What’s the difference between an interrogation room at Heathrow Airport and a community hall on Benbecula? Less than you might think.
On Sunday, David Miranda, on his way home to Brazil, was taken off a flight from Berlin and detained without charge for almost nine hours. He had all his electronic devices confiscated and was allegedly repeatedly threatened with being sent to prison. His crime: being the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist at the centre of the Edward Snowden leaks, which established that security services have been engaged in massive, transatlantic surveillance of citizens’ communications.
Miranda’s treatment is anything but extraordinary – which brings me to the Western Isles. In 1957, as Neal Ascherson recounts in his fascinating 2002 book Stone Voices, the Scottish Land Court sat in Balivanish, on Benbecula. The court, which was established to resolve disputes arising from the 1886 Crofting Act, was hearing a case from the Air Ministry, which wanted to establish a rocket-testing range on the Uists.
One morning, Lord Gibson, an eccentric advocate put out to pasture on the Western Isles, announced his decision: the Air Ministry could have the crofting land, but on condition that the base was operated by a regiment speaking exclusively Gaelic, and clad in a uniform of tartan trews “which would be designed by a friend of his in Lochboisdale”.
That night, as Ascherson reports, the advocate, received a visit from “some anonymous gentleman” who gave “a little talk about Nato and the interests of the state”. The following morning, Lord Gibson reappeared to retract his statement of the previous day. The decision on the rocket range on the Uists was, he said, an Act of State and, therefore, was not open to any interrogation by a court of law. The state, silent yet omnipotent, had spoken.
“Gibson’s humiliation unmasked for a moment the true nature of the unreformed British state,” writes Ascherson. “It revealed the executive absolutism, unrestrained by any constitution, which sets the will of parliament and Cabinet above the law.”
More than 50 years on, the British state at its inveterate, pugnacious worst was on show at Heathrow Airport. David Miranda, who was reportedly taken off his Berlin plane almost as soon as it landed, was detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. This clause allows travellers to be questioned in order to find out whether they appear to be terrorists. They have no right to remain silent or receive legal advice, and they may be detained for up to nine hours. In effect, the airport interrogation room becomes an extra-judicial space, created by the state in which due process is defenestrated.
Of course, protecting our borders is an important function of any government. Few are seriously arguing that authorities should not have powers to search or question those entering, leaving or merely transiting through the UK, but it is impossible to escape the whiff of political policing coming off the Miranda case.
In 2012-13, some 61,145 passengers were stopped and examined under Schedule 7, according to David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. Of these, just 1.2 per cent were held for more than three hours. Miranda was held for just five minutes shy of the maximum nine hours allowable. He was forced to reveal passwords for his mobile phone and computer and told that if he did not co-operate, he would be put in jail.
Miranda was stopped because of his connections to Greenwald and, by extension, Edward Snowden. In Germany, Miranda had been staying with US film-maker Laura Poitras, who has also reportedly been working on the Snowden files with the Guardian.
The Home Office knew about the intention to swoop on Miranda. Home Secretary Theresa May said the police had to act if someone had “highly sensitive, stolen information”.
Even if Miranda was carrying sensitive information (which is unclear), there is little practical benefit for British security services in snaffling pen drives and laptops from the partners of journalists. Have the spooks not heard that files come in digital now, not Manila folders? Anything information Miranda might have possessed would doubtless also have been securely stored elsewhere.
Miranda’s detention was intended as a none-too-subtle message to journalists, and especially those who dig deep into the apparatus of the state rather relying on press releases for their stories – “we can make your life very difficult”.
Earlier this week, the Guardian published photographs of the mangled hard drive of a MacBook Pro – the laptop had been destroyed, under the watchful eyes of two members of the security services from GCHQ, after Prime Minister David Cameron had demanded that the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, destroy the files leaked by Snowden.
Detaining journalists’ associates and smashing up laptops will not stop investigative reporters, but it will have a chilling effect on their work. While the government condemns regimes across the world for human rights abuses, closer to home the space for dissent is being squeezed.
The power of the security forces in Britain goes largely unchecked by parliament (the Home Office is often GCHQ’s most enthusiastic supporter).
Meanwhile, in the United States, which has a venerable tradition of freedom of the press, the Obama administration haspursued whistle-blowers with unparalleled alacrity and determination.
President Barack Obama, who once described leakers as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government”, has presided over more whistle-blower prosecutions than all other previous US governments combined.
The Snowden leaks, and before them the voicemail and expenses scandals, also flag up the importance of an effective Fourth Estate to hold the state to account. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything other than properly-funded journalists being able to harness both the resources and the legal and investigative skills needed to make and break these stories.
This work is expensive and time-consuming – and happens less and less as media companies struggle to maintain profits amid the mass migration of readers from newspapers to online. But investigative journalism has a crucial role to play as a watchdog over democratic societies – the world would have been a very different place without Woodward, Bernstein and Watergate.
The Miranda detention is an ugly reminder that, in 2013, the British state still retains a shadowy capacity to directly influence supposedly due process. And this event could even impact on the constitutional debate north of the Border. A repressive British state, with human faces such as Miranda, could yet pose major problems for No campaigners in 2014. Such heavy-handed tactics could yet become one of the “smaller political shocks” that Henry McLeish, in his recent Scotsman article, said he feared could provide “a real tipping point for those increasingly disenchanted with the political and ideological direction of the Union”.
Clampdowns on freedoms, both Press and personal, and smashing up laptops will do little to convince voters of the virtues of the status quo. Of course, what the security apparatus would look like in an independent Scotland is anyone’s guess. (We may even, heaven forbid, end up sharing GCHQ).
But the threatening Big Brother that leant on Lord Gibson in Benbecula back in 1957 was alive and well at Heathrow on Sunday. The only answer to a bully is to stand up to them – and for that we need our Press with both the freedom and the resources to do its job properly.