I find it more than a little disturbing that these two explicit threats to press freedom have been issued by the government in the space of 24 hours. Note that Cameron’s statement about the Snowden leaks comes at the same time as prominent NSA loyalists are breaking ranks in America to call for a ‘total review’. Much like ‘compassionate conservatism’ and ‘vote blue, go green’, it seems that any pretence of a commitment to breaking with the creeping authoritarianism of the New Labour era has now been abandoned:
The BBC could face a cut in the TV licence fee or have to share it with other broadcasters unless it rebuilds public trust, a Tory minister has said.
Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps told the Sunday Telegraph the broadcaster must be “more transparent” and change its “culture of secrecy”.
The current £145.50 annual fee would be “too much” without reform, he said.
A BBC spokesman said transparency and freedom from political pressure were key to the BBC’s future.
Mr Shapps’ comments come after negative publicity over pay-outs to top executives and the handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Numerous allegations against Savile, who presented programmes including Jim’ll Fix It during a long career at the BBC, emerged after his death in 2011 and police have since described him as a “prolific, predatory sex offender”.
Mr Shapps also mentioned the case of former BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a series of sexual assaults on young girls.
In a statement to MPs on Monday about last week’s European summit in Brussels, where he warned of the dangers of a “lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view” about the dangers of leaks, the prime minister said his preference was to talk to newspapers rather than resort to the courts. But he said it would be difficult to avoid acting if newspapers declined to heed government advice.
The prime minister issued the warning after the Tory MP Julian Smith quoted a report in Monday’s edition of the Sun that said Britain’s intelligence agencies believe details from the NSA files leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have hampered their work.
The Sun quoted a “top surveillance source” as saying that terrorists have “gone quiet” after the publication of details about NSA and GCHQ operations.
Cameron told MPs: “We have a free press, it’s very important the press feels it is not pre-censored from what it writes and all the rest of it.
“The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be and that is why the Guardian did actually destroy some of the information and disks that they have. But they’ve now gone on and printed further material which is damaging.
“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”
Nick Cohen wrote a fantastic post on this last night which gets to the crux of the issue:
I don’t see how any reasonable person can argue that a British newspaper should not break a story about a foreign power spying on another foreign power, when there is no threat whatsoever that the revelation will help terrorists groups or organised crime. That criticism persists shows that the Guardian’s enemies are suffering from an advanced case of what Orwell called “transferred nationalism” : though nominally British they have transferred their loyalty to the United States, and react to any threat to American interests as if it were a threat their own.
In any case, the Guardian – for whose parent company I work, I should add – is not only bringing us foreign news. On Saturday, its correspondent James Ball answereda question that has baffled everyone who has hung around the criminal justice system: why do the police and security services refuse to present intercept evidence in court? The answer is that they feared that the public might realise the scale of state surveillance – and protest. Hence, the intelligence services lobbied furiously to hide the fact that, in their words, telecoms firms, had gone “well beyond” what they were legally required to do to help intercept communications. For good measure, GCHQ admitted in private to fearing a legal challenge under the Human Rights Act if its surveillance methods became better known.
The concerns about the failure to produce bugged evidence do not always fall within the standard arguments between liberal doves and national security hawks. Juries acquit guilty men because prosecutors cannot reveal the full case against them. In a free society spies should accept – must accept – that we need an open debate on intercept evidence involving the judiciary, the legal profession, parliament and – for we are meant to be a democracy, after all – the public. We need it even more, when, by its own admission, GCHQ may be breaking the law.
But open debates aren’t the fashion in Britain. We don’t do that kind of thing here.
Tonight, David Cameron warned the Guardian that if it did not “demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”
No one should have been surprised. The ground for his threat to the free press had been well manured by none other than the free press itself.
A friend of mine with time on his hands read all the comment in blogs and columns the Daily Telegraph had run on the Guardian and the security service leaks. His weary eyes surveyed 20 pieces in total. All damned the Guardian, he found. Not one defended the right of newspapers to hold the state to account, even after agents of the state went into the Guardian’s office and supervised the destruction of a computer with copies of Edward Snowden’s documents on. The idea that you defend the freedom to publish – regardless of whether you agree with what is published or not – never occurred to its writers.
The only exception in the wider Telegraph stable was Janet Daley of the Sunday Telegraph, an American expat, significantly. She described her astonishment at the unwillingness of the British to stand-up for basic liberties. “An editor of the US National Review wrote last week of those ‘who steadfastly refuse to express anxiety unless they can actually hear jackboots,’,” she said. “Note: once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late.”
The editor of the Mail, meanwhile, came as close as he dared to demanding that the police arrest the editor of the Guardian. Earlier this month, Stephen Glover, his in-house columnist, reported that Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national security adviser, had said that the Guardian has ‘already done real damage’ to Britain by its revelations, and that information still held by the newspaper could lead to a ‘widespread loss of life’. Suitably primed, Glover thundered:
The Guardian is being accused of putting at risk not only the lives of agents but also potentially the lives of ordinary British people, whom MI5 will now find it more difficult to protect. Divide the accusations in two, and then halve them again, and they are still mind-boggling.
This is the language of a treason trial; words that justify any action by the state to silence the journalist. The reason the Mail deploys them goes far beyond disagreements over one story. Foreigners will not understand the circular firing squad the British media have formed unless they understand that the British Right has its own version of the Marxist myth of false-consciousness.
I find myself increasingly convinced that Owen Jones is right that British politics could get very nasty in the run up to the next election (and perhaps beyond).