A State of Fear: is journalism safe in the UK?

Demonstration in Berlin supporting media freedoms

Demonstration in Berlin supporting media freedoms

Having written ‘10 questions on the future of the Scottish media‘, a story broke which startled me. It led to this eleventh question. It highlights an ongoing threat to journalism and how an independent Scotland can respond to ensure a free and open society

Question 11) Are journalists, whistle-blowers and sources safe?

Last night the Editor of The Guardian made an astounding admission. Recently, UK Security Officials from GCHQ entered the offices of The Guardian in London to destroy computer equipment. This followed threats by UK Government officials to impose ‘prior restraint’ on the media group’s operations (preventing the publication of information the Government does not like) and requests by “a very senior government official” to destroy journalistic material. Following these incidents, The Guardian will not be reporting on this material from the UK. Instead it will continue its investigations elsewhere.

Yesterday David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald, was detained for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport by UK officials. They confiscated his mobile phone, laptop, camera and memory sticks. UK police used special powers under the Terrorism Act to question Miranda on his partner’s journalism and investigations. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from Edward Snowden.

Simon Jenkins, in response, stated “Harassing the family of those who have upset authority is the most obscene form of state terrorism.” Widney Brown of Amnesty International and the Government of Brazil have both condemned the detention.

Alan Rusbridger made a powerful and frightening statement in his piece:

“I wonder how many (journalists) have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like “when”. We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources.”

With Edward Snowden in hiding, Bradley Manning likely to die in jail, and continued intimidation of journalists in the U.S., a worrying pattern is emerging. In the case of The Guardian, information is currently being withheld from publication as protection from threats and intimidation.

In Scotland what can done to protect journalists, whistle-blows and sources from harassment? A Scottish journalist, Ewen MacAskill, was central to the Snowden revelations. How would an independent Scotland have reacted if he had been subject to what Jenkins calls “state terrorism”?

A written constitution which enshrines media rights would be a start, as Alan Rusbridger highlights. Further legislation – as proposed in Iceland – to protect journalists, whistle-blowers, sources and citizens would be the next step. As Smari McCarthy, of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, told National Collective: “We got a new information act. We got changes to the telecommunications act to improve privacy and information security. There’s also a new media act. It makes public the ownership of all registered media and puts a legal obligation on journalists to protect their sources.”

Digital technology presents great opportunities for creation, sharing and engagement. Yet it also increases the threats of surveillance, control and abuse that accompanies the concentration of power.

Journalism is precious. Scotland must defend it, for ultimately the security of the people – our security – depends upon the security of journalists to publish the truth.

Michael Gray
National Collective


About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.