In a private viewing cinema in London’s Soho last week, I caught myself letting fly with a four-letter expletive at Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times. It was a confusing moment. The man who was pretending to be me — thanking Keller for “not giving a shit” — used to be Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctor who will soon be a 1,000-year-old time lord. Keller will correct me, but I do not remember ever swearing at him. I do remember saying something to the effect of “we have the thumb drive, you have the First Amendment.”
The fictional moment occurs at the beginning of the DreamWorks film about WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate, due for release next month. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi is, I can report, a very plausible Guardian editor.
This real-life exchange with Keller happened just after the Guardian took possession of the first tranche of WikiLeaks documents in 2010. I strongly suspected that our ability to research and publish anything to do with this trove of secret material would be severely constrained in the UK.
The US, for all its problems with media laws and whistleblowers, at least has press freedom enshrined in a written constitution. It is also, I hope, unthinkable that any US government would attempt prior restraint against a news organization planning to publish material that informed an important public debate, however embarrassing.
On Sunday morning, David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through London’s Heathrow Airport on his way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live.
Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
Greenwald’s work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for Western governments, but as the debate in the US and Europe has shown, there is considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of intelligence, the use of closed courts, the cozy relationship between government and vast corporations, and about the extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their communications intercepted, collected, analyzed and stored.
In this work he is regularly helped by Miranda, who, although he is not a journalist, still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work.
Greenwald has his plate full reading and analyzing the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media requests from around the world. He can certainly use this backup. That work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe.
The Guardian’s work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon, we will be back to pen and paper.
Miranda was held for nine hours under Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, which gives enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with “terror,” as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure — uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas — there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.