Even though the BBC seems more timid and subservient to authority than it has for decades, it’s surprising that its journalists did not understand the enormous implications of this story. Were they obeying government requests that it should not be used? Or did they ignore it because it seemed unimportant? Whatever is the answer, we can be in no doubt that it was journalistic fecklessness for the corporation only to acknowledge these significant revelations in a down-page item on its Web site. Today plays a huge role in setting the daily agenda, but as far as the program was concerned, this important story did not exist. And that gave succor to the newspapers that also ignored the revelations, almost certainly at the government’s request.
The BBC may have succumbed to the chill surrounding the Snowden story. Three weeks ago, after the partner of one of the principal journalists writing about Snowden in the Guardian was detained under terror laws at Heathrow airport, I did four or five interviews with the BBC. In most, the interviewer displayed not simply a remarkable lack of knowledge about the Snowden affair, which had been going on for over two months, but a kind of reserve or squeamishness about discussing these matters on air. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but that’s what a chill feels like.
The debate has been stifled in Britain more successfully than anywhere else in the free world and, astonishingly, this has been with the compliance of a media and public that regard their attachment to liberty to be a matter of genetic inheritance.
So maybe it is best for me to accept that the BBC, together with most of the newspapers, has moved with society, leaving me behind with a few old privacy-loving codgers, wondering about the cause of this shift in attitudes. Is it simply the fear of terror and pedophiles? Are we so overwhelmed by the power of the surveillance agencies that we feel we can’t do anything? Or is it that we have forgotten how precious and rare truly free societies are in history?
Complacency is a big part of the failure of the response to Snowden and the fact that no senior politician has raised concerns and no political party has provided any leadership is worrying. It is true that the whole elaborate apparatus seems like a phantasm and few can attest to experiencing the intrusion, because when it happens it is as painless as a mosquito bite.
But this does not stop these developments representing a fundamental threat to our society, one that all those brave agents in East Germany would understand in an instant.
They would tell you that this is not about the much-denigrated quality of privacy, but about political power. What the Guardian and New York Times stories of last week tell us is that we are much less free than we supposed and that unrestricted surveillance will become a menace to us all. That should be a vital concern for journalists, even at the BBC.