Julian Petley

The state journalism is in: Edward Snowden and the British press

This paper examines the reactions on the part of the government and much of the British national press to Edward Snowden's revelations in the Guardian about massive surveillance by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the National Security Agency (NSA). It argues that the revelations were politically embarrassing as opposed to damaging to national security, and that although the government could be expected to adopt a hostile attitude to the Guardian, it might appear strange that newspapers such as the Sun, Mail and Telegraph did likewise, effectively backing calls for the paper to be prosecuted. However, such a stance is surprising only if one regards such newspapers as conforming to a 'Fourth Estate' model of journalism. This paper argues that they, along with most of the rest of the British national press, are actually a key part of the Establishment rather than a watchdog over it. It is, therefore, entirely unsurprising that when the government and the security services declare that a particular example of journalistic activity endangers 'national security' or damages the 'national interest', most newspapers accept this judgement without demur, and act accordingly.

Keywords: Snowden, Guardian, Rusbridger, national security, GCHQ

‘There’s no need to write any more’

In June 2013, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was contacted by someone whom he describes as ‘a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister’. There followed two meetings in which the official demanded the return or destruction of all the National Security Agency (NSA) material leaked by Edward Snowden on which the newspaper was working. According to Rusbridger: ‘The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.’ The following month he received a phone call from the ‘centre of government’ telling him: ‘You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.’ Other meetings followed with shadowy Whitehall figures, in which the same demand was repeated. At one of these, Rusbridger was told: ‘You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.’ This is chilling enough, but even more so is revelation that:

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK (Rusbridger 2013).

And so it was that on Saturday 20 July, in a deserted basement of the newspaper’s offices, a senior editor and a Guardian computer expert smashed up the hard drives and memory chips on which the encrypted files leaked by Snowden had been stored. They were watched by technicians from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) who took notes and photographs, but who left empty-handed, one of them joking that ‘we can call off the black helicopters’ (ibid).

‘Promoting a political or ideological cause’

On Sunday 18 August, David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who had written a series of stories based on Snowden’s revelations, was held for almost nine hours (the maximum amount of time permitted by law) by UK authorities as he passed through Heathrow on his way home to Rio de Janeiro. He was questioned under the Terrorism Act 2000, the highly controversial section 7 of which allows police officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals at ports, airports and border areas. He was eventually released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

The legality of the police action was queried both by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and condemned as being without legal basis by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer. In November, Miranda launched a challenge in the High Court. At the time of writing this is continuing, but it has already flushed into the open a particularly disturbing aspect of his detention, namely that the document used to request it stated that ‘the disclosure or threat of disclosure [of the material that he was carrying] is designed to influence a government, and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This, therefore, falls within the definition of terrorism and as such we request that the subject is examined under schedule 7’. As Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, commented: ‘The express admission that politics motivated the detention of David Miranda should shame police and legislators alike. It’s not just the schedule 7 detention power that needs urgent overhaul, but a definition of terrorism that should chill the blood of any democrat’ (Doward 2013). Nonetheless, when Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick, Scotland Yard’s head of counter-terrorism, appeared before the Commons Home Affairs select committee on 13 December 2013, she revealed that the police were still combing through the material seized from Miranda to ascertain whether any offences may have been committed under the Official Secrets or Terrorism Acts.


In the meantime, there had been no let-up in the political pressure on and threats against the Guardian. Indeed, on 20 August the Independent had revealed that Rusbridger’s emissary from the ‘centre of government’ had been none other than Britain’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and that the approach took place with the explicit approval of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Foreign Secretary William Hague. At prime minister’s questions, on 16 October, the former defence secretary Liam Fox asked Cameron:

May we have a full and transparent assessment of whether the Guardian’s involvement in the Snowden affair has damaged Britain’s national security? Does my Right Hon. Friend agree that it is bizarre that from some the hacking of a celebrity phone demands a prosecution, whereas leaving the British people and their security personnel more vulnerable is seen as opening a debate?

As we shall see, this was by no means the first time that the phone-hacking hare had been set running during the Snowden affair, but what is interesting here is that Cameron’s reply:
(a) shows that the Guardian had been put in a Catch-22 situation by agreeing to destroy the computers;
(b) and appears to encourage one or more select committees to investigate whether the Guardian had broken the law. Cameron replied:

I commend my Right Hon. Friend for raising the issue. I think the plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security, and in many ways the Guardian itself admitted that when, having been asked politely by my national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary to destroy the files that it had, it went ahead and destroyed those files. It knows that what it is dealing with is dangerous for national security. I think that it is up to Select Committees in the House to examine the issue if they wish to do so, and to make further recommendations (Cameron 2013a).

‘McCarthyite scaremongering’

In a parliamentary debate on 22 October, Julian Smith, Conservative MP for Skipton and Rippon, launched a lengthy, innuendo-laden and inaccuracy-strewn attack on the Guardian. In it Smith paid handsome tribute to ‘our ex-colleague, Louise Mensch, who through her blog, social media and [Sun] columns has ensured that this major national security issue has been kept alive throughout’, and Mensch has repeatedly repaid the compliment in her various outpourings on this issue. However, the speech was described by Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, as ‘a piece of McCarthyite scaremongering’ which ‘disgraces parliament’. According to Smith, the subject of the debate was ‘to highlight where the Guardian has crossed the line between responsible journalism and seriously risking our national security and the lives of those who seek to protect us’. Such charges are highly contentious, but they informed the entirety of Smith’s speech, at the end of which he stated that:

The Terrorism Act is clear about the illegality of communicating information about our intelligence staff and, specifically, GCHQ. The Official Secrets Act is equally clear about the illegality of communicating classified information that the recipient knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be to the detriment of national security. Last week, I wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to ask him to investigate whether the Guardian has breached those two Acts. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to ensure that the police expedite their investigation (Smith 2013).

In response, James Brokenshire, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, agreed that the Guardian’s reporting of the Snowden material had done ‘huge damage to national security’ and echoed Cameron in claiming that ‘in many ways, the Guardian admitted that when it agreed to destroy files when asked to by the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood’. However, he also added that ‘it is obviously not for ministers to direct the police to arrest or investigate anyone … It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a crime has been committed and what action to take’ (ibid). They cannot have been left in much doubt, however, by this and numerous other political interventions, about what actions the government would distinctly prefer them to take.

D Notices

Smith cropped up again on 28 October when he asked Cameron: ‘Following this morning’s revelations in the Sun [sic] on the impact of the Snowden leaks, is it not time for any newspaper that may have crossed the line on national security to come forward and voluntarily work with the government to mitigate further risks to our citizens?’ Cameron’s response was, to all intents and purposes, to suggest that if the Guardian did not censor itself, the government would take on the task:

We have a free press and it is very important that the press feels it is not pre-censored in what it writes. The approach we have taken is to try to talk to the press and explain how damaging some of these things can be. That is why the Guardian destroyed some of the information on disks it had, although it has now printed further damaging material. I do not want to have to use injunctions, D Notices or other, tougher measures; it is much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. However, if they do not demonstrate some social responsibility, it will be very difficult for the government to stand back and not to act (Cameron 2013b).

Finally, in this inevitably highly selective review of political pressure on the Guardian, one cannot ignore the remarkable spectacle of Rusbridger being hauled before the Home Affairs select committee as part of its enquiry into counter-terrorism. As Roy Greenslade pointed out on 3 December:

What was remarkable is that the whole thing happened at all. With the British press having obtained the right to its freedom from political control in the 17th century, here was parliament calling a newspaper to account for exercising that freedom. Why, I kept asking myself, was an editor being required to explain himself to MPs? What makes them think they have the right to do so? Do they act for the people or against them? (Greenslade 2013).

That said, the questioning of Rusbridger by Paul Flynn and the Labour MP for Walsall North, David Winnick, did give Rusbridger an excellent opportunity to make his case. In particular he repeatedly pointed out that, contrary to the impression given by much of the press, the Guardian had not identified anyone named in the NSA files. Furthermore, he also revealed that the DA-Notice committee had not raised any concerns about the published material (Home Affairs committee 2013). This is particularly important in the light of Cameron’s ill-informed remark about D Notices quoted above.

D Notices (strictly Defence Advisory Notices) are issued by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) which operates a voluntary code between the media and UK government departments which have responsibilities for national security. According to the DPBAC, the committee and its notices are ‘a means of providing advice and guidance to the media about defence and counter-terrorist information the publication of which would be damaging to national security. The system is voluntary, it has no legal authority and the final responsibility for deciding whether or not to publish rests solely with the editor or publisher concerned’ (DPBAC 2013) although it should be noted that Geoffrey Robertson and Andrew Nicol condemn it as ‘a form of censorship by wink and nudge, by threat and through the complicity of media executives’ (2008: 657).

On 7 November, the committee met and discussed, among other matters, the Snowden affair. The minutes of this part of the meeting are worth quoting at some length, not least as they appear to have received no media coverage at all:

Although views were diverse it was agreed that 99 per cent of the media remained committed to the DA Notice system. It was, however, important to distinguish between embarrassment and genuine concerns for national security. The Vice-Chairman [Retired Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance] felt that much of the material published by the Guardian fell into the former category. They also understood that the Guardian’s initial unwillingness to engage was due to a misunderstanding of the DA Notice Code and in particular its commitment to confidentiality. The Editor feared that if he shared details of his story with the secretariat it might potentially attract an injunction. Education was required on both sides; the PM’s remarks on 28 October being an example of misunderstanding on the government side of how the system operated. He recommended an approach to No. 10 offering a briefing on the DA Notice system. The Vice-Chairman went on to say that this lack of understanding seemed to highlight a greater malaise on the official side where there was worrying evidence of disengagement. For example, the DPBAC Chairman [Jon Thompson, Permanent Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence] had not attended the last two meetings, no Cabinet Office representative was present and the Home Office and FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] principals had both sent representatives. By contrast, the media side were well represented and its members made significant efforts to attend (D Notice 2013).

‘Statutory control’ of the press

During this period, British newspapers had loudly and incessantly complained as, indeed, they had done from the start of the announcement of the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011, about the danger of, as they saw it, ‘statutory control’ of the press. They might, therefore, have been expected to spring swiftly and vociferously to the Guardian’s defence. Instead, the Mail, Sun and Telegraph, along with the weekly Spectator, did their absolute utmost to undermine the newspaper and to bolster the government’s case. And even those titles which did not join the attack considerably underplayed both the significance of Snowden’s revelations and the impropriety of the government’s pressure on the Guardian.

It is possible to distinguish a number of separate themes in the press campaign against the Guardian and on behalf of the government, which I will now deal with in turn.


The first concerns payback for the Guardian’s phone-hacking revelations and the resultant Leveson Inquiry. An early example occurs in a Mail article by Stephen Glover on 21 August, headed ‘That murky arrest troubles me. But the Guardian’s in murky waters where those who love their country should not venture’. It concludes thus:

I also can’t help wondering whether the officers didn’t feel emboldened to throw their weight about partly in consequence of the Leveson Report, which has virtually severed relations between journalists and the police. The Guardian, of course, is almost single-handedly responsible for Leveson because of its later debunked allegation that the News of the World deleted the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Nor can I help pointing out the newspaper that has shed copious tears for Mr Miranda, held for nine hours, had no such concerns over the interrogation of dozens of red-top journalists. Some were arrested at dawn in front of their families, deprived of their computers for months and released on bail. Charges won’t be brought against some of them. Others will end up in court. But even the most culpable among them never attempted to damage their country. With friends like Edward Snowden, and employees such as Glenn Greenwald, that is what the Guardian is in danger of doing (Glover 2013).

Two days later, a Mail editorial entitled ‘Whiff of hypocrisy?’ argued that ‘press freedom is an essential right in any democratic society, but along with rights come responsibilities. The Guardian continues to be vociferous in its demands for police to pursue tabloid journalists suspected of acting illegally. Is the paper so arrogant and hypocritical as to believe it is itself above the law?’ (Daily Mail 2013a). The following day the same line was taken by the Spectator in an article headed ‘The Guardian didn’t care when Murdoch’s journalists were arrested. So why the hysteria now?’ This stated that:

It is good to see the Guardian suddenly rediscover its interest in the sanctity of a free press. Just five months ago, the paper seemed to have given up on the idea, when it backed the statutory regulation of newspapers … When David Cameron’s government proposed to bring back state licensing of the press, this magazine said it would boycott any such regulator no matter what the consequences. We do not remember Mr Rusbridger rushing to support us. He seems to have a rather different test for press freedom: whatever suits his newspaper the best. The Leveson report, and the notion of allowing politicians to set the parameters in which the press can operate, seemed to be quite acceptable to him: after all, it would hurt his rivals the most … Press freedom is indeed under threat in Britain. The Guardian, for all of its proud history, has proven a rather unreliable defender of these freedoms in recent years — especially when it has spotted an opportunity to sock it to Rupert Murdoch (Spectator 2013).

The theme occurred yet again in an article by Rod Liddle in the Sun, 10 October, which, under the headline ‘Guardian treason helping terrorists’, pointed out that:

This is the newspaper which has encouraged state control of the British Press. A publication which has allied itself with the Hacked Off campaign to restrict the freedom of what we in the Press can and can’t report. It was particularly pious about the handful of cases in which journalists on other papers hacked the phones of members of the public in order to get stories. The phone hacking was unquestionably wrong. But it doesn’t compare to what the Guardian has done (Liddle 2013).

Louise Mensch took the same line in the tabloid on 13 October, remarking: ‘You know what’s funny about the Guardian newspaper? They were all for state regulation of the press. The big cheerleaders for Leveson loved it when the News of the World was closed over illegal hacking. But when they break the law, they screech about press freedom’ (Mensch 2013).

The ‘argument’ being deployed in pieces such as these is so manifestly self-interested and opportunistic as to be barely worth serious consideration. However, the crucial point that needs to be made is that no meaningful comparison can be made between the Guardian’s exposure of forms of state surveillance which should be of concern to every citizen in the land, and the phone-hacking by the News of the World for reasons which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the public interest. Furthermore, as we have seen, David Miranda was detained in circumstances of highly dubious legality and he has thus far been charged with precisely nothing, whilst many of those accused of phone-hacking have been both arrested and charged, and, in some cases, have already been convicted of criminal offences as clear-cut as they are serious.

‘A wall of prejudice’

A second theme broadened out the attack on the Guardian to take in other Tory hate objects, namely the BBC, and, by extension, the ‘liberal-Left’. Entirely unsurprisingly, this was the province of the Mail. It was sparked off by a speech by the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, which the Mail decided the BBC failed to cover in sufficient detail. Thus, on 9 October, in an editorial headed ‘The paper that helps Britain’s enemies’, it commented:

It is impossible to imagine a graver charge against a newspaper than that it has given succour to our country’s enemies and endangered all our lives by handing terrorists ‘the gift they need to evade us and strike at will’. Yet so said Andrew Parker, in his first speech as our spy chief, which yesterday was significantly endorsed by No. 10. So isn’t it staggering that the BBC, after spending all last week trumpeting Ed Miliband’s attack on this paper over our charge that his father’s Marxist views validated one of the most evil regimes in history, could hardly bring itself for much of yesterday to report Mr Parker’s devastating indictment of the Guardian? The problem, and it’s worse under the new director general, is that a wall of prejudice surrounds Broadcasting House – a belief that the Right merits relentless attack, while the BBC’s soulmates on the liberal Left must always be protected (Daily Mail 2013b).

Exactly the same line was followed in the same day’s paper by Stephen Glover in a column with the laborious headline: ‘Stupendous arrogance: By risking lives, I say again, the Guardian is floundering far out of its depth in realms where no newspaper should venture’. According to Glover:

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. So what is the response? At the time of writing, the all-powerful BBC has only parenthetically mentioned that the newspaper faces very serious charges, and has made the most feeble attempts to hold the paper or its editor, Alan Rusbridger, to account (Glover 2013b).

This is a version of an argument that is now being put with increasing frequency by the Right, namely that if the BBC fails to cover stories which dominate the press agenda on a particular morning then this is sure-fire proof of the BBC’s fabled ‘Left-wing bias’. An alternative explanation, of course, is that many stories which appear in most national dailies are stories only by the very peculiar standards of Britain’s predominantly hard-Right press, and are frequently too distorted and inaccurate to be worthy of inclusion on the news agenda of a public service broadcaster. It has long been obvious that Britain’s ultra-Conservative newspapers will not rest content until the broadcast news agenda is skewed as far to the Right as is their own. If some semblance of political diversity is to be preserved in the British media, the BBC is going to have resist this pressure with every fibre of its being – which entails showing a great deal more determination than it has done to date.

Thus far, I have quoted only from opinion columns of one kind or another, and a possible retort could be that as long as newspapers separate out fact from comment, news from views, then they should be free to be as partisan as they wish. However, most of the ‘news’ stories about the Guardian and Snowden in the Sun, Mail and (to a slightly lesser extent) Telegraph have been every bit as biased as their op-ed pieces, and I will attempt to illustrate this by reference to my third, and over-arching, theme, namely national security.

News and views

Take, for example, an article in the Mail, 8 October, headed ‘The Guardian has produced a “handbook” that will help fanatics strike at will’, followed by the subordinate headlines ‘Security officials say there was no public interest in Guardian’s expose’, and ‘They also claim terrorists now know where and where not to communicate’. The slant of the article is thus clearly apparent before one even reads it, and the piece itself is dependent entirely upon anonymous ‘security officials’ and ‘Whitehall insiders’ who claim variously that ‘the publication of the documents stolen by Edward Snowden is considered to have done more damage to the security services than any other event in history’, that ‘there was no public interest in publishing top-secret information which details the precise methods used by agents to track terrorist plots’, that ‘fanatics were signposted to the places they should avoid when communicating’, and that ‘the Guardian had helped to produce a “handbook” for terrorists’. Every one of these anonymous quotes is highly contentious, yet there is not the slightest attempt to quote opposing or even merely sceptical viewpoints (Slack 2013a).

The same day’s edition also carried a report of the above-mentioned speech by Parker. Again, the headline and the accompanying straps give the clearest possible indication of the line taken by the article: ‘Guardian has handed a “gift” to terrorists, warns MI5 chief: Left-wing paper’s leaks caused “greatest damage to Western security in history” say Whitehall insiders’; ‘MI5 chief Andrew Parker called paper’s expose a “guide book” for terrorists’; ‘He said the coverage is a gift to “thousands” of UK-based extremists’; and ‘Secret techniques of GCHQ laid bare by Guardian’. Much of the rest of the article consists of generous quotes from Parker, and although there is a short quote from a Guardian spokesman, not only is there no acknowledgement that Parker never once mentioned the Guardian by name but precisely the opposite impression is given – repeatedly and emphatically (Slack 2013b). The Telegraph, 9 October, published the speech in full (Daily Telegraph 2013).

However, a classic example of Mail editorialising posing as ‘news’ stories was provided by two more pieces on 9 October. The first is headed ‘PM backs spy chief’s attack on Guardian: Security expert warned leaks risk “widespread loss of life” but BBC buries criticism of left-wing paper’, with the subordinate headlines: ‘PM’s spokesman said MI5’s Andrew Parker made an “excellent speech”’; ‘The spy chief blasted the Guardian’s publication of secret material’; and ‘Security officials say the expose could lead to UK lives being lost’. On the matter of the BBC, the article reveals that ‘there were last night accusations of editorial bias at the BBC, which initially ignored the scathing criticisms of the Guardian’ (Slack 2013c).

However, the accusations turn out to have been made by none other than the Mail itself! These were in a story headed: ‘How the BBC buried the story: MI5 attack on Left-wing paper’s leaks played down’, with the subordinate headlines: ‘BBC downplays MI5 chief’s scathing condemnation of the Guardian’; ‘Newsnight editor is former Guardian executive Ian Katz’; and ‘“They appear to be protecting Left-wing friends” – Tory MP’ (Glennie 2013). But the fact remains that Parker did not mention the Guardian by name, and that no amount of mis-representation can alter this inconvenient truth, so the real culprit here is actually the Mail for insistently stating that he did. Of course, the story cannot appear to have been manufactured by the Mail itself as part of its endless campaign against the BBC, so Conor Burns, the Tory MP for Bournemouth West and a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, is quoted to the effect that:

It is extraordinary that the biggest security story for a generation wasn’t deemed worthy of comment by the BBC’s leading investigative news programme. There seems to be a clear conflict of interest when its editor has so recently taken the Guardian’s shilling. The whole tone of the BBC’s coverage of this issue seems to indicate clear editorial bias. They appear to be protecting their Left-wing friends (ibid).

Whether Burns offered this quote unprompted, or whether the Mail, in its usual fashion, prodded him into it in order to give the appearance of legitimacy to a smear which it had itself concocted is, of course, impossible to tell. But nor does it matter. The point is that both the BBC and the Guardian can appear ‘Left-wing’ only when viewed from the hard-Right of the political spectrum, and thus that this is a ‘story’ only in terms of the Mail’s own peculiar news values. But as noted earlier, this ‘story’ then became the subject of furious and indignant comment in the Mail editorial and the Glover piece quoted earlier. This is an absolutely archetypal Mail ploy: run a ‘news’ story which is either wildly distorted or, indeed, untrue and then use this as the basis for enraged editorialising, which is then defended on the grounds that the paper has a right to express its opinions (as opposed to a duty to get its facts right).

National security

It should be abundantly clear by now that for the Sun and the Mail it is absolutely axiomatic that Snowden’s revelations via the Guardian have irreparably damaged national security. Sceptical or dissenting sources are very rarely quoted, and pronouncements by government ministers and ‘security chiefs’ (as they are habitually called) are taken entirely at face value. For these papers, national security is whatever these people say it is, an attitude epitomised by Stephen Glover’s remark that Rusbridger is ‘a newspaperman, not a security expert. The high-handedness is amazing. Mr Rusbridger thinks he can determine which stories might harm national security – and which will not. According to the experts, he is hopelessly unqualified to make such a judgment’ (Glover 2013b).

From such a perspective, it is perfectly acceptable for newspapers to give large amounts of uncontested space to those calling for the prosecution of journalists. For example, Louise Mensch who, in the Sun, 13 October, opines that ‘if Theresa [sic] doesn’t prosecute the Guardian, she is giving a green light to any blogger or reporter to give our agents’ names to anybody they like. She has been a true Iron Lady so far. She mustn’t stop now’ (Mensch 2013). Or Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, who gave a speech, reported in the Telegraph, 24 October, under the headline ‘Publishing Edward Snowden security secrets a “criminal” act, says former terrorism watchdog’, in which he asked, rhetorically: ‘Is it anything other than criminal to seek to publish such secrets?’ and stated that ‘it is worth investigating whether there were any conspiracies to breach the Official Secrets Act’ (Barrett 2013a). Or Liam Fox, given a Telegraph column of his own on 9 November in which to ask: ‘Does the Guardian newspaper’s publication of stolen secrets amount to irresponsible and potentially criminal behaviour?’, a question which the article answers with a resounding and emphatic ‘yes’. In it he reveals: ‘I have written to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the issue’ (Fox 2013) and a further article in the same day’s paper explains that his letter to the DPP states: ‘In recent days there have been further accusations that the Guardian passed the names of GCHQ agents to foreign journalists and bloggers. Would such activities, if true, constitute an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000 or other related legislation, particularly the passing of details of identified security personnel?’ He also asks: ‘Under what conditions and by what procedures would a decision be taken to prosecute any individuals responsible for such activities and how would such a process be initiated?’ (Barrett 2013b).

In any other democratic country, such threats to journalists would immediately be the subject of stories and indignant comment in most newspapers, but in Britain the threats are made in and, effectively, by, newspapers themselves. There is, unfortunately, absolutely nothing new about this – the majority of Britain’s national press has a long and deeply dishonourable history when it comes to attacking those few journalists brave enough not to be cowed the moment ‘national security’ or the ‘national interest’ are mentioned, and fortunate enough to work for those few media organisations which will facilitate their work (Petley 2013). Most newspapers are far more likely to endorse attempts by the state to censor such journalism than they are to condemn them, as has been repeatedly demonstrated by their behaviour over, to take but a few of the most egregious examples, the ABC show trial (Hooper 1988: 133-156; Rogers 1997: 79-83; Robertson 1999: 104-34), the BBC series Secret society (Petley 2001), the programme Edge of the Union in the BBC series Real lives (Barnett 2011: 91-102; Leapman 1997: 294-331), and the Death on the Rock edition of Thames Television’s This Week slot (Bolton 1990: 189-306).

Ideological affinities

On almost every single occasion that governments have argued that a piece of journalism should be suppressed on the grounds that it endangers ‘national security’ or the ‘national interest’ it turns out that it does absolutely no such thing – it merely embarrasses the government of the day. So why do most newspapers so unhesitatingly and eagerly take the government side on these occasions? The answer has to do with profound ideological affinities between those who run the country and those who own and run most national newspapers, affinities which transcend mere party allegiances. In Britain, most of the national press is by no stretch of the imagination a Fourth Estate acting as the public’s watchdog but an absolutely crucial part of the Establishment – and all the more effective for its constant and remorseless peddling of the rhetoric of the ‘free press’. It is a key part of the all-pervasive ideological machinery designed to keep things as they are – and all the more powerful for having rendered itself largely invisible by becoming so naturalised and taken-for-granted (Petley 2009).

That is, at least partly, why in Britain, quite unlike in America and elsewhere in Europe, public debate about Snowden has turned as much, if not more, upon the behaviour of a newspaper as opposed to that of GCHQ and the NSA. So when the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ appeared before the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) on 7 November, which they agreed to do only on condition that they saw all the questions in advance, the obsequiousness of the politicians was matched only by the fawning of most newspapers, whose breathless and gushing tones would not have been out of place in the Boy’s Own Paper. Inevitably the papers seized with relish on the trio’s peevish and aggrieved comments on the media, who turned out to be the real villains of the occasion. A particular gift to the headline writers was the soundbite from the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, that ‘the leaks from Snowden have been very damaging; they have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping it up and our own security has suffered as a consequence’. Far less widely reported, however, was that when the committee chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, then asked: ‘Do you have any additional information you can share with us … as to actual hard evidence that terrorists or potential terrorists have been looking at these reports and have changed their plans or the way they operate, as a result of them?’, Sir Iain Lobban, head of GCHQ replied: ‘Not in this public forum, chairman. Yes, in a private forum’ (Lobban 2013). And that was very much that.

Having themselves shown no interest in the real issues raised by Snowden’s revelations, it was clearly of no concern to most newspapers that the ISC did exactly the same. So, for example, there was nothing in the ISC hearing, and nothing in most papers’ reports of the event, on Tempora (the programme that allows GCHQ to hoover up vast amounts of data from the cables that carry internet traffic in and out of the country, information that is shared with the NSA), and nothing on why neither the ISC nor the Cabinet nor the National Security Council were informed about its existence in the first place; nothing on the bugging of world leaders who are supposed to be our allies; and nothing on the immense damage done by GCHQ and the NSA by cracking much of the online encryption on which hundreds of millions of users rely to guard data privacy, actions described by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, as ‘appalling and foolish’ (Pilkington 2013).

It was left to Nick Pickles, the director of Big Brother Watch, to draw the obvious conclusion, namely: ‘As the US President, world leaders and international experts express concern about the scale of surveillance and the need to review the laws and policies involved, today was perhaps more unique for the fact parliament found three people who think there is no need for reform’ (see Hopkins 2013).

Big Brother: A caring sibling

The truth of the matter is that the remarkably incurious ISC and those newspapers which are remarkably eager to take the government side against journalists who expose wrongdoing by the state are both expressions of precisely the same culture. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, 2 December, the reason why Americans have been so shocked by Snowden’s revelations and Britons so unmoved has to do with profound differences between the cultures of the two countries (Freedland 2013). In America, people believe that their government is supposed to work for them, that it should be their servant, not their master. Hence the Constitution begins with a declaration of where sovereign authority belongs: ‘We the people.’ That is why the Snowden revelations are so shocking to Americans: they expose an arm of government acting without the permission, or indeed the knowledge, of the American people and their representatives in Congress. And that is why it is axiomatic for reputable American newspapers to subscribe to and try to live up to the Fourth Estate ideal. By contrast:

Britons have no such starting assumptions. The people are not sovereign here, they never have been. We speak of parliamentary, not popular, sovereignty. We are used to power flowing from the top down, from the centre outward, and most of the time we accept it. We act as if it’s natural for the state to be in charge and it’s an act of generosity when it deigns to let in a little daylight. If an arm of the state insists on total secrecy, that seems reasonable to Brits in a way few Americans would ever accept. It’s not a natural instinct for Britons to see, say, GCHQ as their employees (ibid).

Or as Ben Macintyre put it in The Times, 30 August, ‘we cannot quite believe that Big Brother is not, for the most part, a caring sibling with our best interests at heart’, with the consequence that, in one of the most developed surveillance societies on the planet, ‘we are more reassured than dismayed by being spied upon’ (Macintyre 2013). In such a culture, it really is no wonder that the majority of the national press is prone to act as if it were an arm of the state, and that a play called Pravda could be written about it. It is surely high time that it was revived.


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Note on the contributor

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media in the School of Arts at Brunel University, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. His most recent book is the edited collection The media and public shaming (I. B. Tauris, 2013).