Surveillance state

Fri, Aug 23, 2013, 01:00

Journalism dealing with state surveillance treads a delicate path between the public’s interest and right to know what is being done in its name and the need to protect that same public from attack by those opposed to such freedoms. These issues are at the heart of contemporary international reportage on state surveillance based on leaks from disenchanted intelligence officers in the United States. The public is now much better informed on their extent and malpractice and hence has increasingly good reason to regard the leakers more as heroes than traitors.

The latest episode in this unfolding drama concerns the detention in Heathrow airport under British anti-terrorism laws of David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald who has written many of the stories on US and UK intelligence based on the leaks from Edward Snowden, a former worker with the US National Security Agency. Miranda was en route from Berlin, where as a messenger between them he met a film-maker collaborating closely with Greenwald, to his home in Brazil. He was questioned for the maximum nine hours allowed with no legal protection and had his computer, phone and other equipment confiscated. Since these journalists are understandably wary about communicating electronically, for fear of revealing sources and private information to state authorities, it can readily be seen that Miranda formed an essential link in their chain.

The outcry of protests about this abuse of anti-terrorism laws is understandable and worth supporting. It is one thing to debate the balance between revealing information and protecting the state and its citizens, quite another to pursue a plainly self-interested agenda of stopping the coverage. The distinction goes to the heart of essential liberal freedoms. As the Guardian itself commented, “none of that work involves committing, preparing or instigating acts of terrorism, or anything that could reasonably fall within even the most capacious definition of such activities”. The paper is right to call for radical restrictions in the Schedule 7 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000 allowing such detentions – as is its observation that entrenched rights in the US constitution would rule out such prior restraint on journalism.

The term “surveillance state” is more widely used to describe what has been revealed in the recent cycle of reportage from Wikileaks to Snowden. A colossal state power to censor, monitor and control citizens’ lives as first described by John Milton’s Areopagitica in the 1640s and unimagined by his contemporary Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan’s preoccupation with state security, takes the nowadays guise of anti-terrorism. Journalism has an honourable public interest role to play in exposing such tensions. It should be resolutely defended in this and similar cases.