Tue, Sep 10, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Media debate about surveillance has been stifled in Britain

By Henry Porter  /  The Observer, LONDON

At a wedding last week, I was sitting next to a novelist who was writing about the Cold War, so I told her the story of how the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) thanked all its agents in East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a moving story from another age and I know it to be true.

As Germany approached unification, Her Majesty’s Government authorized payments of — I believe — 30,000 Deutsche marks to all the agents who had risked life and liberty to help MI6. A team of intelligence officers was deployed to track down former agents, or their families, and present the check with the government’s gratitude. It was a long and emotional job, for the young officers heard many agonizing stories about loss, sacrifice and years spent in prison.

At length, there was one individual left on the list. He arrived at MI6’s office on the main thoroughfare of Unter den Linden, in the old East Berlin, but instead of taking the money, he rushed out back on to the street, pursued by one of the spies with the check. He rejected it for a second time, gesturing frantically toward the Brandenburg Gate. Didn’t the British government understand that he’d done it all so that his children could walk through the gate as free citizens?

This captures a lot about the times that formed my political beliefs, as well as the miracle of the 1989 liberation. During the Cold War, we valued freedom and privacy because we compared our lives to the tyrannical conditions in the Communist bloc. Whatever the faults of western societies, we knew we were better than those societies and we knew that we were right.


The story has been playing in my mind recently, because all summer I have been puzzling over the lack of reaction in Britain to the Edward Snowden revelations about US and UK communications surveillance, a lack that at some moments has seemed even more remarkable than the revelations themselves. Today, apparently, we are at ease with a system of near total intrusion that would have horrified every adult Briton 25 years ago. Back then, Western spies acknowledged the importance of freedom by honoring the survivors of those heroic networks; now, they spy on their own people.

We have changed, that is obvious, and, to be honest, I wonder whether I, and others who care about privacy and freedom, have been left behind by societies that accept surveillance as a part of the sophisticated world we live in. Even so, the neglect of the Snowden story by the British media does seem remarkable.

Last Friday, the order on the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) radio program Today’s 8am news bulletin, usually a reliable guide to developments at home and abroad, was as follows: Putin remains adamant on Syria at G8. Blair on Syrian intervention. The plight of Syrian refugees. Nursing regulator calls for checks on nurses. Former BBC director-general accuses BBC trust of dishonesty. A phone recording from the recent Spanish rail crash. Parliamentary committee accuses civil servants of incompetence. China discovers that many Chinese cannot speak Mandarin properly. Water voles in the UK are in drastic decline.

Not a mention of the story leading two of the world’s most influential newspapers -— the New York Times and the Guardian — which revealed that the UK and US governments have compromised the encryption used by Internet companies to protect consumers’ information, their banking details, medical records and every form of communication. The Mandarin and water vole items apparently count for more than the news that the National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters have secretly collaborated with technology and Internet giants to gain near-total access to our online lives.

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