Marina Hyde writes today in the Guardian about “one of our foremost national characteristics – the absolute insistence on looking at the wrong thing” and wonders if this has now tipped into a kind of madness.
After a series of revelations about mass surveillance the British public has remained infuriatingly stolid. This, says Hyde, is in marked contrast to the response to revelations about hacking by News International:
Over the past few years, Britain has appeared far more concerned with who did or didn’t listen to some celebrities’ voicemails than with what should be the epoch-defining question of who can listen to all of ours, and watch us at home via our webcam, and now listen in on live calls.
Hyde goes on to suggest that we make the connection between the D-Day anniversary and the fact of mass surveillance. Surely the fight against fascism was, in part, the fight to communicate “without some unfettered state snoop in Cheltenham or Maryland being empowered to listen in?” Or, as Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
It’s true that the series of front pages that ran in July 2011 did provoke mass disquiet and a corresponding crisis in the ranks of the deciders. The Snowden leaks haven’t, or haven’t so far. But the two cases are not as distinct as they seem.
For one thing, it took a long time for the News International story to capture the public’s attention. Nick Davies and others at the Guardian were hammering away for two years before it became a scandal complete with calls for action, votes in Parliament and, that penicillin for fevers in the body politic, the establishment of a public inquiry. It took as long as it did in large part because the other newspapers (apart from the Independent) were stubbornly reluctant to wade in. Given that the BBC tends to look to the Mail-Telegraph agenda when seeking a proxy for the public mood, this helped ensure that the story didn’t get much play in the broadcast news, either, at least until the Milly Dowler story broke.
Much the same can be said of the Snowden leaks. The rest of the UK press has been quite muted. The Telegraph-Mail intravenous drip into Middle England hasn’t been pumping it with warnings about an emerging Big Brother state. The broadcast coverage has been similarly sparse. There’s more than one reason for this. Britain is not a constitutional republic, so the public take it on trust that the state isn’t going to trample the rights of the freeborn etc. And the people in GCHQ go out of their way not to draw attention to absence of formal legal restraints and their prodigious will to know. Personal decency, rather than abstract principle, is the animating spirit of the system. It’s terrifically effective in creating the “mouthfeel” of freedom – the sense that we are the authors of our own destiny and that we aren’t about to be shot or imprisoned for no good reason. (It doesn’t convince everyone of course. If you have no money, if you’re black or if you have views that Mr Gove considers extreme then you are likely to have a less rosy view of our immemorial tradition of not writing anything down.)
It’s also true that newspapers don’t always like to make a fuss about other people’s scoops. But there’s more to it than that. The Guardian has come under a great deal of pressure from the state for its Snowden coverage. Newspapers are supposed to keep at least one eye on the national interest as set out by Whitehall. The other newspapers have no desire to upset their working relationships with the permanent administration.
This brings us to another way in which the NSA-GCHQ and News International stories are linked. As Tom Watson MP noted in 2011, “At the murkier ends of this scandal there are allegations that rogue elements in the intelligence services had very close dealings with executives at News International.” At the time Watson expressed the hope that the inquiry would investigate these allegations and the Prime Minister assured him that “the judge can take the inquiry in any direction the evidence leads him”.
As far as I can tell, there are precisely no references to these allegations of “very close dealings” between NI executives and the intelligence services in the published report. This is a little strange, given that a serving MI5 officer was involved in the Max Mosley story. According to the Daily Mail, this MI5 office contacted the News of the World and set up the covert filming of the businessman.
The inquiry doesn’t seem to have asked MI5 questions about what it knew – if anything – about the contacts between serving officers and the News of the World. It also didn’t ask what the Security Service was doing while the paper was hacking the voicemails of politicians and behaving in ways that, at the very mildest, contravened the spirit of the Universal Declaration. Or if they did ask, they didn’t mention the answers in the report.
There’s much more to be said about the links between the secret state and the newspapers and broadcasters. Let’s just say that the moves by GCHQ-NSA to bring the big digital companies into the orbit of signals intelligence supplement the longstanding integration of the intelligence agencies and the mass media. It is possible to spin the News International scandal as the tale of a rogue newspaper and obscure the elements that point to something else, to do with the workings of our unwritten constitution.
The Snowden story cannot help but raise questions about the same constitution. It is constitutionality all the way down. The silence is of the deciders is only to be expected. The imperturbable calm of the public in this respect is what the state-media system is for. It frees up energy to worry about acceptable matters of concern, like benefits scroungers and immigrants. Our “absolute insistence on looking at the wrong thing” requires very careful management.
But News International and Snowden are part of the same story. A story in which we all now have walk on parts.