Nick Cohen

British journalists lock each other up and throw away the key

British journalists lock each other up and throw away the key
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In the past few days, my colleagues on the Guardian have been publishing stories of national and international significance – indeed, if truth be told, they have been publishing them for most of the autumn.

The international scoop was that America’s National Security Agency tapped Angela Merkel’s mobile phone (along with the phones of many more world leaders). As the shock of the revelation has sunk in, most observers have grasped that the shrug-of-the-shoulder explanation that 'spies spy', doesn’t really work in this instance.

Spies in democratic countries are meant to be under democratic control. Elected politicians have few problems authorising surveillance on their country’s enemies. But when it comes to their country’s friends, they should balance their curiosity about what Merkel is saying with the political costs of an ally discovering that America is treating her as if she were an international terrorist. The whole point of democratic supervision of the intelligence services is that politicians can tell the spies that just because they can do something does not mean they should.

The Guardian scoop showed that the Obama administration either did not care about the possible damage exposure would bring, or let its spies do as they pleased, and abandoned its democratic duty to oversee the secret state. For whatever reason, America has suffered a diplomatic disaster as a result.

I don’t see how any reasonable person can argue that a British newspaper should not break a story about a foreign power spying on another foreign power, when there is no threat whatsoever that the revelation will help terrorists groups or organised crime. That criticism persists shows that the Guardian’s enemies are suffering from an advanced case of what Orwell called 'transferred nationalism': though nominally British they have transferred their loyalty to the United States, and react to any threat to American interests as if it were a threat their own.

In any case, the Guardian - for whose parent company I work, I should add - is not only bringing us foreign news. On Saturday, its correspondent James Ball answered a question that has baffled everyone who has hung around the criminal justice system: why do the police and security services refuse to present intercept evidence in court? The answer is that they feared that the public might realise the scale of state surveillance – and protest. Hence, the intelligence services lobbied furiously to hide the fact that, in their words, telecoms firms, had gone 'well beyond' what they were legally required to do to help intercept communications. For good measure, GCHQ admitted in private to fearing a legal challenge under the Human Rights Act if its surveillance methods became better known.

The concerns about the failure to produce bugged evidence do not always fall within the standard arguments between liberal doves and national security hawks. Juries acquit guilty men because prosecutors cannot reveal the full case against them. In a free society spies should accept – must accept – that we need an open debate on intercept evidence involving the judiciary, the legal profession, parliament and – for we are meant to be a democracy, after all – the public. We need it even more, when, by its own admission, GCHQ may be breaking the law.

But open debates aren’t the fashion in Britain. We don’t do that kind of thing here.

Tonight, David Cameron warned the Guardian that if it did not 'demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.'

No one should have been surprised. The ground for his threat to the free press had been well manured by none other than the free press itself.

A friend of mine with time on his hands read all the comment in blogs and columns the Daily Telegraph had run on the Guardian and the security service leaks. His weary eyes surveyed 20 pieces in total. All damned the Guardian, he found. Not one defended the right of newspapers to hold the state to account, even after agents of the state went into the Guardian’s office and supervised the destruction of a computer with copies of Edward Snowden’s documents on. The idea that you defend the freedom to publish – regardless of whether you agree with what is published or not – never occurred to its writers.

The only exception in the wider Telegraph stable was Janet Daley of the Sunday Telegraph, an American expat, significantly. She described her astonishment at the unwillingness of the British to stand-up for basic liberties. 'An editor of the US National Review wrote last week of those "who steadfastly refuse to express anxiety unless they can actually hear jackboots,"' she said. 'Note: once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late.'

The editor of the Mail, meanwhile, came as close as he dared to demanding that the police arrest the editor of the Guardian. Earlier this month, Stephen Glover, his in-house columnist, reported that Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national security adviser, had said that the Guardian has ‘already done real damage’ to Britain by its revelations, and that information still held by the newspaper could lead to a ‘widespread loss of life’. Suitably primed, Glover thundered:

The Guardian is being accused of putting at risk not only the lives of agents but also potentially the lives of ordinary British people, whom MI5 will now find it more difficult to protect. Divide the accusations in two, and then halve them again, and they are still mind-boggling.

This is the language of a treason trial; words that justify any action by the state to silence the journalist. The reason the Mail deploys them goes far beyond disagreements over one story. Foreigners will not understand the circular firing squad the British media has formed unless they understand that the British Right has its own version of the Marxist myth of false-consciousness.

It believes that the reason why the public do not turn to it and hail conservatives as their champions and saviours has nothing to do with the Right’s follies and inadequacies – which are all too apparent to the outsider. Rather the public has been brainwashed into false beliefs by the liberal elite. Not by the Guardian directly – my employers do not sell that many copies: but indirectly through the BBC and the politically correct bureaucracy, who are all meant to dance to Alan Rusbridger’s tune.

To stop liberals duping the credulous masses, the very right-wing press, which boasted with justice in the case of the Mail, about how it stood up to Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson’s attempts to intimidate the media, is now encouraging the Tories to attack the Guardian and intimidate the BBC while they are about it.

Their double-standards show censorship is fine on the British Right as long as it is the Right doing the censoring. Mind you, the Left is no less duplicitous.


While I was working on this piece a media studies professor – who is still a good friend, despite everything – came to see me. As a rule, media studies professors are to working journalists what astrologers are to astronomers. They do not understand what we do and they can't do what we do. So they seek to constrain us with their arbitrary systems.

Almost every media professor has egged on Leveson and the politicians, and called for the reintroduction of state regulation of the press – last seen in England in 1695. It is as if law professors were demanding the return of Star Chamber.

David Cameron’s attack on the Guardian infuriated my friend. The prime minister was threatening the free press, she cried.

I tried to keep the incredulity out of my voice. 'Who let the politicians in?' I asked with what little politeness I could muster. 'Who opened the door and bowed as they came by?'

She genuinely thought that the state would only go after those nasty right-wing journalists when the old taboos were broken.

And in her confusion, you could see the mess liberal England has made of the very principles it is meant to defend. We now have more than 100 journalists and newspaper sources under arrest for allegedly breaking the existing law. The coercive arm of the state, has taken advantage of the indulgent climate of liberal hysteria to tell any public servant, who thinks of speaking to the press, that they will end up in the dock. Now thanks to Leveson and virtually every power-grabbing MP in Parliament, we are going to have state-sponsored press regulation as well.

To get an idea of the depth of the debacle, listen to the International Committee to Protect Journalists. It is appalled by what Britain is doing to itself and the example we are setting to dictators the world over. 'Adopting statutory regulation would undermine press freedom in the U.K. and give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls.'

People who still think of themselves as liberals, try to black out the disaster they have brought by turning into the very tabloid journalists they affect to deplore. They bully and they scream. They accuse everyone who raises valid questions of being an idiot at best and a liar, fraud, hypocrite or corporate prostitute at worst.

In the Observer last Sunday Hacked Off’s Steve Coogan, showed what a debased organisation he was now associating with when he argued with David Mitchell. My colleague had written a piece saying that allegedly criminal journalists were already being prosecuted under existing law. 'The police failure to enforce that law [previously] shouldn't really have any bearing on the regulation of what the press is permitted to print.' You ought to read Coogan’s reply in full, and listen to his hectoring tone above all else. You will be hearing that bullying voice many more times unless the Leveson proposals are stopped. Coogan treated Mitchell’s reasonable argument with unadulterated contempt. Mitchell had 'come out with ill-informed and superficial dross on a serious issue', his piece began. Coogan carried on shouting until the final paragraphs when he made the confident assertion that Mitchell had failed:

to point to a single line in the whole of Leveson or of the charter that would prevent investigative or public interest journalism. Or a single witness at Leveson arguing that it should. Or a single politician wanting to do so. Because there is none.

Let me help the new Richard Littlejohn. Like a true bureaucrat, Leveson suggested that all the police needed to be accountable in a democracy was an internal procedure for dealing with potential whistleblowers. There would no longer be a need for officers worried about corruption or abuse of power to go public. We could trust the good and caring state to deal with all legitimate grievances internally.

The Met, as we have seen, has followed up and arrested accordingly. How does Coogan think my colleagues are going to get stories from a frightened and chastised police service, or prison service, or army, navy, or airforce?

I doubt he cares. For liberal Britain has its own version of the false consciousness theory. In this instance, the left blames the failure of the masses to embrace its ideas on the malign influence of Murdoch and Dacre. If attacking freedom of the press will help their cause, they will do it. The left wants right wing journalists silenced, the right want left wing journalists silenced, and everybody wants to tell the BBC what it can and can’t broadcast.

In the United States, Fox News and the New York Times fight like cat and dog. But when James Risen, the White House correspondent of Fox News, was being threatened by the Obama administration, the New York Times and liberal journalists across America defended him steadfastly. Whatever their political differences, they believed in the greater importance of the first amendment to the American constitution.

It reads

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

If you ever become a temporary dictator, and have the chance to enact just one law, make it a British first amendment. As each day passes, the need for it grows ever more urgent.