Why David Miranda's detention matters to us all
Thursday 22 August 2013
The Guardian has never been the most popular player in the Fleet Street squad. The wiry leftwinger is capable of charging through the opposition to score spectacular goals, but it rarely finds itself in the middle of celebratory team hugs.
When the Telegraph was on a roll with MPs' expenses, every other night newsdesk was on alert for the website tasters and the first editions, ready to cut, paste, analyse and curse that they had no control over the only game in town.
When the Guardian accused News International of phone hacking, it was largely ignored. Time and again it raised its hand and cried 'Look! Look!' But no one was remotely interested until Milly Dowler found her way into the splash heading. From that day the British Press was changed forever.
On Monday, the Guardian splashed on the detention of David Miranda as he was passing through Heathrow on Sunday morning, an event that aroused little interest in other papers. But we may yet look back on it as the day that changed Britain's terrorism laws.
Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who has been writing for the Guardian on material gleaned from Edward Snowden, the runaway US National Security Agency whistleblower/leaker.
Miranda is Brazilian and the couple live and work in Brazil. He was held on a stopover on his way from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro and questioned by half a dozen agents for nearly nine hours - the maximum allowed. He was denied access to a lawyer for almost all of that time and was even apparently denied a pencil and paper to note down what he was being asked. His laptop, phone, camera and memory cards were confiscated - along with a games console and a couple of DVDs - and he was then allowed to continue his journey.
All of this happened under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, 2000. This piece of the legislation allows the detention of someone in the no-man's land of an airport or port solely in order to determine if they are planning or engaged in an act of terrorism. There is no requirement that there should be grounds for suspecting the person of being a terrorist, and questioning can cover all areas of the detainee's life.
It's worth pausing over that. Anyone returning home from a family holiday can be hauled into a room and interrogated like this - you, your Auntie Sal, the next-door neighbour.
The Guardian obviously has its agenda and the decision to splash on the story was unsurprising. The BBC, ITV and Sky were all equally exercised by the sequence of events as to give the story top-billing.
Over the past three days
Conservatives, including David Davis, have also expressed concerns, although Theresa May has been robust in her defence of the police action.
We know that the Government told the US about plans to detain Miranda and that the Americans say that they did not instigate or request such action. We know that the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has written to David Cameron asking for an investigation.
We have also learnt this week that Cameron, Nick Clegg, William Hague ordered the Cabinet Secretary to strongarm the Guardian over the Snowden material it already had in its possession and that GCHQ officials oversaw the physical destruction of computer hard drives in the newspaper's basement, claiming that information on them could find its way into terrorist hands.
The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has written that the hard-drive battering came after a series of telephone calls from 'shadowy Whitehall figures' who told him: 'You've had your fun. Now we want our stuff back', and 'You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more.'
And from where have we learnt all this? Well most of it from the Guardian, of course. A great deal from the internet, a fair chunk from the Mirror and the Independent, rather less from the Times, and next to nothing from the Telegraph, Mail, Express or the Sun.
The Telegraph was actually first off the mark with a six-par story on page 4 on Monday, which was clearly a late-edition catch-up as it is spattered with the tell-tale 'The Guardian reported...' This was followed by slim page 10 hampers both yesterday and this morning.
The Times ran a page 11 lead on Tuesday and a leader that boiled down to 'Let's hope this was an appropriate use of these powers'; there was a further page 4 lead this morning. The Mail also made Miranda its page 4 today - a story that is almost entirely sympathetic to the authorities with a couple of pars of counter quotes at the end.
Whistleblowing, leaking, call it what you will, is not an activity that is of intrinsic interest to readers. These are the mechanics of journalism. Readers want the facts and they will then be the judge of whether the means of obtaining them were reasonable. There is a particular audience for stories about the Assanges, Mannings, Snowdens - and it is far from mainstream. That may explain why the Miranda story has been treated as almost just another episode in the Guardian's personal drama.
But it isn't.
Here we are in the post-Leveson era when restrictions on the Press should be at or near the top of every newspaper's concerns. It it right that 'shadowy Whitehall figures' should be telling a national newspaper editor that he doesn't need to write any more on any given subject? Well at least one writer - Jay Rosen - sees the danger, although not in British newsprint.
Even more important, is this another assault on the freedom of the individual - that right so cherished by the Tories who have defended the police action? Remember, any one of us could be subjected to the treatment handed out to Miranda on Sunday.
The FT ran a leader on Tuesday headlined Britain's botched use of terror laws. It went live on the website at 6.46pm on Monday and spoke of the treatment of Miranda sparking a 'huge outcry'.
A huge outcry by whom?
The Guardian, certainly. But by that time only the Mirror seemed similarly concerned. It ran a leader headlined Freedom at stake which described Miranda's detention as unjustified and concluded 'Silencing journalists keeps you, the public, in the dark.' On the same page Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, reveals how commonplace the use of Schedule 7 turns out to be.
Muslims are so used to being questioned under this provision that they routinely build extra hours into their journey planning to account for it, she writes. She then cites this case:
Liberty has a client who was detained in November 2010 with his elderly mother after they had flown back to Heathrow via Bahrain.
According to the terror law watchdog David Anderson, fewer than 40 people a year are detained for more than six hours under Schedule 7. The figure is put forward to show how unusual the treatment of Miranda was. The Mail goes to the opposite end of that spectrum, pointing out that 70,000 people per year are stopped in this way, as though to undermine the suggestion that Miranda - who was carrying encrypted Snowden material - suffered anything untoward.
Whichever way you look at it, it's alarming. Either that such vast numbers are stopped and questioned going about their everyday business, or that someone who is clearly not a terrorist is held for so long without being allowed the advice of a lawyer.
An infringement of press freedom or of individual liberty? Surely it's worth the debate? Aren't these the questions our newspapers - at least the broadsheet tendency - should be asking? Yet most leave the questioning to general columnists rather than to specialists or leader writers.
Rob Crilly for the Telegraph website has a good old go at the Guardian before concluding that the whole episode is frightening when the threat to the individual is considered.
Matthew Norman in the Independent describes the case as sinister and an abundant disgrace. He points to Britain's desire to do - or to be seen to do - the bidding of the Americans and the resultant growing authoritarianism: 'The politicisisation of the police becomes ever more entrenched.'
Stephen Glover in the Mail also sees Britain turning into a police state. But he has few tears to shed for Miranda, Greenwald or the Guardian. Instead he almost rejoices in the schadenfreude that the paper whose work led to so many journalists to be arrested should now expect sympathy.
Glover is not the only one to point to the aftermath of the hacking scandal - Claire Fox also likens the Miranda detention to the post-Leveson arrests, reminding us in the Independent that many journalists have been on police bail for more than a year and that none has yet gone on trial. Online Brendan O'Neill of Spiked is vitriolic in accusing the Guardian of double standards.
It's an easy way to get at the Guardian. The unloved team member, the holier-than-thou paper that brought Leveson and all its horrors raining down on us, is trading in stolen classified information. What's the difference between doing that and hacking into someone's phone? They're both illegal.
But that isn't the point. This isn't about the legitimacy or otherwise of using Snowden material. It is about whether an individual - journalist or not - should be detained and questioned about the minutiae of their lives when there is no evidence to suggest that they are anything other than upright and honest. That is not, I'm afraid, the same as arresting and bailing or charging someone suspected of a criminal offence.
But that is only my opinion. It would be good to see people with full understanding of the law debating these issues in newsprint. Some hope. Our papers haven't got as far as considering whether the use of Schedule 7 was legal. David Allen Green spells out his view on his blog, and attracts one of the most intelligent comment threads you'll read in a long time. But the papers have simply quoted Teresa May as saying it was and Falconer as saying it wasn't.
Without being rude to Glover, Norman and Fox, where are the really informative pieces by heavyweight experts? Nick Cohen writes trenchantly in a blog for the Spectator, but what about the dailies?
We have the Prime Minister, his deputy and the Foreign Secretary approving the destruction of a newspaper's computer hard drives - a situation the White House said it could never envisage - and yet the political editors and commentators are silent.
And the tech writers? In the face of cries of 'how could you acquiesce?' Rusbridger pretty well states that this was all just pantomime nonsense - how many spooks does it take to smash up an Apple Mac?
The material wasn't lost to the Guardian, there are copies safely stored outside of the country. But was the Government right in suggesting that the computer network was not sufficiently secure and that dangerous information could get into terrorist hands? What sort of encryption systems are necessary to make our computers safe? Indeed, given Whitehall's record on computer security, is the Government in any position to cast aspersions on anyone's gatekeeping?
But no, the mentality appears to be "It's just the old Grauniad on one of its hobby horses. Nobody reads it anyway. Why should we care?"
We should care because it is an important issue of individual and press freedom versus state control and authoritarianism.
And the biggest journalistic stars should be playing out that match in front of a capacity crowd - in print.
From Prince William's dodgy knee to Milly Dowler's inbox - how the Guardian's Nick Davies blew the lid off phone hacking at the News of the World
The police investigations did get out of hand; they were out of proportion with the suspected crimes; the costs were astronomical. none of this money would have been spent if Coulson hadn't encouraged a culture of hacking and then lied through his teeth for five years
- the SubScribe commentary
Patrick Kingsley named young journalist of the year at British Press Awards and British journalism awards.
See his coverage of Al Jazeera trial here