A State of Fear: is journalism safe in the UK?

Demonstration in Berlin supporting media freedoms

Demonstration in Berlin supporting media freedoms

Having written ‘10 questions on the future of the Scottish media‘, a story broke which startled me. It led to this eleventh question. It highlights an ongoing threat to journalism and how an independent Scotland can respond to ensure a free and open society

Question 11) Are journalists, whistle-blowers and sources safe?

Last night the Editor of The Guardian made an astounding admission. Recently, UK Security Officials from GCHQ entered the offices of The Guardian in London to destroy computer equipment. This followed threats by UK Government officials to impose ‘prior restraint’ on the media group’s operations (preventing the publication of information the Government does not like) and requests by “a very senior government official” to destroy journalistic material. Following these incidents, The Guardian will not be reporting on this material from the UK. Instead it will continue its investigations elsewhere.

Yesterday David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald, was detained for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport by UK officials. They confiscated his mobile phone, laptop, camera and memory sticks. UK police used special powers under the Terrorism Act to question Miranda on his partner’s journalism and investigations. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from Edward Snowden.

Simon Jenkins, in response, stated “Harassing the family of those who have upset authority is the most obscene form of state terrorism.” Widney Brown of Amnesty International and the Government of Brazil have both condemned the detention.

Alan Rusbridger made a powerful and frightening statement in his piece:

“I wonder how many (journalists) have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like “when”. We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources.”

With Edward Snowden in hiding, Bradley Manning likely to die in jail, and continued intimidation of journalists in the U.S., a worrying pattern is emerging. In the case of The Guardian, information is currently being withheld from publication as protection from threats and intimidation.

In Scotland what can done to protect journalists, whistle-blows and sources from harassment? A Scottish journalist, Ewen MacAskill, was central to the Snowden revelations. How would an independent Scotland have reacted if he had been subject to what Jenkins calls “state terrorism”?

A written constitution which enshrines media rights would be a start, as Alan Rusbridger highlights. Further legislation – as proposed in Iceland – to protect journalists, whistle-blowers, sources and citizens would be the next step. As Smari McCarthy, of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, told National Collective: “We got a new information act. We got changes to the telecommunications act to improve privacy and information security. There’s also a new media act. It makes public the ownership of all registered media and puts a legal obligation on journalists to protect their sources.”

Digital technology presents great opportunities for creation, sharing and engagement. Yet it also increases the threats of surveillance, control and abuse that accompanies the concentration of power.

Journalism is precious. Scotland must defend it, for ultimately the security of the people – our security – depends upon the security of journalists to publish the truth.

Michael Gray
National Collective

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About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.

There are 18 comments

  1. tadramgo

    This UK government, even more so than those previously, is reducing the practicality of dissent.

    1. In work: you now have to pay in order to start a industrial tribunal (£160-250, more than £1000 for an appeal).
    2. In the courts: there is no longer Legal Aid available for challenges to welfare or disability assessments.
    3. Reforms to election laws will mean that trades unions may be unable to campaign politically.
    4. Anti-terror laws are now being used against journalists.

    Its not a good situation.

  2. Jim Monaghan

    I dont get why a written constitution would help, the USA has one and journalists have less freedom than here, the Soviet Union famously had a wonderful written constitution that promised all sorts of rights and freedoms. I dont see how an independent Scotland would be in a different position from now. Yes, it would be possible to re-write the relationship with the media but the likelyhood is that the SNP or Labour would rule, neither have shown any indication that a different relationship is possible. Salmonds relationship with Murdoch in particular, and his reluctance to hold a leveson type inquiry here when it was clear we had separate Scottish problems suggest, to me, that independence isnt really an issue here.

      1. Jim Monaghan

        because crimes were committed here in Scotland and the scottish press had influence over the Scottish parliament. Why would a leader of independence movement let the UK parliament decide what is best for Scotland?

    1. Juteman

      What relationship with Murdoch?
      Yet again you attack the possibility of an independent Scotland doing things differently.
      Stop pretending to be an independence supporter, Jim.

      1. Jim Monaghan

        actually no, I believe that an independent Scotland could and should do things differently. I just dont agee that a written constitution guarantees anything or that the governments after independence, likely to be either Labour or SNP, will do anythig differently. One of my biggest worries over the next year is the attiudeof people like you. The ‘dont knows’ and nos’ will not be persuaded if we think that every criticism of Salmond or every difference of opinion re how we should do things means that they are an enemy. Why would I pretend to support independence?

        1. LisaR

          Its not just SNP supporters you attack though is it.that woman from Labour for Independence you needled and insulted her even though you could see she was most definitely Labour all her life but now wanting a Labour in Independence. I think you enjoy trying to dissect and discredit any pro Indy articles/comments.I’ve yet to read anything positive you have said about Indy.

          1. Jim Monaghan

            what is it that I have said in this debate that discredits independence. My view is that a written constitution does not protect us any more than an uncodified one. And that Scotland should be dealing with its own media and have its own inquiry re media corruption rather than rely on westminster. Also, I point out that the likely first Governments of Scotland SNP and Labour dont exactly have a great track record re the media. Is that an argument against independence? of course not. You would have been able to see my clearly state my position on independence here in National Collective, but I asked the publishers to take down the article after a few months due to the histile and personal attacks that I receive here. I cannot see how driving people like me away is helping the YES cause? And, Juteman, if you agree with Lisa maybe you can point out where needled or insulted a woman and who that woman was? Unsubstantiated accusations backed by nnothing other than personal insults, get us nowhere.

          2. Juteman

            It isn’t just this article, Jim.
            I’ve noticed quite a few comments from you recently on indy blogs, and everyone of them seems to be a criticism of some aspect of the indy campaign.
            I’ve yet to read one positive comment from you.
            If you are a genuine Yes, then great, but it doesn’t come across that way.

          3. Jim Monaghan

            what woman? I criticise what I see wrong with the campaign when I see it. There are many articles on here, that I point our faults in the arguments in some shouldnt be an issue, there are room for many voices in the YES campaign. This is similar to Henry Mcleish, a staunch unionist who is accussed by some labour members as being pro-indy because he criticises the NO campaign. You have thrown some very personal insults at me Lisa and they are based on nothing.

          4. LisaR

            Seems to me you hate the idea of a “staunch” unionist like McLeish seeing the light and maybe,possibly come out to vote Yes..that doesn’t seem to me as someone supposedly pro Indy. Since McLeish is from my part, Fife and well respected, I would say to you……if others in Fife including that woman from Labour for Independence you were needling. Accusing her of not being Labour because like McLeish she was staunch Labour for all her life, till a few years ago and she is now pro Indy. Now tell me why you don’t think McLeish won’t switch to a Yes vote? I know Fifers very well,I am one…we are loyal until the point of realising we are being made a fool of,being lied to and most definitely will make our minds up on where London Rightwing Labour are taking us and where a truly Scottish Left Labour party could take Fifers after Independence.Thats what Fifers including McLeish will make their minds up on.Loyal..yes! but stupid….no! I left Labour after Blair and took back seat in politics till Independence ref became a cert and I read up all about Indy pros and cons,watched and listened to the appalling,disgusting lying,scaremongering propaganda from the Bettertogether side and also became a firm Yes voter. I will one day return to Labour, or Greens but all the parties will have to reform except SNP who’s party hasn’t been controlled from London. To me its exciting and I don’t have any doubt of my fellow Fifers chosing Yes. I listen to them, I hear their anger. It showed at the Scottish Elections, go check out how yellow it is….that used to be a lot of red before the rot in Labour set in. If you are pro Indy then I am Queen Victoria.

  3. yLordy

    Journalists have forgotten how to tell a story now they just make it up as they go along, they need to get back to basic journalism

  4. MurrayMcC

    The problem with the UK’s unwritten constitution, or hundreds of years of individual piecemeal laws that largely tell us what we can’t do, is that invariably fundamental constitutional questions are reviewed by unknown experts who arrive at an opinion nobody seems to understand or even agree with.

  5. Malcolm McCandless

    There is journalism and then there is churnalism.

    I would argue that Scotland has far more churnalism than is good for Scottish society.

    In general any proposed Scottish constitution should not only define what rights and freedoms that need to be protected and enshrined but also define what responsibilities comes with those rights and freedoms.

    With regard Freedom of the Press we have directly seen how irresponsible the press have been over the past 15-20 years. The journalistic profession has not covered itself with glory in pursuing stories by any means, fair or foul.

    We do not want original journalism to become the victim in all this, and we certainly do not want the profession to beat a safe retreat, as happens now, into churnalism and opinion dressed up as news.

    If Freedom of the Press is to mean something to the public then the journalistic profession has to become more professionally responsible. It is a right that has to be fought for and earned every day.

    As things stand only a few in Scottish press and broadcast media are earning their wages.

  6. AllyRingan

    However weakly or strongly written a constitution, they all have provision for a State of Exception, and that is effectively the international regime under which we are all subject. The “terrorism” button is there to be pressed by any jumped-up official in increasingly controlled public space, whether it be against a journalist or just people photographing in the street.

  7. BP39

    Judging by its performance so far, BBC Scotland will do whatever the BBC Central and the UK Government tells it to do. At least as long as it is funded from the licence fee, and that is distributed form London, and we have no choice concerning paying it.
    The standard of journalism is less than mediocre with news staff to long in post.

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