Summary: UK intelligence agencies secret interventions have always posed a threat to the freedom of the press. We are now in a ‘state of exception’ (Agamben 2005) where ever more sophisticated surveillance technology is available to the secret state which is increasingly intervening to prevent the news media executing its fourth estate role. Journalists must find new modes to counter intrusive laws and technology.
One of the paradoxes of intelligence services in western societies is that they have often undermined the very rights they are meant to protect. Using journalistic cover, placing propaganda and suborning journalists undermines the freedom of press and using rendition and torture undermines basic Human Rights. In the 21st century there is a debate over how expansion of surveillance technology is eroding the right to privacy. The Intelligence lobby is now systematically devaluing privacy as a right to extend their own powers. I suggest that rather than acting as responding public servants, intelligence chiefs now set the agenda within the public sphere (Habermas 1962) as primary definers (Hall et al 1978). Retiring GCHQ director Sir Ian Lobban defended the work of GCHQ in front of a parliamentary committee in late 2014, and his successor Robert Hannigan controversially argued in The Financial Times that ‘privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions’. Other intelligence directors have made similar claims: after retiring as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in January 2015, Sir John Sawers claimed that preventing terrorism was impossible without monitoring the internet traffic of innocent people. He said:
Privacy may not be an absolute right but it is a fundamental liberty of liberal democracy, not just another inconvenience to counter-terrorism to be eliminated. This area of concern has long been recognised in philosophical discourse. Isaiah Berlin recognised the privacy and surveillance were closely enmeshed with concepts of freedom. When he was refining his concept of ‘freedom from interference’, he recognised that not all citizens wanted a public life:
a man may leave a vigorous and genuinely ‘participatory’ democratic state in which the social or political pressures are too suffocating for him, for a climate where there may be less civic participation, but more privacy, a less dynamic and all-embracing communal life, less gregarious but also less surveillance (Berlin 1969, vii).
It is noteworthy that during the Snowden revelations, the Conservative partners of the coalition Government did not acknowledge why critics of mass surveillance are so concerned. The Liberal Democratic partners have understood such concerns, to the point of vetoing the Communications Data Bill, known as the ‘Snooper’s Bill’, in 2012. (The Conservative Party stated they will reintroduce the Bill if they are successful in the 2015 general election.) Government legislation, technology and legal action are making it increasingly difficult for journalists to obtain confidential sources and then undertake their Fourth Estate role. Preventing journalists effecting accountability over the state is particularly beneficial for intelligence services who have a long history of incompetence, immorality and illegality. To work in this specialism, journalists will need to evolve new methodologies. There are some promising developments such as mass leaks of documentation. It is an urgent task - never before has government and its intelligence services had such powers and techniques of invasive mass surveillance available, and thus the potential to control the population as a whole, and those who dissent in particular.
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