Editor Willing To Publish Anything Doesn’t Think Public Deserve To Know About Government Surveillance

Only honourable men wear poppies

 

The ongoing public debate about the Snowden NSA leaks and government surveillance was effectively settled once and for all today, as former News of The World editor Andy Coulson informed the world how he would have acted had Edward Snowden approached him – rather than The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald – with his cache of classified security documents.

The Guardian reports:

The former NoW editor Andy Coulson said he would have rejected the Edward Snowden story if it had been offered to him when he was editing the newspaper, the Old Bailey has heard.

Coulson told the phone hacking trial on Tuesday he felt the news story about US National Security Agency surveillance, based upon a cache of documents leaked by the whistleblower Snowden, would have endangered lives.

Andy Coulson – known by many of his peers as the Saint of Fleet Street – distinguished himself throughout his career by his unimpeachable journalistic ethics, frequently declining to run lucrative stories picked up by other newspapers because he could not be absolutely certain that the information had been gleaned from reputable sources or that its publication would serve the public interest.

Showing the steady, high-handed professional judgement which was the hallmark of his tenure as editor of the News of the World, The Guardian reports Coulson as saying:

“It’s a topical example, Edward Snowden. If they came to me at the News of the World, I think I would have turned them down,” he said, adding that the story on sweeping surveillance by the US government had “a potential for lives to be put at risk”.

The fact that Andy Coulson decided to weigh in on this contentious issue can only add further weight and moral credibility to the government’s argument that it has the unlimited right to take any action in the name of national security without either informing or seeking the consent of the public.

Coulson’s intervention is also a tremendous setback for The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, who only yesterday were boasting about their newly-won Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Edward Snowden NSA leaks. Indeed, the judgement and reputation of the entire Pulitzer Prize committee must surely now be called into question for conferring an award on two newspapers who so egregiously violated what is already becoming known as the ‘Coulson Doctrine’ of fastidiously weighing the public interest before publishing sensational material.

Coulson could not be reached for further comment as he is currently standing trial at the Old Bailey on charges of phone hacking and committing perjury, absurd and hurtful accusations that were probably concocted by jealous rivals who can never live up to Coulson’s exemplary standards of professional and moral conduct.

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Tony and Rebekah, Sitting In A Tree

 

Democracy cannot survive without a free press willing and able to act as a check on government power and behaviour.

The relationship between the government and the media should therefore be adversarial – although it was thuggish of David Cameron’s government to dispatch the Cabinet Secretary to the Guardian’s offices to bully them into destroying their computers in the wake of the Edward Snowden scandal, rather this terrible, flagrant abuse of power than the chilling alternative of Sir Jeremy Heywood popping by every single afternoon for tea, chitchat and a list of government-sanctioned news stories for publication.

But it is this latter, far more insidious type of close, symbiotic relationship that has been prevalent between parts of the British media and the politicians on whom they report and are supposed to keep in check.

Former prime minister Tony Blair may no longer occupy Number 10 Downing Street, but the self-evident warmth of his newly revealed correspondence with Rebekah Brooks – former chief executive of News International, now on trial for her alleged role in the phone hacking scandal – shows just how overfamiliar those in power can get to those who lead the publications who supposedly scrutinise them.

The following exchange of text messages between Tony Blair and Brooks on the day after her resignation, reported by The Guardian, really says it all:

Tony Blair: If you’re still going to parliament you should call me. I have experience of these things! Tx

Rebekah Brooks: Definitely depends on the police interview first. I have Stephen Parkinson [a lawyer] here today. I have never met him but people say he is good.

Tony Blair: He’s excellent.

Rebekah Brooks: Great news. Feeling properly terrified. Police are behaving so badly.

Tony Blair: Everyone panics in these situations and they will feel they have their reputation to recover. Assume you have quality QC advice? When’s the interview?

Rebekah Brooks: Sunday probably or Monday. Cms committee. Tuesday. Stephen bringing someone called Emma Hodges and we have QC.

Tony Blair: That’s good. I’m no use on police stuff but call me after that because I may be some help on Commons.

Rebekah Brooks: Great. Will do. X

There are two issues here. The first is the impropriety of a former UK prime minister essentially offering coaching to someone involved in a very current public scandal before they are due to give evidence at a parliamentary committee hearing. While there may be no legal prohibition on this type of interaction, it seems very morally dubious. Were the subject of the hearing about anything else it could perhaps be overlooked, but since it was a hearing of the Culture Select Committee specifically on the allegations of phone hacking and the issues raised about the behaviour of the press, Blair’s offer of counsel and friendly support seems to put him squarely on the side of the alleged perpetrators rather than the victims.

The second issue is the self-evident friendship between the former news executive and the former politician. Friendships such as these are forged over time, some of which was doubtless while Tony Blair was still  prime minister. If Tony Blair’s regard for Rebekah Brooks is such that he was offering her emotional support via text message at the height of the phone hacking scandal, what other acts of friendship was he bestowing upon her while he still occupied Number 10 Downing Street? And how might the publications that Brooks ran have reflected this friendship?

Some might argue that it is unfair to question the nature of this friendship. They are wrong – it is entirely appropriate. Serving as prime minister comes with certain responsibilities and standards of behaviour. It may not be part of the oath of office, but one of those responsibilities is surely to maintain professional relationships with business and the media. If both Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks were doing their jobs properly during the period of his premiership, this would almost certainly have precluded any meaningful friendship from forming. If, however, they were behaving toward each other then as they apparently do so now, everything suddenly makes a lot more sense.

While the release of Tony Blair and Rebekah Brooks’ text message correspondence doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know – that our elected leaders are sometimes far too close to the press barons who help to control the news agenda – seeing the evidence in black and white is still unsettling.

Recalling Tony Blair as prime minister and then juxtaposing this new image of “T” sending kiss-laden text messages to the woman who then edited Britain’s most-read newspaper casts that era in a whole new, sordid light. The dirty, illicit feeling that reading these messages evokes would be more at home in the television series “House of Cards” than real-world Britain.

We deserve better from our politicians, and from the news media.

SEMI-PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

In an interesting piece from Slate Magazine, Hanna Rosin delves into the deeper meaning behind the fact that the men strived to protect the women as the horror of the Aurora Colorado shooting unfolded. In an interesting and poignant article, noting the various ways that traditional “manhood” is being eroded by economic and social forces, she concludes: “Throwing your body in front of your girlfriend when people all around you are getting shot is an instinct that’s basic, and deeper. It’s the same reason these Batman and Spider-Man franchises endure: Because whatever else is fading away, women still seem to want their superhero, and men still seem to want to be him.”

Through the prism of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s memoirs and a recent Soyuz rocket launch, Atlantic magazine takes an interesting look at the intertwining of human spaceflight endeavours (perhaps the pinnacle of our scientific accomplishment) with religion and the sacred world. As well as the obvious example of Aldrin taking communion while on the surface of the moon, the author also considers other examples: “here is a priest, outfitted in the finery of a centuries-old church, shaking holy water over the engines, invoking God’s protection for a journey to near-earth orbit. That these two spheres of human creation co-exist is remarkable. That they interact, space agencies courting the sanction of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is strange”. A long article, but well worth a read.

Mike Huckabee thinks that Chick-fil-A’s decision to come out in opposition to gay marriage equality is just super, and is proposing that Americans make this Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” in recognition of their “principled” (some might say irrelevant, because a corporation is harmed by gay marriage even less than a heterosexual human being) stance.

NPR reports in depth on the Vatican’s decision to send a crack team of Bishops to oversee the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – an organisation representing the majority of nuns in the United States – due to concerns that they are promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith”. Sister Pat Farrell, whose interview forms the basis of this article, sees things rather differently, and while she says that the LCWR will do its utmost to engage with the Vatican in good faith, there may be some elements of the mandate with which they cannot comply. Money quote from Sister Pat: “The question is, ‘Can you be Catholic and have a questioning mind?’ That’s what we’re asking … I think one of our deepest hopes is that in the way we manage the balancing beam in the position we’re in, if we can make any headways in helping to create a safe and respectful environment where church leaders along with rank-and-file members can raise questions openly and search for truth freely, with very complex and swiftly changing issues in our day, that would be our hope. But the climate is not there. And this mandate coming from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not a dialogue. If anything, it appears to be shutting down dialogue.”

A British couple holidaying in British Columbia caught a big fish. A really, really big fish. A really, really, really really big fish. The creature weighs nearly half a metric tonne, is 4 metres long and is estimated to be at least 100 years old. Makes for some good bragging rights back at the local pub when they go home…

 

BRITISH POLITICS

Minister of the Bleeding Obvious states the bleeding obvious in this story from The Telegraph. Treasury minister David Gauke informs us that it is “morally wrong” to pay tradesmen (plumbers, builders, electricians etc.) with cash in hand, as this makes it easier for them to evade VAT or income tax. Aside from the fact that every cabinet member from Cameron on downwards needs to quit the moral preaching (why can’t you just say “illegal” or “wrong”?), his basic point is right. Until he goes on to say: “Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax”. Seriously, Mr. Gauke? You expect us to believe that the black economy makes our taxes higher? You would tax us just as much as you already do even if you could get your hands on this missing slice of revenue, you would just find new ways to fritter it away on pointless, undeserving goals. So let’s not pretend that the cash-in-hand job that your local plumber does on the sly is the one thing standing between us and an actual competitive tax code. You must think we’re all really dumb.

The Commons Culture Committee has reported that they believe the UK’s current gambling laws are outdated and have not kept pace sufficiently with technological innovations such as online gaming. Overall, this appears to be a liberalisation of the market, which is good news. However, the proposed bill has been somewhat watered down in an attempt to assuage the concerns of detractors who worry about potential negative externalities.

It’s starting to get real. The BBC reports that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to charge eight individuals with a total of 19 charges relating to the “phone hacking scandal”. Included in those facing charges are Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. So now the Long-Winded Leveson will not be the only thing keeping this dull story in the news. Hooray.

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

Inspired by the movie “Legally Blonde”, 22-year-old US State Senate candidate Mindy Meyer has blinged up her website with a lot of bright pink, bad MIDI sound files and other bells and whistles. If you ever wanted to know what you would get if you crossed a political website with MySpace at the peak of its popularity, here is your answer. She would clearly make a great state senator, because according to her homepage, she is against corruption. Says Meyer: “This is how politics has to change. There is always corruption, but I have the intention to follow my values and ensure that none of what happens in my district is corrupt.” Well, that’s sorted, then.

Commentary magazine takes a hatchet to President Obama’s reputation for being a brilliant orator. Alana Goodman calls Obama out for his recent speech in Roanoke, Virginia, not because of his “you didn’t make that” line but for dull, flat words and delivery when he goes off the autocue. She takes the line where Obama says “There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires” as a particularly egregious example of pedestrian speech-giving. She concludes: “For the past four years, liberals have tried to sell us on the idea that Obama is one of the greatest speakers of all time. Now they’re complaining that conservatives are taking his words literally and not cutting him enough slack. Which one is it?”.

In an excellent, frank op-ed in the New York Times, David Blankenhorn charts his evolution from opposing to supporting the idea of gay marriage. Though disappointed that society no longer thinks of marriage primarily in terms of providing the optimal environment in which to raise children, but instead as an official sanctioning of private relationships, he concedes that given this is how marriage is now viewed by most, the best thing to do is to try to strengthen the institution under its new definition, by welcoming committed gay and lesbian couples into the fold. He eventually comes to the conclusion: “So my intention is to try something new. Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same”.

A good long-form article from The Daily Beast explaining some of the underlying factors and influences behind the GOP’s sinister anti-Muslim hysteria. I thought I had heard pretty much everything when it comes to crazy quotes uttered by Republican lawmakers and “intellectuals” on this topic, but this article introduced me to a few more sad examples.

Gove Educates Leveson On Free Speech

I do admire Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary. When virtually all of the other Conservative cabinet members from David Cameron on downwards have proven themselves to be one disappointment, letdown and betrayal of principle after another, at least Michael Gove has been steadfastly working away at the Department for Education to bring about some real, conservative reforms.

So I was several steps beyond overjoyed when I found out that Gove had been giving evidence to the riveting Leveson Enquiry “into the culture, practices and ethics of the press”.

Suffice it to say that Leveson met his match yesterday:

 

Bravo! Since our taxpayer money is being frittered away in order that this pompous, self-aggrandising old gasbag Leveson can sit there like some modern-day oracle, cooking up new ways to constrain freedom of speech in our country, I am happy that those of us who disagree with the premise of the whole enquiry in the first place were able to extract some small measure of payback by sending Michael Gove into the fray to make him squirm a bit.

A couple of points to note from this video:

1. Just look at Leveson’s defensive, hunched posture compared to the relaxed, attentive stance of Gove. Leveson is clearly used to being flattered and deferred to almost all the time, and clearly was not ready to have his assumptions – and the preordained outcome of the enquiry – challenged in so articulate a fashion.

2. This is supposed to be an impartial enquiry, remember? So statements like “Don’t you think that the evidence I have heard from at least some of those who have been the subject of press attention can be characterised as rather more than ‘some people are going to be offended some of the time’?” have no place being uttered by Leveson. What does it matter what other evidence he has heard? Michael Gove is on the stand now, giving his opinion, which rightly should be his alone and not influenced by the parade of people who have already taken the stand. I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t that how these things are supposed to work? This is clearly a man who has made up his mind before he has even started deliberating.

The right-wing press in Britain was of course greatly cheered by this turn of events. From David Hughes, writing at The Telegraph:

Throughout the Leveson Inquiry it’s been pretty evident that it was the lawyers who felt they were the smartest guys in the room. Today that changed. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, gave a virtuoso display of both intellect and guts as he made the case for press freedom. It’s perhaps no surprise that this journalist turned politician should, for the first time, take the argument to the Inquiry and swing it away from its focus on Murdoch and hacking and concentrate its mind on the wider issue of freedom of expression.

Plenty of witnesses have had mini-spats with Robert Jay QC, the counsel for the Inquiry, but no-one has so far tried to lock horns with Lord Leveson himself. Gove did so with brio: “Before the case for regulation is made, there is a case for liberty as well…I am unashamedly on the side of those who say we should think very carefully about regulation. By definition, free speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.”

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/davidhughes/100161393/michael-gove-plays-a-blinder-at-leveson/

Michael Deacon, also writing at The Telegraph, came away similarly impressed:

Mr Gove was once a journalist, and three months ago said the inquiry might have a “chilling” effect on the press. He clearly hadn’t come to roll over. You could see it in his posture: always leaning sharply forward, as if to confront his interrogators. Without embarrassment he described Rupert Murdoch as “one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years”. He spoke out against the creation of new press regulations, and stressed the importance of free speech.

Perhaps all this makes his performance sound pompous. Yet it wasn’t. Even – or perhaps especially – at his most serious, Mr Gove is drolly camp. There’s more than a whiff of Niles Crane about him.

Lord Leveson didn’t seem amused. “I don’t need to be told the importance of liberty, Mr Gove,” he said frostily. “I really don’t.” Mr Gove didn’t so much as blink.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/9298341/Leveson-sketch-Michael-Gove-Secretary-of-State-for-Rogets.html

Even the BBC News analysis was quite complimentary:

He is one of the highest profile libertarians in his party and he gave a passionate defence of the right of freedom of speech. But the suggestion that it counted for nothing unless some people were offended some of the time, clearly got under Lord Justice Leveson’s skin.

The long, tense exchange that followed between the two men got to the very heart of the argument that Leveson is wrestling with – whether new laws and regulation will be needed to rein in the press.

The background to all this is a speech Mr Gove made a few months ago when he warned that the Leveson inquiry could have a “chilling” effect on press freedoms.

The education secretary has expressed his concern that the case for liberty could be drowned out by the anger over phone hacking. This performance in the witness box ensures that that argument will be heard and his close relationship with the prime minister means it’s a message that will go right to the top once the inquiry reaches its conclusion.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18257958

Sadly, this excellent exchange is highly unlikely to have any bearing on the outcome of the enquiry, the findings of which Leveson is probably already writing as he still hears evidence. Leveson clearly views himself as the moral arbiter of the media, and will no doubt recommend some new burdensome regulations and oversight to further suppress freedom of expression in the press. The best hope for those on my side of the argument will be that as has been the case with so many other enquiries, the findings will be warmly praised, filed away and never acted upon.

Nonetheless, yesterday was a good day for freedom of expression in Britain, as Michael Gove revealed the faux-concern of the Levesons and other pro-regulation afficionados for the overbearing, control-freakish sham that it is, and sounded a call to arms for the defence of freedom of speech in this country.

How To Waste Public Money 101

As I type, Tony Blair is giving evidence to the Leveson Enquiry. Why do I care? Because it is receiving wall-to-wall coverage on Britain’s rolling news channels, and as dull as the whole wretched thing is, I cannot bring myself to change channel to The Weakest Link or whatever other daytime television is on offer.

What is the Leveson Enquiry? For those unfamiliar, the enquiry has its own website. And logo. Funny how these things have become a kind of industry of their own in Britain.

http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/

I only tuned in toward the end of the session in which Tony Blair was giving evidence, but having subsequently seen the “highlights” repeated on BBC News, I am slightly concerned that we might just be paying a lot of people to sit around for no productive reason whatsoever.

The world’s most tedious man embarks upon a ten-minute, multi-clause question seemingly designed to flatter himself and not to extract any remotely useful information from the witness

Television at its best here.

Tony Blair listens to the incredibly long, pompous question being addressed to him before realising that another 3 hours of this lie ahead, losing the will to live and giving another predictably bland answer.

And after all of this drama and posturing, what did we actually learn today from Tony Blair’s evidence? Essentially, that the media is very powerful and that Tony Blair recognised this when he was Prime Minister, and devised clever strategies to try to keep as much of the media as possible on his side. Oh, and that he didn’t think it was really very proper for the press to say nasty things about his wife and children. Fascinating.

We are paying for all of these people to sit in a room, surrounded by their lever-arch files and court stenographers, so that a glossy report can be published and life can continue exactly as it did before.

Here is all anyone needs to know about regulation of the press and freedom of speech in Britain. Quite literally, this is all anyone needs to know:

1. There is a small elite of powerful people in Britain whose families know each other, who attended the same schools, the same parties, and the same social events. Whether they end up in politics (in either of the main parties), industry (running big companies that do business in Britain) or the media (newspaper or television), their personal preferences, feuds and biases are reflected in the attitudes of their respective political parties / companies / newspapers to one another. Anyone surprised by this non-revelation is a simpleton.

2. We will never know whether any secret deals have been done between any prior governments and media entities in the past, because there are no robust rules about lobbying, declaring interests or exercising influence in place at the moment, and no one involved in such a scheme is very likely to blurt out the fact during an on-the-record, televised enquiry. If you are wondering whether this fact renders the whole enquiry a complete waste of time, you would not be alone.

3. Our libel laws are ridiculous and need urgent reform. Nothing to do with the Leveson enquiry, just a fact.

4. The division between news reporting and opinion is not as clear as it should be in British newspapers.

5. British media companies, like companies in general, sometimes hire bad people who do bad things while on the job. Sometimes this becomes endemic in the organisation concerned. We don’t need to create special new laws to prevent such things happening in the future. If phone hacking was illegal before, prosecute the people involved under the existing laws. Just as we don’t need to design new regulations when the misdemeanour happens in a construction company or a bank, so we don’t need to design new laws when it happens in the media. Tempting though it may be when everyone is a lawyer and wants to be paid for doing something.

6. Until we as a country codify at a very high, hard-to-amend level (i.e. in a constitution or bill of rights of some kind) exactly what, if any, restrictions we are willing to accept on free speech – both as individuals and as media – any time that anything happens to rock the boat, any time that anyone in the media does something improper, we will have another enquiry like this and pay a bunch of former and current lawyers and judges to sit around doing what they are doing at the moment.

7. That’s it.

Isn’t our unwritten constitution a wondrous, beautiful thing? Oh, how we must treasure and preserve it for all time.

UPDATE – Oh, here’s the best bit. Because Tony Blair was interrupted by a protester while giving evidence to the enquiry, Lord Justice Leveson has now ordered an enquiry into how his enquiry was interrupted by a protester. I’m not joking. Welcome to Britain.