Even amid the cacophony of social media, most journalism is met with a shrug or a murmur. But one story the Guardian published 10 years ago today exploded with the force of an earthquake.
The article revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. In case anyone doubted the veracity of the claims, we were able to publish the top secret court order handed down by the foreign intelligence surveillance court (Fisa), which granted the US government the right to hold and scrutinise the metadata of millions of phone calls by American citizens.
The document was marked TOP SECRET//SI//NOFORN – an extremely high level of classification which meant that it was not to be shared with any foreign governments, far less Guardian journalists or, God forbid, Guardian readers. Who knows the degree of panic that spread through the upper echelons of the US intelligence system as they tried to work out how such a sensitive document had found its way into the public domain. But that will have been nothing to the dawning realisation – in the UK as well as the US – that this was but the tip of a very large and ominous iceberg.
Over the following weeks, the Guardian (joined by the Washington Post, New York Times and ProPublica) led the way in publishing dozens more documents disclosing the extent to which US, UK, Australian and other allied governments were building the apparatus for a system of mass surveillance that George Orwell could hardly have dared imagine when he wrote his dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Within a few days, the source of the documents, Edward Snowden, unmasked himself on the Guardian website and for weeks thereafter the stories dominated the news around the world. It has since been memorialised in at least three films, stage dramas, books, numerous academic papers … and even an album.
It led to multiple court actions in which governments were found to have been in breach of their constitutional and/or legal obligations. It led to a scramble by governments to retrospectively pass legislation sanctioning the activities they had been covertly undertaking. And it has led to a number of stable-door attempts to make sure journalists could never again do what the Guardian and others did 10 years ago.
Even now the British government, in hastily revising the laws around official secrecy, is trying to ensure that any editor who behaved as I did 10 years ago would face up to 14 years in prison. Lamentably, the Labour party is not joining a cross-party coalition that would allow whistleblowers and journalists the right to mount a public interest defence.
So do not hold your breath for future Edward Snowdens in this country. The British media is, by and large, not known for holding its security services rigorously to account, if at all.
The British government believed that, by ordering the destruction of the Guardian computers, they would effectively silence us. In fact, we simply transferred the centre of publications to New York, under the paper’s then US editor, Janine Gibson. And there has been little more than a whisper of protest over the new national security bill or the threatened extradition of Julian Assange.
This is curious. The notion that the state has no right to enter a home and seize papers was established in English law in the famous case of Entick v Carrington (1765), which later became the basis for the US fourth amendment. In a famous passage, Lord Camden declared: “By the laws of England, every invasion of private property, be it ever so minute, is a trespass.”
When I went out to talk about the Snowden case to assorted audiences (including, after a suitable gap, at MI5 itself), I would begin by asking who in the audience would be happy to hand over all their papers to a police officer knocking on their front door, even if they assured them they would only examine them if there was sufficient cause.
Never, in any of these talks, did a single member of any audience raise a hand. Yes, people valued their security and were open to persuasion that, with due process and proper oversight, there would be occasions when the state and its agencies should be granted intrusive powers in specific circumstances. But the idea of blanket, suspicionless surveillance – give us the entire haystack and we’ll search for the needle if and when it suits us – was repellent to most people.
When it came down to it, people didn’t much like the idea of a government smashing up newspaper computers to (unsuccessfully) silence the truth coming out. It felt somehow unBritish. The question I was asked by the home affairs select committee – “Do you love this country?” – grated. Why was it unpatriotic to hold the state to account in this way?
Numerous editors from around the world – seeing a determined and prolonged police investigation into this newspaper – wrote in support of the right of a press to scrutinise its government’s security apparatus. And, eventually, the Guardian and Washington Post shared the ultimate journalistic accolade of the 2014 Pulitzer prize.
So, a decade later, there are things to celebrate and reasons to worry. Please spare a thought for Snowden, who, like so many whistleblowers, has paid a heavy personal price for what he (and many others around the world) considered an act of public service.
And, in the afterglow of the HBO series Succession, spare a moment to celebrate a form of newspaper ownership that is as resistant to government interference as any. When a group of parliamentarians demanded that the Scott Trust (owners of the Guardian) stop publishing this material, the trust could honestly reply that it had no such power.
For what it’s worth, I’m as certain as I can be that the threat of 14 years in prison wouldn’t have stopped me either. “The press,” as the editor of the Times wrote in 1852, “lives by disclosure … The statesman’s duty is precisely the reverse.” Amen.
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