Democracy as a ‘game’

The big question, to my mind, is whether the kind of comprehensive surveillance deemed essential by the national security state is compatible with democracy.

The answer I’m heading towards is “No”.

Jay Rosen nudged me further along this path last night with a wonderful post on “Conspiracy to Commit Journalism” which highlights what’s at stake now. “The battle”, Jay writes,

is not a simple matter of the state vs. civilians. It’s not government vs. the press, either. It’s the surveillance-over-everything forces within governments (plus the politicians and journalists who identify with them) vs. everyone who opposes their overreach: investigative journalists and sources, especially, but also couriers (like David Miranda), cryptographers and technologists, free speech lawyers, funders, brave advertisers, online activists, sympathetic actors inside a given government, civil society groups like Amnesty International, bloggers to amplify the signal and, of course, readers. Lots of readers, the noisy kind, who share and help distribute the work.

Which brings me back to Alan Rusbridger’s chilling account of what led, in the end, to the pointless destruction, under the supervision of British spooks, of a MacBook in the basement of the Guardian newspaper. In the course of his account, Rusbridger writes this:

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

Rosen translates this thus:

That’s the government telling the editor of a national newspaper: Time’s up, no more of that journalism stuff! We’ll decide when there’s been enough debate. Stop now or we’ll make you stop.

(Rusbridger’s response: We will continue our careful reporting of the Snowden material. “We just won’t do it from London.”)

When I first read the Rusbridger article, with its coded references to “a very senior government official” and “the centre of government” I assumed that his interlocutors were spooks in the Cabinet Office, the standard-issue hard men who see rendition and waterboarding either as necessary evils or as tools of their trade. These are people who see journalism and public debate as a pain in the ass, something that they have to put up with while they get on with the real work of protecting (running?) the State. The sentiments are chilling, of course, but only to expected from people like that. My journalistic colleagues who reported the Troubles in Northern Ireland often knew British security officials like that.

The tone of the reported conversations is, for me, the key factor. What it suggests is a worldview which says that free media, whistleblowing, the exposure of questionable and/or illegal behaviour by government, and public debate about same are, somehow, frivolous activities. Just look at the words used: “You’ve had your fun“. And: “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.” [Emphasis added.]

But, as I said, this kind of Weltanschauung is only to be expected from certain classes of spook. This morning, however, we learned something new. A report in the Independent reveals that

David Cameron instructed the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to contact The Guardian to spell out the serious consequences that could follow if it failed to hand over classified material received from Edward Snowden, it can be revealed.

Senior Whitehall sources confirmed to The Independent the Prime Minister’s central role in trying to limit revelations about UK and US intelligence operations contained in information the whistleblower received from the National Security Agency.

So here’s my question.

Were any of the phrases quoted by Rusbridger used by the Cabinet Secretary? He is the most senior civil servant in the United Kingdom, who acts as the senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister and Cabinet and is the Secretary to the Cabinet, and is responsible to all Ministers for the running of the government. Is this really how the most powerful mandarin in the government thinks about the role and responsibilities of the media — and, given that free media are essential for democracy, about democracy itself? Does the Cabinet Secretary, in other words, see all this as a kind of game in which journalists have “fun” exposing the dirty linen of security services and embarrassing those in charge of the United States’s overseas security franchise?