by Christopher Hird
I write as the former managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and before that as a journalist on the Economist, New Statesman and Sunday Times and as a reporter and producer of factual and current affairs television. Since 2008 I have run Dartmouth Films, an independent documentary company. I also write a “position paper” with some caution as those attending the seminar are much more versed in these matters than I am. However, I hope I can bring some perspective as a practising journalist to the discussion.
I think it worth noting that the building of a media agenda around the narrative of national security as a means of suppressing the work of journalists – and, indeed, oppressing journalists themselves – is not new. In particular, in the second half of the 1970s the Labour government successfully deported two US citizens - Philip Agee (a CIA whistleblower) and Mark Hosenball (a journalist) on the grounds that their reporting of the CIA’s undercover work was a threat to national security. When a British former soldier – John Berry - knowing that what Agee was saying was true, contacted two journalists – Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell – all three were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. Although, in the end, the trial effectively collapsed it was far from a foregone conclusion that it would.
In the context of this seminar, the point to emphasise is that the line pedalled by the government and in private briefings to the media was that these five were a threat to national security – a narrative reinforced by witnesses in the ABC trial (as it was known) not being identified. And further reinforced in my own case – as one of the people standing bail for the accused – by telephone calls from Special Branch to my employers (the Daily Mail) underlying the seriousness of the offences.
The media consensus – until the collapse of the ABC case – was very much: if a Labour government says these people are a threat to national security, then we should trust them. At the time, the only media organisations which consistently attacked this position were Time Out (which had published Hosenball’s work and employed Aubrey) and the New Statesman (who had decided to employ Campbell) – the latter running brilliant essays by EP Thompson on – among other things – the cosy and corrupting relationship between the security services and the national newspapers. (The case and the operation of the secret state were all discussed in Crispin Aubrey’s 1981 book: Who is Watching You? Britain’s Security Services and the Official Secrets Act)
35 years on what has changed? Well, starting with the good news: The Guardian. Unlike in the 1970s there is a major media organisation which is willing to devote a substantial amount of money to challenge the unaccountable operations of the secret state, as its publication of the Snowden papers demonstrates. Faced with a lack of transparency around the operation of the security services, imagine a world without the Guardian : remember that its publication of both the Wikileaks disclosures and those of Snowden provoked some of the Guardian’s competitors to launch attacks on the paper, claiming that they undermined national security – claims often based on briefings from unnamed “security sources”.
The bad news. That UK legislation to ensure that journalists can do their job of ensuring appropriate transparency of state and other agencies is not fit for purpose. In my capacity as Managing Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism I am one of the people who has taken the British government to the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to secure a ruling that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is a breach of the European Convention as it allows for mass surveillance of journalists’ (and others) communications. In the 1970s they tapped Crispin Aubrey’s phone. Today sophisticated computer programmes can routinely search and analyse all our communications – phone and emails.
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