Global dismay greets grilling of editor by MPs
Questioned by a committee of MPs, the British journalist who disclosed mass surveillance by US and UK spies came under fire. Are international observers right to protest about his treatment?
‘I love this country. Do you love this country?’
This is not a question asked by a prosecutor during the current trial of the men accused of murdering a soldier in a terrorist attack earlier this year, but from a leading MP to the editor of a major British newspaper during a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee, wanted The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger to explain how and why he had published secret files about mass surveillance by US and UK spies – information which had been leaked by the fugitive former security contractor Edward Snowden.
Disclosures about the extent of spying by the National Security Agency, an intelligence organisation in the United States, have caused a furore across the world, and President Obama has been forced to apologise to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for bugging her mobile phone.
But in the UK, America’s closest defence ally, concerns about the invasion of privacy and overactive security services have been more muted.
The grilling of The Guardian’s editor this week has reinforced the impression around the world that the UK is happier to back the spies than the principles of free speech, which allow newspapers to publish secrets if their story is in the public interest.
Journalists in other nations expressed amazement and dismay at what they called ‘intimidation’ and ‘threats’ which were ‘making a mockery of the UK parliament’. In America, where freedom of the press is protected there was widespread outrage.
‘To the rest of the world,’ wrote a collection of American news organisations in an open appeal to MPs, ‘it appears that press freedom itself is under attack in Britain today.’ The letter went on to warn that the UK was in danger of encouraging repression in other countries with its treatment of a prominent newspaper editor.
‘These were scenes reminiscent of a McCarthyite hearing or an Old Bailey trial,’ wrote one commentator.
But many MPs reply that this is nonsense: transparency must apply both to how parliament and the press operate. Those who want an open society should welcome the robust treatment of a journalist responsible for an important disclosure. Treating him with kid gloves would be failing the public, whose minds are far from made up on this issue.
Open and shut case?
International observers have this week accused Britain of a woefully weak commitment to transparency because of their decision to put Alan Rusbridger on what one described as the ‘parliamentary toasting fork’.
Meanwhile, the paper claims the real issue should be excessive state surveillance – the behaviour of MPs is a typical example of shooting the messenger when the message contains uncomfortable or embarrassing truths.
- Should parliament be able to summon a journalist for a televised public questioning? Yes or No: give your reasons.
- ‘Security services set up to protect civilians should never have their methods exposed.’ Do you agree?
- In groups, think of all the people who could claim protection in a country with the equivalent of America’s First Amendment.
- Imagine you are an MP on the committee and respond to the open letter from the US journalists (you can find it in the first of our links): justify the conduct of the hearing.
Some People Say...
“Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist.’Marguerite Duras”
What do you think?
Q & A
- No one’s spying on me.
- The point is that neither you nor I really know that. And the Snowden leaks published by The Guardian showed there are programmes to sweep vast amounts of data about telephone calls and emails sent by ordinary members of the public as well as the usual targets of spying. You may not object anyway: in the UK, fewer people now believe the leaks were justified than in June when the story first appeared.
- So it’s OK not to care?
- Britons, it seems, have been more likely than other Europeans to shrug in response to the revelations, or express support for efforts to combat terrorism or cyber crime, even if the methods seem excessive to others. But it’s good to pay attention: even the fact that nations react differently to the balance between transparency and security is interesting.
- In June Snowden fled to Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. On Sunday US officials rejected clemency – or lenience – with White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer claiming ‘Mr Snowden violated US law. He should return to the US and face justice.’
- Public interest
- Famously, this is very hard to define. It does not just mean ‘things that interest the public’.
- The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to free speech.
- Senator Joseph McCarthy, a US Republican, ran a campaign to root out Communists in America during the Cold War. He claimed infiltrators were active in all levels of the American state and his committee of American lawmakers hounded suspected ‘reds’ with accusations of ‘unAmerican activities’.
- Fewer people
- According to the pollsters YouGov, 53% of Conservative supporters now believe that what Snowden did was wrong, compared to 44% in June. Among the general population, support for Snowden, at 58% originally, has now dropped to 48%.