Why serious flaws in the 'Snoopers Charter' pose a huge threat to press freedom and the public's right to know
It’s been a strange old week for those of us who value a free press, a proportionate sense of privacy and the public’s right to know. Oh, and the latest Bond movie has been packing ‘em in at multiplexes the length and breadth of the country.
There was the bizarre PR spectacle (or is it spectre?) of the security services inviting the BBC and the Times inside the secretive world of GCHQ and happily playing along with a contrived 007 cross-promotional. Timed, of course, to soften up the public to Theresa May’s latest controversial manifestation in Parliament of the ‘Snoopers Charter’, aka the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.
By 5 November —further irony indeed—the fireworks were flying with the Home Secretary and the spooks of MI5 and MI6 under fire from both left and right, libertarians, big computer firms and parts of the media.
The Society of Editors, where I’m actively involved, was quick to denounce the elements of Theresa May’s draft bill that empowers the state to access journalists’ communications data, and their sources, without judicial approval or prior notification so that media organisations could mount a legal challenge.
The Society of Editors, which has been campaigning to protect the rights of journalists against creeping state control, is to press parliament to introduce special exemptions for journalism, a campaign that began even before the draft bill, as a result of the police’s legally dubious use of RIPA to access the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn over ‘Plebgate’ and Mail on Sunday journalists in the Chris Huhne driving points scandal.
“Accessing journalists call records should be a rare exception for police rather than the rule it seems to have become in recent years,” says Society of Editors executive director, Bob Satchwell.
Public and media confidence was stirred further by Theresa May’s revelation that MI5 has been secretly harvesting data about the phone calls, texts, emails and internet habits of huge numbers of UK citizens for years. It was being done under a ‘national security directions’ clause buried deep in the 1984 Telecommunications Act. It rather flew in the face of previous ‘reassurances’ by GCHQ that bulk collection of surveillance data had been restricted to overseas terrorist suspects.
Both the draft bill, and the revelations about the existing scale of bulk surveillance on UK citizens, has succeeded in dividing the media along interesting lines. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a two-page spread with a headline screaming, ‘Spooks have been harvesting our phone and email data for 14 years’, with a sub-headline ‘Now MI5 and police get new power to snoop’.
But in an editorial, headed ‘Security, liberty and May’s balancing act’, the paper was largely supportive of the Home Secretary’s plan, echoing her line that it is essential to ‘bring the powers of the intelligence services into line with the digital age’. But it did add a final paragraph caveat, ‘For now, this paper congratulates Mrs May. Though the devil will be in the detail, the early signs are that she’s got the balance between security and freedom about right’.
Over at the Guardian, star columnist Simon Jenkins, a former Times editor, struck a very different tone, arguing ‘Secret security can only build its legitimacy on trust. Britons have granted their security establishment that trust for the past half century, despite it being sometimes betrayed in return. Burgess and Maclean, Philby and Spycatcher, Iraq and Snowden revealed a secret service unable to police or account for its errors. When under pressure, it merely presses the ‘feel very afraid’ button and scares public and politicians to do its will.’
Under the headline, ‘The surveillance bill is as big a threat to state security as to individual liberty’, Jenkins contended (convincingly in my book) that politicians and the law have a duty to protect citizens from ‘unwarranted surveillance’, including that of the state itself. ‘Who should monitor the monitors?’ as Jenkins pointed out, is the big question that should be taxing all of us.
At the Times –beneficiary of all that Bond-esque publicity courting by the spooks—the leader probably wasn’t quite as supportive as Mrs May and the security services might have wished for.
Headlined ‘Power to Probe’, it suggested: ‘Theresa May’s bill should make us safer. But parliament has to scrutinise it carefully to ensure it does not erode too much personal liberty’. With a final paragraph that ran: ‘Mrs May says that the proposed search amounts to little more than viewing an itemised phone bill. That is disingenuous. She sets store by the oversight of a ‘powerful and independent’ commissioner. How independent? How powerful? There are still plenty of questions to answer’.
The ‘Snoopers Charter’ debate only added to another important campaign launched recently by the Society of Editors, together with others campaigning for both press freedom and the wider public’s right to know. Namely the government’s plan to water down the Freedom of Information Act. A grim threat chillingly spelled out in parliament by the Leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, who accused journalists of ‘misusing’ the act as a ‘research tool’. I kid you not. So what, Mr Grayling, is the Freedom of Information Act if it isn’t there to provide journalists, campaign groups and ordinary citizens the ‘freedom’ to seek out ‘information’ about what is being done by powerful interests?
Anyone, journalist or plain Jane or Joe Public, who has turned to the FoI knows that it can prove a painful, protracted process to squeeze out information that they are have every right to know. It happens every day in big or small ways and all too often sans the big headlines that surrounded the years spent trying to dig out the truth about MPs expenses or the five years it took the Guardian to force Prince Charles’ infamous ‘black spider letters’ into the public domain. The plan to weaken the act, and increase charges for answering requests, represents a threat to big and small news organisations and, above all, to members of the public without deep pockets and superhuman powers of patience.
Together, the threat to the FoI and the serious flaws in Theresa May’s draconian Investigatory Powers Bill, should have us all running more than a bit scared and determined more than ever to hold power to the most stringent public account.
Meanwhile some independent cyber security experts throw major doubts over whether, even without any forced amendments, the surveillance bill can live up to the Home Secretary and spy chiefs boasts. They suggest it's far more likely to be effective monitoring ordinary citizens or relatively minor 'baddies' than it is serious terrorists, sophisticated major criminals and hardcore paedophiles wise to the ways of far more impenetrable dark web.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, member of the Society of Editors, co-author of ‘After Leveson’ and former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor Daily Mirror