9 December 2013
CN, UK Accused of Breaking Journo Privilege Code
Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled
By DAVID CARR
Published: December 8, 2013
In China on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke plainly about
the role of a free press in a democratic society.
Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able
to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear
of consequences, he said in an address to American businesspeople living
and working there.
He was speaking against the backdrop of Chinas restrictive policies
on reporting by foreign news organizations; the Chinese government has so
far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from The New
York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising
the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of the
It was the first time a high-ranking United States official had spoken publicly
about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.
While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort
to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly
advanced democracy and the United States closest ally, might do well
to consider Mr. Bidens words. (Some of his colleagues in the Justice
Department, which has ferociously prosecuted leakers, might take heed as
well, but thats a matter for a different day.)
Two days before Mr. Biden made his comments, Alan Rusbridger, the editor
in chief of The Guardian, a British newspaper, was compelled to appear before
a parliamentary committee to be questioned about the newspapers coverage
of national security material leaked by Edward J. Snowden. Rather than asking
Mr. Rusbridger how a 30-year-old in Hawaii not directly employed by the
government had access to so many vital secrets, the committee sought to
intimidate and raised the question of whether The Guardian, in sharing the
Snowden leaks with other news organizations, might have engaged in criminal
The parliamentary committee on national security seemed more interested in
loyalty than accountability, partly because there is no equivalent to the
First Amendment in British law. Keith Vaz, a Labour Party member of the
committee, cut to the opposite of the chase in the middle of the session:
I love this country. Do you love this country?
Mr. Rusbridger paused, less as a matter of consideration than dismay that
his credentials as a citizen were of primary concern.
Im slightly surprised to be asked the question, Mr. Rusbridger
said, but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic
about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact
that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things. He
later added, One of the things I love about this country is that we
have that freedom to write, and report, and to think and we have some
In his testimony, Mr. Rusbridger pointed out that newspapers in the United
States, including The Washington Post and The Times, had reached the same
conclusion about the leaks that what they revealed was of vital global
significance. Given that The Guardian had shared some of the Snowden material
with The Times, Mark Reckless, another committee member, asked whether The
Guardian should be prosecuted for that. I think it depends on your
view of a free press, Mr. Rusbridger responded.
Mr. Rusbridger made his own view clear: Its self-evident. If
the president of the United States calls a review of everything to do with
intelligence, and that information only came into the public domain through
newspapers, then it is self-evident, is it not, that newspapers had done
something which oversight failed to do.
At the same time, the British government has used the so-called Defence Advisory
Notice to let other newspapers in Britain know that it would take a dim view
of efforts to follow or add to The Guardians reporting.
Theoretically, the structure of our government is supposed to keep us safe
from government abuse, but the rise of an enhanced security state after the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has created a kind of short circuit in that diagram
of accountability. That is where journalism comes in, where China gets it
wrong, where Britain has lost its footing. Transparency, however painful
in the moment, allows democracy, business and the citizenry to thrive in
the long run, a point that Mr. Biden made in his speech and that Mr. Rusbridger
made in his testimony.
There are countries, and they are not generally democracies, where
the press are not free to write about these things and where the security
services do tell editors what to write and where politicians do censor
newspapers, Mr. Rusbridger said. Thats not the country
we live in, in Britain.
By now, most people know that The Guardian and The Washington Post published
articles in June that set off a global debate over the implications of government
surveillance, and put citizens everywhere on notice that their private
communications are subject to inspection by the National Security Agency.
Since the leaks first surfaced, there have been many new disclosures exposing
fresh insults to privacy. Last week, The Washington Post revealed that the
N.S.A. was gathering about five billion records a day on the location of
cellphones around the world.
Barton Gellman, who helped write that article and broke much of the news
about the Snowden material that appeared in The Post, has had a busy few
months. But he did notice that Mr. Rusbridger seemed to be on trial this
week for committing journalism. For all the complaints about the
administrations aggressiveness in prosecuting leaks, America is still
a better place to reveal uncomfortable truths. After all, no one knocked
on the door seeking documents and demanding the destruction of hard drives,
as happened at The Guardian.
I am very happy to enjoy the protections of American law and American
political traditions in terms of investigative journalism, Mr. Gellman
said by phone. It is far from perfect and we are still seeing reporters
get in trouble for doing their job, but there is a strong norm against
prosecuting a reporter for doing accountability work.
Much of journalism is about shoveling coal, feeding the daily furnace of
the news cycle, but every once in a while, a story comes along that grabs
a corner of the world and gives it a big, much-needed shake. The reporting
about N.S.A. surveillance prompted by the Snowden leaks is that story.
Sometimes you work hard and uncover something that seems significant
and all it gets is a big yawn, Mr. Gellman said. But, he said, these
are very consequential disclosures: There are new laws being written, new
legal challenges in federal court that werent possible before, and
you have a seismic shift in Silicon Valley, where companies are now competing
in part on their ability to protect your information from the government.
Transparency made that possible.
Reached on Friday, three days after his testimony, Mr. Rusbridger said he
was less encouraged by the response in Britain.
I would hope that the evidence of the importance of the material that
we have published is overwhelming and self-evident, he said. But
Parliament seems fixated on the minutiae and is spending almost no time on
the huge issues raised by the disclosures. It has not been a great moment
for democratic principles.
As Mr. Biden and Thomas Jefferson before him pointed out, a
free press is essential to a functioning democracy. Whether its Beijing
or Britain, it might be a good time for governments to stop trying to prevent
the news media from doing its job and address what that work has revealed.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 8, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this column misstated
the political party of Keith Vaz, a member of the parliamentary committee
on national security. He is a Labour Party member, not a conservative.