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Wednesday, October 09, 2013 

The feral press, pathetic in the face of real power.

Wouldn't it be lovely to have a free press?  You know, the sort that, rather than concentrating on trivia or revelations along the lines that an X Factor contestant has two cousins who are convicted murderers, actually undertook investigations, exposed wrongdoing, and held governments and the state to account?  If you were to believe the likes of the Mail and the Sun, that's exactly what we have and exactly what we stand to lose should the government's royal charter be used to set-up a new press regulator.  That it seems the same newspapers that plunged the entire British media into a crisis will instead go their own way yet again doesn't enter into it.

Nonetheless, if you ever needed further evidence what we in fact have is an industry that doth protest too much, you only need to see how the Mail, Times and Telegraph all decided today that rather than stand up for press freedom and journalistic integrity, they would instead side with the government and the securocrats against the Guardian.  Not only did they focus in laser like on what was a mere couple of paragraphs in the speech by MI5 director general Andrew Parker, in which he didn't so much as mention either the Graun or Edward Snowden, they were also helpfully briefed by "sources" who told them that "Parker is furious about the Snowden leaks", that the Graun has essentially provided a "handbook" for terrorists in how to avoid detection and that they "find it incomprehensible" there needed to be a public debate about such piffling matters.

When David Miranda was detained at Heathrow under section 7 of the Terrorism Act, plenty of people were quick to point out the number of Sun and former News of the World journalists who have been arrested, many of whom remain on bail, not knowing if they will yet face charges.  It was a fair enough point, and there probably hasn't been enough coverage in the ex-broadsheet press about the impact of the phone hacking investigations on journalism in general.  It's surely equally absurd though to then regard Miranda's detention, and as Alan Rusbridger later revealed, the pyrrhic smashing of a hard drive containing the Snowden files, as anything other than intimidation of the most unsubtle kind.  For the Mail, which unlike the other right-wing tabloids opposed New Labour's worst excesses on civil liberties, to tacitly agree with the government that the real danger is not from surveillance programmes which have grown exponentially without any oversight but the journalism which exposed them is a betrayal of the very values it claims to uphold.

There are obviously other factors at work here other than just anger at the Graun for not going along with the press barons on the new regulator.  The paper was the Mail's harshest critic last week during the Ralph Miliband row (with the possible exception of the Mirror)  and it was the Graun's own Jonathan Freedland who started the ball rolling with his column in the Jewish Chronicle on whether there was a whiff of anti-Semitism about the original article and then editorial (I didn't think there was, but can see why some felt that way).  This doesn't however explain why the Telegraph has took the government/securocrat line, especially when it was one of the few to follow up the Guardian's initial revelations.  The idea that either the Times or Torygraph would have refused to publish the Snowden files had he gone to either rather than Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald is laughable in itself.

The simplest explanation is that the majority of the press, and indeed MPs, are in thrall to the security state.  Parker's speech yesterday was in fact for the most part a sober, dry, and rather dull update on where MI5 stands at this moment.  Contrary to some reports, he did not say that the threat from terrorism was increasing, rather than it was diversifying, as anyone who's watched the news over the past year can tell.  Unlike previous holders of the job he didn't engage in scaremongering, and even suggested that some had done so in the past.  Whether it's true that as he said, the number of those who wish to do us harm remains about the same as it has for the past few years we simply can't tell, but it wasn't by any means an attempt to alarm.  Where he did venture into politics, apart from the nonsense about "gifts" and "handing the advantage to the terrorists" was in his claims that the intelligence agencies are well regulated and monitored, as well as all but asking for the powers that GCHQ already has to be given a proper legal basis.

All of which are the sentiments you would expect from a MI5 director general.  It's when the government agrees with those sentiments, and essentially accuses a newspaper of helping terrorists that we get into territory that ought to receive a response from all those who claim to believe in freedom of expression and the press.  The idea that terrorists or anyone else aren't already highly paranoid about how they communicate is laughable, unless they're the kind we've mostly dealt with of late, the incompetents.  The revelations about Prism and Tempora merely made clear what we and they already suspected.  Indeed, the New York Times reports that the US letting slip it was listening in to communications between al-Qaida leaders has had a far more chilling effect than anything that's emerged about the NSA and GCHQ.

The securocrat attitude is that nothing they don't reveal themselves should enter the public domain. And who can blame them? The last few years have seen their methods during the first stage of the war on terror when they were complicit in the rendering and torture of British residents brought into harsh light. They then lied through their teeth to the Intelligence and Security Committee about what they knew, even claiming they couldn't understand how the Americans were getting those they had captured to talk. They feel so secure in their position that they can make outrageous claims along the line that the Snowden files have dealt them their biggest blow in their history, as though the Cambridge Five never existed.  That these ridiculous sentiments are then repeated in a supposed feral press without criticism only underlines how supine they are in the face of real power.

When the media won't do the very basics, how can we expect those with even less inclination to do so? Just remember, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. William Hague said as much.

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