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Murdoch's Papers Fight the Guardian (and Free Speech)

Journalism's circular firing squad, UK edition

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While it might be a mite too early to assess the historic and political impact of Edward Snowden’s leaks of top secret NSA documents, the first casualty is already clear: journalism.

The arrest for nine hours last week of David Miranda while in transit through London’s Heathrow airport is just one obvious example. Miranda was held under the Schedule 7 of the British Terrorism Act 2000 for nine hours with no legal representation, and his computers and personal effects searched and confiscated. Miranda was allegedly acting as a courier for his partner Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who has been the pointman for most of Snowden’s leaks.  As the World Association of News Papers and News Publishers said in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, the fact that journalism was equated with terrorism is, in itself, “outrageous and deeply disturbing.” Miranda has since launched a legal case against the British authorities over his detention.

State threats to revelations about its security apparatus are hardly new, and Miranda’s reversion to the slow and cumbersome means of physical transport show just how insecure telecommunications have become. One would have thought the chilling effects on whistleblowing and investigative journalism should concern every reporter.

Alas, this is not so. The “shooting the messenger” reprisals against Greenwald began back in June, but in recent weeks the circular firing squad has grown even louder. CNN legal analyst and New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin compared Miranda to a “drug mule” because he was handling classified information and said he should have been locked up. If possession of legally compromised material is a crime, then many journalists should fear arrest—not only those who cover national security, but court proceedings and business affairs as well.

Though extreme, Toobin’s position is pretty indicative of the position of a large fraction of journalists covering national security. As David Carr wrote in the New York Times this Sunday, the advent of a “Wikileaks” culture is pitting journalist against journalist. Carr points out that the whistleblowers and their intermediaries “find themselves under attack, not just from a government bent on keeping its secrets, but from friendly fire by fellow journalists.” He added in exasperation: “What are we thinking?”

In Britain, the thinking is quite clear. Concerns about the Miranda arrest were widely mocked by mainstream journalists because the Guardian is blamed for exposing the phone hacking and police bribes scandals around Murdoch’s dominant UK subsidiary, News International. One-hundred-and-forty or so journalists and their sources have been arrested in the last two years since the phone hacking scandal erupted. Where was the Guardian then?

The ensuing claims and counter claims of hypocrisy reveal just how partisanship has become the norm in Fleet Street, and that journalists have self-divided into different tribes. There’s no light in this debate, only heat. The “public interest” content of the story is completely overlooked in a rancorous Nixonian battle between “oppressed” tabloid journalists and the “elite liberal establishment.” But are the NSA revelations, even if obtained illegally, in the same order as the sexual shenanigans revealed by hacking the cell phone of a reality TV celebrity?

The personal vendettas and commercial interests are so transparent they’re not really that troubling. Slightly more concerning is apparent tacit compliance of the British public. As Christoph Scheuermann suggests in Der Spiegel, we Brits have developed a cozy love affair with our spies, almost as intimate as the dealings between the NSA and our equivalent, GCHQ. You could call it the “James Bond Syndrome.” Over the last half century of losing our empire, we have still punched (and karate-chopped) above our weight, partly because we developed a highly filmic and politically lucrative niche in espionage and surveillance.

However, the animus against Greenwald and the Guardian in the U.S. is less easy to explain, and more disturbing. The relatively stable oligopoly of American newspapers has–generally–provided a robust journalistic model compared to the U.K., insisting on good sourcing, declaration of interests and a separation of fact from comment. Both Carr and New York University Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen suggest that some of the internecine anger derives from a new ‘fifth estate’ of citizen journalists, bloggers and opinionators who have not had to plod through traditional journalistic training. 

Intermediaries like Greenwald and Julian Assange seem merely lucky beneficiaries of digital data dumps, without going through the cultivation of insider sources, and all the shoe-leather and phone-time that implies. Meanwhile the prevalence of 24-hour news channels and online blogs means these animated debates—formerly confined to the newsroom or editor’s office–are now aired in public.  

Or it could be, as Heather Brooke (a key player in redacting and releasing the WikiLeaks cables) told me in June, an element of “regulatory capture”? While media coverage has developed apace, the state has responded by selectively briefing and leaking to journalists. Whatever Assange or Greenwald have done, they have broken that model.

The anger of the old school is understandable, especially when they are called “shills” and “tools.” Writing in the Atlantic last Friday, Mark Bowden criticised Snowden and Chelsea Manning for the indiscriminate nature of their leaks, and called them “naïve” compared to Felt and Ellsberg, the main sources of the Watergate and Pentagon Papers stories.

He may be right. But since when has the emotional complexion of the source been the main point of the story? The attacks on Greenwald display the same problem. He may be partisan, argumentative and thin-skinned (he blocked me on Twitter a year ago for an innocuous comment) but does that disqualify him from landing a major scoop? Attacking a source or intermediary is just another version of the ad hominem fallacy. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Journalism is about disclosure and transparency, not heroics and personality. It’s the story, stupid.

As the NSA story is set to rumble on, with the Guardian now co-operating with the New York Times to shelter under first amendment protection for further revelations, there can be little doubt that the vulnerability of digital communications to sweeping state surveillance is a massive public interest story. In the New York Review of Books, James Bamford quotes Senator Frank Church warning, back in 1975, that the “technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny.” And that was when the technical capacity was a fraction of the potential threat to privacy of UPSTREAM, PRISM and other collection and data mining programmes, and the security threat was many times higher.

As Kissinger said of academia, perhaps the current infighting is so vicious because there’s so little at stake. When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon papers, the U.S. had suffered a quarter of a million combat casualties in Vietnam, and millions of civilians were dead. When Felt briefed Woodward on Watergate, Nixon felt (according to Jonathan Schell in his Time of Illusion) he could abuse executive power because of the existential threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Back then, every major conurbation in the U.S. and Western Europe was an actively targeted ‘ground zero.’

Then again, if the economists and intelligence experts are right, the stakes for journalists are actually much higher than in the Cold War. In so called modern ‘knowledge economies’ data is more important than gasoline or steel, and its flow, whether through the Stuxnet virus disrupting uranium centrifuges in Iran, or alleged industrial espionage by China, is now more closely guarded than any pipeline or shipping lane. With their bags full of sigint, humint and even loveint, any whistleblower, journalist (or indeed romantic partner) is a potential front line combatant.

In that case the need to stick together and avoid friendly fire is all the more imperative.

Peter Jukes is a journalist based in London. His book, Fall of the House of Murdochwas published by Unbound last year.