The Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger, published a quite extraordinary piece last night. Below the line in the reader comments section I called the article ‘a quite substantial piece of history’. Another commentator described what I’d said as hyperbole, so let me try to explain what I meant: Rusbridger started his article by touching on the Wikileaks stuff in 2010. Then he moved on to the detention of David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner. Then we got to the juicy bit: Rusbridger described the government pressure that the Guardian had been under since first publishing the Edward Snowden revelations in June. He said:
A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more”…
… And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.
At no other time can I recall the editor of a major British newspaper coming out with the sort of statements about intimidation that Rusbridger has made above. Another extraordinary thing about it was that Rusbridger answered a lot of readers’ questions in the comments section. Amongst other things he was asked why he allowed the GCHQ agents into the Guardian building, since they didn’t have any kind of warrent. Rusbridger explained that if he had refused the agents entry, they would have got a warrent from a judge. At that point everything would have become legal, and if the Guardian continued publishing Snowden stories it would face huge, ongoing fines. Rusbridger answered questions in the two hours after his article was first published. If you want to read them scroll down the page to the comments and select ‘sort by oldest’:
The only comparable event I’m aware of in modern western history – where government agents go into a newspaper building and destroy and/or seize documents and equipment – happened in what was then West Germany in the 1960s. It involved Der Spiegel magazine, whose Editor and owner, Rudolf Augstein, got into a dispute with the Federal Minister of Defense, Franz Josef Strauss. In 1962, Der Spiegel published a piece highlighting the sorry state of the West German armed forces (this was during the Cold War and tensions were high). Strauss accused Augstein of treason and got the police to raid Der Spiegel’s offices, as well as the homes of a number of journalists. Thousands of documents were confiscated and Augstein was held in custody for more than 100 days. The German court of appeals later overturned the treason charge and Augstein was released. It became known as the Spiegel Affair and the court ruling laid down the basics for freedom of the press in Germany.
A less comparable event, yet still highly relevent to what’s going on now, was the Spycatcher affair in the mid 1980s. Spycatcher was a book written by Peter Wright, a former Assistant Director of MI5. Its subtitle was: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer. Yup, you can imagine how the government of the day just loved that one, and of course they tried to ban it, saying it would put agent’s lives at risk, and all the usual stuff. So, Peter Wright published Spycatcher in Australia instead. It caused such a scandal that soon the book was being published in other areas outside of the jurisdiction of UK Parliament (including Scotland). The British press started publishing salient parts of the book. The government issued D-Notices. The British press didn’t take a blind bit of notice and continued publishing (now, with the Snowden stuff, the media are slavishly going along with a D-Notice). The government issued gag orders and a lengthy legal battle ensued. In 1988 the book was eventually cleared for legitimate sale when the Law Lords acknowledged that overseas publication meant it contained no secrets.
How things change in 30 years.