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Bully boy tactics make Guardian a player in its own nightmare scenario

The ordeal of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport on Sunday is a critical moment in the conflict between press freedom and national security. Miranda, the partner of The Guardian’s investigative reporter…

Ordeal: David Miranda, left, and his partner, Guardian investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald. AAP

The ordeal of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport on Sunday is a critical moment in the conflict between press freedom and national security. Miranda, the partner of The Guardian’s investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald, was detained by security while flying home from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro. He was questioned over nine hours under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and his laptop, phone, computer games console and memory stick were confiscated by authorities looking for sensitive information relating to national security.

Schedule 7 allows the police to detain someone on suspicion of involvement in or knowledge of acts of terrorism. The police action has attracted widespread criticism from all corners of the political and journalistic globe. But there have also been those who have criticised The Guardian for becoming involved to the extent that it risks becoming a player in - rather than a reporter of - the story.

Since August 2012, Greenwald has written, extensively, frequently and critically on a variety of “sensitive” issues concerning mass surveillance. It is common knowledge that Greenwald has worked closely with Edward Snowden, the computer specialist employed by the CIA and the NSA who leaked details of numerous secret mass surveillance operations to the press. According to documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA broke privacy rules and overstepped its legal authority thousands of times in the past two years.

On June 14, US federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. Snowden has been granted a 12 month period of asylum by Russian president Vladimir Putin, on the condition that the disclosures cease. Which leaves Greenwald as the number one thorn in the US government’s side. It has been reported that Snowden passed Greenwald 15 - 20,000 documents with details of NSA surveillance operations.

Threat to journalists everywhere

After Miranda’s release, Greenwald told The Guardian:

This is a profound attack on press freedoms and the news-gathering process… [which] is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation to those of us who have been reporting on the NSA and GCHQ. The actions of the UK pose a serious threat to journalists everywhere.

The editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, in a column devoted to the threat faced by journalism in the digital age, wrote of the “international dismay” that the arrest had caused. He argued that the state was building a surveillance system where before too long it would be impossible for journalists to maintain the confidentiality of sources and that governments, whilst paying lip service to the need for public debate, are making a concerted effort to silence whistleblowers.

Dismay: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. PA Archive

This was where The Guardian became the story as it emerged that Miranda was more than just a partner returning from abroad. He was in Berlin for a week visiting Laura Poitras, a documentary film maker, who had worked with Greenwald on the NSA revelations. The New York Times revealed that that The Guardian had paid for the flights.

To be fair to The Guardian, though, both Greenwald and his editor Rusbridger were up front about the importance of Miranda as an “intermediary” to the journalistic process. Rusbridger has since confirmed that The Guardian will be “supporting” Miranda in his legal action against the British government. But none of this detracts from what has, rightly in my view been called a “gross misuse” of terror laws. Under what basis could Miranda have constituted a terrorist threat?

For Nick Cohen in The Spectator, basic freedoms have been violated by the state and the events were another indicator of how Britain had changed for the worse: detaining Miranda at the request of the US in order to find out what Greenwald was going to do next.

Guardian criticised

But some commenters have backed the police’s action. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley argued that “the actions of the British authorities make perfect sense. It knows that Greenwald is linked to Snowden and it knows that Snowden has access to stolen information related to UK security. So why wouldn’t it take the opportunity of Miranda stepping onto British soil to interrogate him? They’re really only fulfilling their job description.”

Former Tory MP Louise Mensch told the BBC that Greenwald had admitted that Miranda was carrying “classified, stolen intelligence data encrypted on hard-drives. He wasn’t stopped because he was somebody’s husband and he wasn’t stopped because he was a journalist.”

Perhaps the most sensible commentary is from Richard Sambrook, a former director of Global News at the BBC. He highlighted various undeniable truths presented without the myriad differing agendas which often cloud debates on national security and journalism. To paraphrase a few points: those involved in revealing secrets of national importance should not be surprised if the security services take an interest in their activities. But this doesn’t mean that those issues of national importance should not be reported. Importantly, governments, police and the intelligence services should recognise that journalism is not terrorism and terrorism laws should not be used to intimidate journalists.

Clear act of intimidation

We seem to be careering away from some basic principles of a functioning democracy. One of the most alarming episodes recounted by Rusbridger in his column on Miranda’s arrest, concerns a visit to The Guardian’s offices by two GCHQ experts who stood and watched whilst two of the newspaper’s hard drives were destroyed. Leaving aside the barely credible scene of a government in 2013 forcing the destruction of press property, do we really accept that these two experts believed that, in the digital age, the information was only on those machines?

Not at all. Rusbridger’s account points to a very clear act of intimidation. Bully boy tactics of little finesse and sinister purpose. Rusbridger was left in no doubt by senior government officials that the government would seek to close down the paper’s reporting through legal means - and if it could not, force them to hand over, or destroy, material on which they were working.

Would it be a massive shock then - given the way Rusbridger has extolled the liberties enshrined in the US First Amendment - if The Guardian were found to be considering moving its reporting base from London? Where at least it would be free, in theory at least, from the physical attention of government and GCHQ?

Miranda’s arrest and Rusbridger’s revelations should alarm those members of public who still believe that the British government acts in the best interests of democracy and freedom. It is evident that, in the words of Kirsty Hughes of Index on Censorship, “it seems that the UK government is using, and quite likely misusing, laws to intimidate journalists and silence its critics”.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. David Stein

    Businessman

    Great article, John. You have captured the iterative way this story revealed itself.
    It seemed initially outrageous that the significant other of any journalist could be detained for hours simply because of their relationship with the journalist. And let's be clear - the way the reports from the Guardian were presented, they clearly wanted to give the impression that the detention was as a result of Miranda's relationship with Greenwald. Indeed, headlines on the first 3 articles that appear on…

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Stein

      No you white washed the situation;

      The holding time for terrorism suspects is less than an hour for 90% of people they use the law on

      And yet the state holds this man for 9 hours? why? not because they suspect him of terrorism but merely suspect he is reporting on terrorism

      They held him under terrorism laws when they know perfectly well he had no interest in terrorist activities

      Again, journalism is not illegal

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    2. Ben Cooling

      Web Developer & Programmer

      In reply to David Stein

      I think your missing the point David; it's not that the state don't have the right to protect classified information - it's that they have to do it by the law!

      Miranda was held under Section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who helped introduce the bill in the House of Lords, has stated "I am very clear that this does not apply, either on its terms or in its spirit, to Mr Miranda", while the UK Government watchdog has used the euphemistic term "unusual" before it conducts its investigation.

      The troubling thing is this is all going on in a combustable environment where the US Government is spiralling into debt while secretly funnelling taxpayers money into an ever increasing surveillance industry (parts of their budget is classified), the Media is still drunk on nationalistic fervour of the post 9/11 world to step up as the fifth estate and populations are increasingly cynical and dependent on the governments that seduce them with welfare.

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    3. Mike Brisco

      Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

      In reply to David Stein

      Dear Mr Stein,

      You wrote " The Brazilian national arrived in London with multiple media devices. British security interviewed the man, and seized electronic media. The electronic devices were found to have files originally from Snowden"

      Er - where did you source that fact, the devices were found to have files originally from Snowden? I've followed the case , and recall no comment about what was on the devices.

      Also you argue the State has an obligation to protect me, a British citizen. Not sure how siezing laptops and game consoles from some Brazilian, actually protects me.

      In fact, I feel less protected. Following this nasty precedent, the State will feel it can confiscate my property too, on my way back in to my country. After this, The fact I read the Guardian - easily ascertainable from the NSA - would give them enough grounds.

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  2. William Cranston

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    "If security services have a reasonable suspicion that someone has classified information with the intention of sharing or making public, then security services have an obligation to stop the individual and confiscating the data."

    I think this suggests a lack of familiarity with the recent history of people being red flagged in their travels for their associations with Wikileaks, Assange, Manning and Snowden regardless of their possessions. Given this history it is certainly not unreasonable to…

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    1. David Stein

      Businessman

      In reply to William Cranston

      The key point of my contribution was the Guardian's initial presentation of Miranda as the partner of a journalist, rather than someone who was an active participant.
      John's article is excellent, although it's arguable that the Guardian was 'upfront' about Miranda's exact role with the newspaper.
      They went in hard on the line that it was a journalist's partner that was being detained which, in my view, is disingenuous.

      As far as the information on Miranda's various media, there is no way to know whether it had indeed leaked without checking it out. It's just as important for the State to know what has leaked and is not yet public as what has been published in the papers.

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Stein

      Dude, journalism is not illegal

      Even if he had terrible state secrets like that they had been spying on us secretly for a decade.....journalists are allowed to gather that information and they are allowed to publish it

      Media are supposed to be Watch Dogs of the government not Lap Dogs of the government, they are supposed to be the 4th estate, there to inform the public of what the government are doing

      To think it's reasonable to get clearance from the state to publish a report / article / storey is to completely destructive to democracy

      When did we as a society start begging for such totalitarianism, giving up our liberty for security, if these were the actions of a middle eastern dictator we would be outraged

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    3. Paul Felix

      Builder

      In reply to David Stein

      I have been following this since it started. My belief is that you are factually wrong in your opinion of the Guardian's initial reporting.
      One of the reasons that the Guardian is such a good newspaper is that they do not do what you accuse them of doing.
      It has a proud and honorable history of fearless reporting, it is for that reason it is considered left wing, which it is not. It is the conservative rags that refuse to tell the difference between accuracy and ideology, not papers like the Guardian or Independent.
      Sadly we have nothing like them here except probably Crikey or New Matilda.

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    4. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Paul Felix

      My guess is that David doesn't actually care, he just wants to defend the state

      It's like those folks who keep asking Assange why he wont face up to those rape charges, they don't actually care that they are talking nonsense, they just want to defend the state

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    5. David Stein

      Businessman

      In reply to Paul Felix

      Paul,
      I agree with you on the Guardian - it has breathed a huge breath of fresh air into mainstream Australian media.

      Which is why it's terribly disappointing their initial reporting pushed the angle that journalists' spouses were being targeted rather than simply report the facts - Miranda was in Berlin to meet with a filmmaker who gave him material from Snowden to give to Greenwald. (link to Reuters article below which states this):

      http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/20/us-usa-security-snowden-guardian-idUSBRE97I10E20130820

      John's original article is instructive since the Guardian has becoming the story rather than the reporter on this issue.
      It's performance in reporting this episode has, frankly, fallen short of the standards I would have expected.

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    6. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Stein

      I notice you link to a reuters article in order to demonstrate the level of the guardians reporting......doesn't that seem strange to you?

      Why don't you link top the guardian article you have a problem with instead?

      it makes no sense

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  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Even if he is talking with Snowden....he is doing Journalism

    But apparently Journalism is terrorism now as the worst crime you can do is to embarress the state

    Anyone who isn't sure or even wants to defend the actions of the state in this case needs to have their head examined

    Journalism is not illegal, or at least it wasn't

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    1. Mike Brisco

      Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

      In reply to Michael Shand

      If Mr Miranda was working with a film maker in Berlin, then he's surely a collaborating artist....... for that time at least

      Harass journalists, harass husbands of journalists under terror laws... some commentators won't see the problem.

      But harass artists under those laws - because they helped create art that wasn't to the Administration's taste ..... you see where this is headed?

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mike Brisco

      That's a pretty solid point, although I cannot imagine any artists receiving this type of treatment.....yet

      It is a sad world we live in where the majority of people are not only apathetic but actually side with Authoritarian states

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  4. George Michaelson

    Person

    I was a bit surprised that a transit via LHR didn't flag as a high-risk activity for anyone involved in this story.

    Not to minimize a sense of outrage in whats happened, but is there really no good direct from FRA to GIG or EZE?

    Maybe the Guardian was paying the flights, but their risk assessment of travel planning should have avoided the UK.

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  5. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Double standards alert!

    Two years ago Guardian types wanted the state to interfere with journalism. They loved the Leveson inquiry. They applauded the arrest of Murdoch journalists.

    Now a Guardian journalist experiences intimidation by government - and it's suddenly a problem.

    I'm sure people will scoff 'but this is WORTHY journalism - the Sun had no right to spy on the royals and Hugh Grant'. Yeah whatever. Give the state power to control what we say and this is what you get.

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    1. Ben Cooling

      Web Developer & Programmer

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Please.

      Whether it be Murdoch journalists or the Government, the Guardian has been against those unlawfully infringing upon the privacy of individuals.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Ben Cooling

      But Miranda's case isn't about 'privacy of the individual' - it's about what the press is allowed to investigate and report.

      Sorry Ben, give the state more powers over what journalists can legally do, and you're in big trouble.

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    3. Ben Cooling

      Web Developer & Programmer

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Miranda was held (questionably) under legislation passed in 2000 - over a decade before the Leveson inquiry.

      How are you even making the connection between the two incidents?

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    4. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to James Jenkin

      So reporting that an institution has been illegaly spying on the public and reporting that the government has been secretly spying on the public......are these not the same concern? has the guardian not reacted to both cases with the same integrity?

      ie. the guardian complained when media institutes spied on the public

      Now the guardian complains when the government spies on the public

      Where is the suggested hypocrisy here?

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  6. John Rutherford

    Worker

    Ok so Miranda "could " have had some info on his computer from Snowden.Now the general picture of a terrorist is of one who intends to kill or maime innocent civilians or damage public or private property to disrupt or destroy the functioning of our society
    Now as far as we know all Snowden had was info on the tools they use to survey " US "..? and who they surveyed A lot of people say if you have nothing to hide why worry about the NSA etc,etc
    So on the same token why are all the spy agencies…

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Rutherford

      "A lot of people say if you have nothing to hide why worry about the NSA etc,etc
      So on the same token why are all the spy agencies and Govt`s so concerned about what Snowden has. "

      That is a devestating point, thanks for sharing

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