Spot The Bully – Journalism or Government?

SPS Polis 2014 journalism conference

The POLIS 2014 Journalism Conference, held on the campus of the London School of Economics, played host to a number of luminaries from the British media establishment and debated some important issues. But among the various items on the agenda – including riveting discussions on the methods and ethics of investigative journalism, an interview with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and a forum on the use of social media in the newsroom – was a slightly incongruous, strangely titled session.

In the second session of the day, the panel – comprised of chair Anne McElvoy (BBC and The Economist), Annette Dittert (German broadcaster ARD), Michael Crick (Channel 4 News) and Ed Lucas (The Economist) debated the following topic:

Journalism after Snowden: Watchdog or thug?

In the wake of the Snowden story and the Leveson Inquiry into the press, we ask whether British journalism is to supine or too aggressive? Was the publication of state secrets justified?

SPS_Polis2014_01

Semi-Partisan Sam, attending the POLIS Journalism Conference for the first time, took the opportunity to ask the following question of the panel:

QUESTION – Given the facts: that Reporters Without Borders downgraded the UK from 29th to 33rd in the World Press Freedoms rankings for 2014;  that the British government now assumes the right to stop and detain partners and relatives of journalists at Heathrow airport under grossly misapplied anti-terror laws; that the Prime Minister last year saw fit to dispatch his Cabinet Secretary to the offices of a major national newspaper in order to threaten it with closure unless they desisted with the publication of materials embarrassing to the government; and that the government forced that same newspaper to destroy their privately owned computers and hard drives under the watchful presence of intelligence and GCHQ officers – why are we sitting here having an introspective debate about whether or not journalists are behaving like thugs when the real thug is clearly the bullying, heavy-handed British government?

The question was extremely well received among the attendees in the hall, prompting a significant round of applause from delegates. Sadly, this did not translate into a a full or robust answer from the panel, who at times had been happier to wander off-topic and waste time debating side issues such as America’s merits as a country and the proper role of the intelligence services.

The panel’s complete answer – such as it was – to the question can be seen in the video below (Semi-Partisan Sam is “the gentleman” referred to by Anne McElvoy):

The Economist’s Ed Lucas, an enthusiastic apologist for anything and everything that the government decides to do in the name of ‘security’, was obviously unsympathetic to the idea that the British government has displayed thuggish behaviour. But since even Lucas was unable to justify what the government has been caught doing without public knowledge or consent, he instead diverted attention by building up and then destroying a straw-man argument of his own creation – namely that those who speak out against government persecution of journalists who expose overreach by the security services are somehow naive pacifists who want to abolish the military and the intelligence services entirely.

Lucas said: “If you want to have a country which has no intelligence and security services, where there are no state secrets or no penalty for stealing state secrets, then fine – I guess that may be the world that the Green Party would like. I suspect it’s a minority point of view.”

This is a patently false and absurd proposition. No serious critic of the British or American governments as pertaining to their secretly allowing their security services to infringe on citizen privacy is suggestion that GCHQ, MI6, the CIA or NSA be disbanded, and Lucas insults our intelligence to cast this aspersion. The issue is not whether we have security and intelligence services, but the lengths to which we as a society are prepared to let them act in our interest.

The other fatuous argument sometimes made by apologists – and indeed by Ed Lucas himself during this same session – goes along the lines of: “Why are people so surprised that we have spies, and that they are involved in acts of spying?” Again, this is a deliberate and misleading attempt to change the terms of the debate. Citizens fully understand the need for foreign and domestic intelligence, but they also have the right to expect that the technology and bureaucracy of surveillance will not be turned inwards upon themselves. While no one expects (or demands) a list of current surveillance targets to be posted and regularly updated on the  internet, the public should have input as to the criteria for targeting through the democratic process.

It is a rather sad statement on the current status of British journalism that the only panellist to seriously engage with the question and agree that it is government – not the press – who have been acting the bully, was Annette Dittert from German broadcaster ARD.

Even the panel chair, Anne McElvoy, felt the need to reframe the question and make the unsubstantiated claim that Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, had been carrying “shedloads of secrets with him” when he was detained at Heathrow airport, and that rather than being an outrage, this was just one of the “more difficult areas” where the public “might begin to have some doubts” and feel that the government has a case to answer.

In her response, Dittert correctly identified the apathy of the British people as being partly responsible for the lack of public outcry at the Edward Snowden revelations, saying that Britain has an “almost romantic relationship with the security services” – our experiences of the fictional James Bond being somewhat different to the German experience of the Stasi.

Responding to the question, Dittert said: “I thought it was really concerning – the Prime Minister threatening in the House of Commons a newspaper and journalists … in case they go on publishing is something that shouldn’t happen in a democracy.”

Dittert then went on to describe the way that The Guardian newspaper was treated as being “entirely wrong”.

It is profoundly worrying that even at a prestigious journalism conference such as POLIS 2014, so few of the attendees (and only one of the panellists – a German television correspondent) felt able to push back against the notion that it is the journalistic profession that has become the bully and the thug rather than the British government, whose track record on secrecy, paranoia and intimidation speaks for itself.

And while the POLIS 2014 conference was excellent, the fact that the whole day passed with virtually no observance or mention of the harrassment and intimidation of the British press by the goverment will only reinforce the belief that the establishment media with their well-connected sources and comfortable positions within the Westminster bubble are, at times, quite incapable of holding to account the government that they simultaneously both depend on and fear.

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3 thoughts on “Spot The Bully – Journalism or Government?

  1. Semi-Partisan Sam October 20, 2014 / 2:00 PM

    Many thanks Charlie for taking the time to comment, and thanks again for hosting such a great and informative conference back in April – I look forward to next year’s event.

    You’re absolutely correct to point out that Alan Rusbridger’s keynote (for which I was present) focused heavily on the misconduct of government, and I should have pointed out this key exception when I wrote the piece. Let me hereby correct the record.

    However, I still came away from Polis14 feeling that on balance – with the presence of journalists such as Ed Lucas and the inclusion of a discussion panel that asked whether it was actually journalism that was behaving thuggishly, the general tone was one of introspection when what is really needed (even more so now) is a bold and united reassertion of the importance of a free press. This may have just been my impression though – I freely admit that I am far from impartial on the matter.

    I remember at one point during the day we were all asked to hold up signs with the hashtag #FreeAJStaff in an important display of solidarity with the imprisoned journalists in Egypt. Given the way that our own government has behaved lately (threatening a national newspaper and making them destroy equipment, abusing anti-terror laws to detain the partner of a journalist at the airport) we should never forget that journalistic and individual liberty is often lost in the smallest of increments, and always under the excuse of protecting wider society or ensuring the public safety.

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  2. Charlie Beckett October 20, 2014 / 1:32 PM

    Thanks for taking the time to write at length about the issues discussed at the conference. Just one qualification. You very kindly said the conference was ‘excellent’ so I realise you are not criticising it overall. But on the point about having speakers who criticised the government, I can only assume that you missed the one hour conference keynote appearance by Alan Rusbridger who spent most of his time doing precisely that. So I don’t want to be over-defensive, but I think that proves that your assertion that ‘the whole day passed with virtually no observance or mention of the harassment and intimidation of the British press by the government’ is completely wide of the mark.
    You can listen to Alan’s talk here http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsandmedia/videoandaudio/channels/publiclecturesandevents/player.aspx?id=2375
    Regards Charlie Beckett (Polis, LSE)

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