In China on Thursday last week, US Vice President Joe Biden spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society.
“Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,” he said in an address to US businesspeople living and working in China.
He was speaking against the backdrop of China’s restrictive policies on reporting by foreign news organizations. The Chinese government has so far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of this year.
It was the first time a high-ranking US official had spoken publicly about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.
While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly advanced democracy and the US’ closest ally, might do well to consider Biden’s words. (Some of his colleagues in the US Justice Department, which has ferociously prosecuted national security data leakers, might take heed as well, but that is a matter for another day.)
Two days before Biden made his comments, the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, was compelled to appear before a parliamentary committee to be questioned about the newspaper’s coverage of national security material leaked by Edward Snowden.
Rather than asking Rusbridger how a 30-year-old in Hawaii not directly employed by the government had access to so many vital secrets, the committee sought to intimidate and raised the question of whether the Guardian, in sharing the Snowden leaks with other news organizations, might have engaged in criminal activity.
The parliamentary committee on national security seemed more interested in loyalty than accountability, partly because there is no equivalent to the US First Amendment in British law.
Keith Vaz, a member of the committee and a conservative, cut to the opposite of the chase in the middle of the session: “I love this country. Do you love this country?”
Rusbridger paused, less as a matter of consideration than dismay that his credentials as a citizen were of primary concern.
“I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question,” Rusbridger said, “but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things.”
He later added: “One of the things I love about this country is that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think and we have some privacy.”
In his testimony, Rusbridger said that newspapers in the US, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, had reached the same conclusion about the leaks — that what they revealed was of vital global significance. Given that the Guardian had shared some of the Snowden material with the New York Times, another committee member, Mark Reckless, asked whether the Guardian should be prosecuted for that.
“I think it depends on your view of a free press,” Rusbridger responded.
Rusbridger made his own view clear: “It’s self-evident. If the president of the United States calls a review of everything to do with intelligence, and that information only came into the public domain through newspapers, then it is self-evident, is it not, that newspapers had done something which oversight failed to do,” he said.