritarian government, telling ordinary citizens to accept what they are told by those who know best, and using the threat of unnamed enemies to seek to stifle the criticism, the exposure and the questioning of power that is the very lifeblood of a free society.