It remains to be seen whether Glenn Greenwald’s decision to accept funding for a new online journalistic venture from eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar is a wise or foolish move – Omidyar has also partnered with the endlessly self-promoting Arianna Huffington and employed the even more repellant Meg Whitman as his CEO – but there is no doubt he is leaving The Guardian just when that newspaper needs as many stiff spines in its newsroom and managerial offices as it can muster.
Recent days have seen a right-wing onslaught in Britain, predictably led by those bastions of reaction, The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, but inspired from the shadows by MI5, assailing The Guardian for publishing Edward Snowden’s leaks detailing the crimes and misdemeanours of the National Security Agency (NSA) and its UK equivalent, the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ).
Others have joined the fray, including Jack Straw, notable for being the only British politician more execrable than Tony Blair, and this snivelling contribution from someone called Chris Blackhurst, whose period as editor of The Independent indubitably accounts for that paper’s decline in recent years.
Yesterday, however, things got worse. In the British House of Commons, prime minister David Cameron signaled a worrying shift in direction, making remarks which look very much like the precursor to some heavy legal move against The Guardian. With hindsight the concert of MI5, the right-wing press, right-wing politicians and now Cameron looks pre-planned. People at The Guardian would do well to be on their guard. This is about encourager les autres.
Cameron made reference to events at The Guardian’s offices back in August when technicians from GCHQ oversaw the destruction of laptops by Guardian staff which contained some of the Snowden leaks. At the time, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger justified the concession by saying that it enabled his newspaper to continue coverage of the leaks because the material destroyed was also held in computers in Brazil and the United States, beyond the reach of the British law.
His stand won almost universal praise and understandably so, given that his act of defiance comes against a depressing narrative of increasing convergence of the security state and much of the media in the West in recent years. As for myself I wondered whether Rusbridger had scored an own goal, conceding ground to the British state that could not be retrieved. Now I wonder if he walked into a trap. Here is what Cameron said in the British parliament yesterday and beneath that what I wrote back in August.
Speaking at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Cameron said: “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security and in many ways the Guardian themselves admitted that when they agreed, when asked politely by my national security adviser and cabinet secretary to destroy the files they had, they went ahead and destroyed those files.
“So they know that what they’re dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think it’s up to select committees in this house if they want to examine this issue and make further recommendations.”
By agreeing to destroy its hard drives on foot of a government fiat, Rusbridger was effectively giving the authorities in Britain the right to say that stories of which it disapproved could not be generated from the Guardian’s London office or if they were they would incur official displeasure and the unimpeded invasion of its workplace. After all, having already conceded the government’s right to enter the Guardian’s basement to destroy his hard drives, Rusbridger cannot go into court and challenge it should Cameron’s government wish to do the same again.
The Miranda/Greenwald/Snowden story is not especially problematic in this regard. The story is after all mostly an American one and the principal actors do not work or live in the UK. So it matters less for this story that Rusbridger gave up ground to the British authorities. The notion of keeping the story going from Brazil and Berlin also makes practical sense. But what if the next whistleblower is a Brit and works in GCHQ or MI5? Not now being able to stop the authorities invading his offices to destroy sensitive source material, is Rusbridger going to have to base the reporters covering the story abroad? How feasible or even possible is that?
Would it not have been better to have forced the British government’s legal hand and obliged them to seek court permission to gag what is after all now one of the world’s best known and respected newspapers? It might not be the ideal solution for a newspaper editor keen on keeping his circulation healthy but it sure as hell would clarify the great danger to liberties represented by the growing surveillance state. And the result would not necessarily be a foregone conclusion, not least because the case would inevitably have ended up at the European Court at Strasbourg where the British would likely face a less pliant judiciary.