Saturday, July 4, 2015
Seminar 3 Position Statement Paul Lashmar, Journalism, Brunel Univ.
by Paul Lashmar
The news media’s framing of the Snowden revelations makes for a useful case study to locate political positions and even disguised agendas. The Guardian journalist who wrote some of the Snowden stories, Ewen MacAskill, has observed that ‘there was no real debate’ on surveillance in the UK compared to other countries such as Germany or the US, where Snowden’s documents had much greater coverage and continue to be debated by the legislature. In the US all major media outlets repeated the Snowden revelations for months and the debate in the US and Germany has continued vigorously through 2015. MacAskill pointed out that the BBC decided not to report in depth about the leaks, something the journalist said suggested that the BBC was ‘being too close to the establishment’ (2014). The British establishment united in a hard line. When The Guardian ran the Snowden documents it got very little support from other newspapers.The British press have a tendency to put aside objectivity in times of international stress and replace it with ‘patriotic journalism’, falling in behind the government. Loch K. Johnson put forward forty propositions to frame his ideas on a theory of strategic intelligence. One is of particular relevance here:
“In times of military crisis, a nation tends to rally behind its leader in favour of an efficient intelligence and military response to the threat, placing at a lower level of concern questions of civil liberties and intelligence accountability,” (Johnson 2009, 50-51).
Whether readers consider the editorial positions of newspapers including the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Daily Telegraph to be acting correctly in their patriotic, misguided revenge for phone hacking or in conforming to Hillebrand’s concept of ‘lapdogs’ is a matter of personal opinion. I suggest the counter-attack demonstrates that Hillebrand is correct in her conclusion that the media’s scrutiny over intelligence functions is practised in an infrequent, ad hoc and informal manner:
The media, thus, provide an uneven quality of intelligence oversight and, while contributing to the scrutiny of intelligence, do not easily fit into existing conceptual frameworks of intelligence oversight. This is partly the case due to external factors, such as government secrecy and the intelligence services' own media strategies, which severely restrict the work of journalists covering intelligence topics. Yet the pre-war coverage by American media outlets concerning Iraq also showed that the media can easily turn into a ‘lapdog’ which insufficiently challenges official policies and information (2012, 704).
At the time of the Snowden revelations The Guardian had only just been responsible for revealing corruption in Rupert Murdoch’s News International and the closure of the News of the World. In the trial of two of the paper’s former editors the shape, power and relationships of the modern UK establishment had become clear — that the political elite, the major newspapers, the civil service, the police and even hints of intelligence agency collusion, had all refused to act over phone hacking until the evidence of corruption was overwhelming to the point of embarrassment. Some feel the attacks on The Guardian had more to do with phone hacking than the rights or wrongs of running Snowden’s material.
In three decades the intelligence community have gone from public silence to developing an efficient intelligence lobby. We now witness a succession of current and senior intelligence chiefs seeking to influence public opinion. In a public speech two months after retiring, Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6 until November 2014, was the latest intelligence chief to argue for the Communications Data Bill and claimed that intelligence will not be able to prevent terrorism unless they monitor the internet traffic of innocent people (for more on the intelligence lobby see Lashmar 2015).
The former editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, said the idea that the assurances of a policeman or spy are ‘good enough for me’ has been shown as deluded, and that no group should be trusted with such unconstrained leverage over others:
The press, showered with leaks, must resort to its own educated judgment in deciding where the public interest lies. Everyone knows secrets must be kept, but keeping them needs a framework built on public trust. That framework must be informed and argued. It can no longer rely on the bark of command and a cringing deference to the gods of security (2013).
Counter insurgency theorist Paul Wilkinson defined the problems facing the liberal democratic state in confronting terrorism:
The primary objective of counter-terrorist strategy must be the protection and maintenance of liberal democracy and the rule of law. It cannot be sufficiently stressed that this aim overrides in importance even the objective of eliminating terrorism and political violence as such. Any bloody tyrant can “solve” the problem of political violence if he is prepared to sacrifice all considerations of humanity, and to trample down all constitutional and judicial rights. (1986, 125)
Hillebrand, C. (2012) ‘The role of news media in Intelligence oversight’, Intelligence and National Security, 27:5, 689-706.
Jenkins, S. (2013) “The days of believing spy chiefs who say 'Trust us' are over”, The Guardian, 20 November. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/20/days-believing-spy-chiefs-over
Johnson, L.K. (2009) ‘A Theory of Strategic Intelligence’, in Gill, P., Marrin, S. and Phythian, M. (eds) Intelligence Theory: key questions and debates. Abingdon: Routledge.
Lashmar, P. (2015) “The rise of an intelligence lobby threatens therights of lawyers, journalists – and all of us”, The Conversation. 27 Jan.
MacAskill, E. (2014) Snowden and the debate on surveillance versus privacy, Reuters Institute Seminar, 16 Dec 2015. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/news/snowden-and-debate-surveillance-versus-privacy
Wilkinson, P. (1986) Terrorism and the liberal state, (2nd ed). New York, NY: New York University Press.