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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT