Free Press Under Threat?: The State of UK Journalism

Posted on February 25, 2014 by

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From Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks to the phone hacking scandal, journalists are increasingly making the news. While the UK government’s response to the allegations of phone hacking, a judge-led inquiry, was measured, its reaction to the revelations brought forth by Edward Snowden has been thinly veiled panic. And the result is worrying.

Under pressure from the government to turn over the hard drives containing NSA files, staff at the Guardian newspaper elected to destroy them in July 2013, knowing full well they had copies overseas. This prevented the data from being seized by the British government but allowed reporting to continue. However, the following month it was made clear that this was not the end of it. David Miranda, partner of Snowden-leak Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow airport on his way home from Brazil and interrogated for nearly nine hours. The authorities confiscated a computer, two flash drives and other technology that was in his possession and questioned him about Greenwald and Snowden, among other topics. Heavy-handed doesn’t even cut it. This is clearly authoritarian treatment of a person carrying information for the press using the Terrorism Act as an excuse.

What now? MPs are currently discussing Minister of State Oliver Letwin’s Deregulation Bill. Ostensibly intended to streamline services and cut out bureaucracy, the bill contains a clause that would change the way authorities gain access to journalists’ notes and files. Under the current system a court order must be obtained after a hearing where representatives from both the government and the press are present. The Deregulation Bill would allow warrants to be gained from secret courts to which newspapers would not be permitted to send lawyers.

Sound exactly like how a free press is supposed to operate? No? The so-called Fourth Estate is certainly under threat. And with the controversial issue of press regulation after the phone hacking inquiry still on the table, the skies look ominous. What was meant to be a strategy to secure people’s privacy could so easily turn into a way to open up the press to government pressure in the name of ‘national security’. This sounds like US rhetoric, but it could become a reality here in the UK too.

The NSA leaks have hurt the UK. GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence service, has been widely implicated by information provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian and other leading international newspapers. Recent reports, for instance, assert that GCHQ and the NSA used Angry Birds and other mobile apps to obtain personal data, and that GCHQ used online viruses to discredit individuals. The government isn’t sure how to react. They don’t like what’s happening but know that the British right for the press to operate freely is enshrined in law. The Guardian reported that Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, sent to persuade the paper to hand over their data, said: “We can do this nicely or we can go to law”. The next quotation was even more chilling: “A lot of people in government think you should be closed down.” Closed. Down.

The traditional liberty of the free press is under threat. Whether under the guise of ‘cutting out bureaucracy’, ensuring ‘national security’ or something else entirely, it is clear that the press is at risk of further government pressure. It remains to be seen if Oliver Letwin’s secret courts bill will be passed; it’s currently been pulled aside to allow for consultation with the Newspapers Society. Whatever happens, it is unlikely that we have seen the end of attempts to infringe upon the way newspapers protect their information. This will be especially true as long as Edward Snowden remains free of the US authorities and his information is being revealed to the public by brave newspapers.

CC Image Courtesy of Creative Time Reports, Flickr

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