Skip to main content

U.K. government and press collide in bullying of reporter's partner

By Richard Sambrook, Special to CNN
August 22, 2013 -- Updated 0154 GMT (0954 HKT)
Journalist Glenn Greenwald walks with his partner David Miranda in Rio de Janeiro's International Airport on August 19.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald walks with his partner David Miranda in Rio de Janeiro's International Airport on August 19.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Sambrook: UK journalism under siege with detention of Greenwald's partner
  • Sambrook: A middle ground exists between the state as despot or defender of citizenry
  • He says terrorism laws should not be used to bully reporters, as they were in this case
  • Sambrook: Issue is the scope of security operations in a modern liberal democracy

Editor's note: Richard Sambrook is professor of journalism at Cardiff University in the UK. He is a former director of global news for the BBC.

(CNN) -- British journalism is under siege. With no settlement yet on press regulation following last year's judicial inquiry into phone hacking, this week has seen another seminal moment. Once again The Guardian, now clearly one of the crusading newspapers of the world, is at the heart of matters.

The detention of the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald by security officials at Heathrow airport in London has unleashed a virulent debate about the place of the free press and the role of the state. The fact that obscure terrorism legislation was cited to hold him for nine hours and confiscate his computer equipment has added a further twist.

In the past, police would be required to obtain court orders that could be contested before they could seize journalistic materials. Now the ill-defined threat of terror seems to excuse the tactics of a despotic state.

Richard Sambrook
Richard Sambrook

A former editor of The Times in London, Simon Jenkins, wrote that "harassing the family of those who have upset authority is the most obscene form of state terrorism," adding that "the hysteria of the 'war on terror' is now corrupting every area of democratic government."

On the other hand, the UK's Home Office said Greenwald's partner David Miranda was carrying "highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism," and those who oppose his detention should think about what they are condoning. Former Conservative member of Parliament Louise Mensch told the BBC that Miranda's actions were endangering the lives of U.S. and British agents.

But Miranda was released without charge, with no suggestion he was seeking to help terrorists, and he is taking legal action against the UK authorities for the return of his property.

This has polarized positions into a black and white, good or bad debate. If you support a free press publishing leaked state secrets you are apparently condoning terrorism. If you don't object to his detention loudly, you are condoning the secret state. Unlike the U.S., Britain has no First Amendment to protect the role of the free press. Like so much of the British constitution, it is an unwritten assumption.

Inside David Miranda's detention
Glenn Greenwald responds

Reason lies in the complicated middle ground -- unfashionable as that may be.

Social media, advocacy journalism, the need to define and claim the narrative and to be heard leaves little room for middle ground, but it is there that this conflict will be resolved. In that gray area, the ethical bridge between these positions will have to be rebuilt.

As a start, we should acknowledge some plain truths.

First, journalists have responsibilities toward the state, and governments have responsibilities toward a free and open press. Radical transparency, which would release anything and everything, is not what any responsible news organization, including the Guardian, would support.

Equally, government agencies, however shadowy, need to recognize that journalism is a legitimate -- indeed essential -- activity in a democratic society, especially when it is inconvenient, embarrassing or blows secrets you would have preferred to remain hidden.

Second, if you reveal a country's national secrets you shouldn't be surprised if its security services take an aggressive interest in you. This doesn't mean you were wrong to report them. Family members and loved ones should not have to carry public responsibility for your professional actions. But when they act as couriers for your work, they are more than family members and loved ones -- they are your proxy and will attract as much interest from the authorities.

Third, journalism is not terrorism, so terrorism laws should not be used to intimidate journalists. There is no suggestion that David Miranda was planning to hand material to terrorists -- as the authorities well know. Governments embarrassed by the latest rounds of whistleblowing would like to cast a chill across investigative journalism. But it is not in the interests of a free society to allow that to happen.

At heart, the issue is the legitimate scope and role of intelligence and security operations in a modern liberal democracy. As a first stab, they should be as small as necessary -- recognizing that serious threats to Western states mean their activities are bound to be, and need to be, of significant scale.

What matters is how their powers are used and their accountability. It's what a country's moral authority rests upon. U.S. and UK authorities acting against legitimate newsgathering need to reflect on what it says about their democratic values. Seizing Associated Press phone records or intimidating the families of journalists will have some in Moscow, Tehran, Beijing and Pyongyang rubbing their hands with glee.

Many believe the UK's security operations' insufficient scrutiny and accountability make them untrustworthy. Even David Anderson, Britain's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, is calling for a wide public and parliamentary debate on this law.

At least that debate seems certain to happen. And it is better that the discussion about the state and journalism centers on a piece of public interest, serious journalism than over the criminal antics of Rupert Murdoch's phone hackers.

What may have started last weekend as a clumsy piece of intimidation could have far wider consequences.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Sambrook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT