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.
At the same time, the British government has used the so-called “Defense Advisory Notice” to let other newspapers in Britain know that it would take a dim view of efforts to follow or add to the Guardian’s reporting.
Theoretically, the structure of the US government is supposed to keep Americans safe from government abuse, but the rise of an enhanced security state after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has created a kind of short circuit in that diagram of accountability. That is where journalism comes in, where China gets it wrong and where Britain has lost its footing. Transparency, however painful in the moment, allows democracy, business and the citizenry to thrive in the long run, a point that Biden made in his speech and that Rusbridger made in his testimony.
“There are countries, and they are not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things and where the security services do tell editors what to write and where politicians do censor newspapers,” Rusbridger said. “That’s not the country we live in, in Britain.”
By now, most people know that the Guardian and the Washington Post published articles in June that set off a global debate over the implications of government surveillance, and put citizens everywhere on notice that their private communications are subject to inspection by the US National Security Agency (NSA). Since the leaks first surfaced, there have been many new disclosures exposing fresh insults to privacy. Earlier this month, the Washington Post revealed that the NSA was gathering about 5 billion records a day on the location of cellphones around the world.
Barton Gellman, who helped write that article and broke much of the news about the Snowden material that appeared in the Washington Post, has had a busy few months. However, he did notice that Rusbridger seemed to be on trial this week for committing journalism. For all the complaints about the administration’s aggressiveness in prosecuting leaks, the US is still a better place to reveal uncomfortable truths. After all, no one knocked on the door seeking documents and demanding the destruction of hard drives, as happened at the Guardian.
“I am very happy to enjoy the protections of American law and American political traditions in terms of investigative journalism,” Gellman said. “It is far from perfect and we are still seeing reporters get in trouble for doing their job, but there is a strong norm against prosecuting a reporter for doing accountability work.”
Much of journalism is about shoveling coal, feeding the daily furnace of the news cycle, but every once in a while, a story comes along that grabs a corner of the world and gives it a big, much-needed shake. The reporting about NSA surveillance prompted by the Snowden leaks is that story.
“Sometimes you work hard and uncover something that seems significant and all it gets is a big yawn,” Gellman said. “These are very consequential disclosures: There are new laws being written, new legal challenges in federal court that weren’t possible before and you have a seismic shift in Silicon Valley, where companies are now competing in part on their ability to protect your information from the government. Transparency made that possible.”
Reached on Friday last week, three days after his testimony, Rusbridger said he was less encouraged by the response in Britain.
“I would hope that the evidence of the importance of the material that we have published is overwhelming and self-evident,” he said. “But parliament seems fixated on the minutiae and is spending almost no time on the huge issues raised by the disclosures. It has not been a great moment for democratic principles.”
As Biden — and Thomas Jefferson before him — pointed out, a free press is an essential part of a functioning democracy. Whether it is Beijing or Britain, it might be a good time for governments to stop trying to prevent the news media from doing their job and address what that work has revealed.