Snoop to conquer: journalism under threat in the wake of the ‘Snowden’ revelations

This is a written up version of the speech that I gave to the Don’t Spy On Us day of action on 7 June 2014.  The event sold out its 500-seat venue.  At the end of my session I gave our a decent stack of membership application forms.

The ‘Snowden revelations‘ delivered a sensational story for The Guardian – among the most extraordinary series of disclosures published in my adult lifetime. The paper’s Pulitzer Prize was well deserved. Little wonder in the light of the surveillance they revealed that hundreds of concerned citizens are willing to pack Shoreditch town hall to the rafters on a sunny Saturday afternoon to consider how civic society should respond.

Clearly snooping on this level could be used by state agencies to keep tabs on troublesome journalists, and possibly even to thwart their work. Duncan Campbell has described that threat as ‘existential’ – and I am minded to concur.

That we know about Edward Snowden at all, however, and the extraordinary behavior of GCHQ and the NSA, is in large part because we have a fiercely competitive, robustly free press. The first question for me then is this: are there any serious threats to a free press and effective journalism?

Depressingly, the answer is yes, there are a great many threats.

We have a creeping law of privacy – not enacted by Parliament, but created through precedent by judges – in particular one judge Sir David Eady. It has often been used to frustrate a kind of celebrity journalism that many of us don’t think is very important. Like most of you, I don’t really have much interest in Max Mosley’s sexual proclivities, however unusual they may be. But for every philandering Premiership footballer who has used legal means to keep his wife in the dark, there are far more important stories that are being kept out of the public glare by the stealthy use of Article Eight of the Human Rights Act of 2000.

There are laws such as the Data Protection Act – that are being used to harass individual journalists who have asked unpopular questions. Data protection is a virtuous idea – but should not be a stick with which reporters can be beaten.

I scarcely need to remind anyone of how anti-terrorism legislation was used to detain David Miranda. It is a chilling prospect for any journalist crossing our borders carrying material in which the security services have taken an interest.

And then there are the actions of one major news group that, in an attempt to salve its own reputation, handed over bundles of internal company emails to the Police – potentially incriminating some of those staff. Prosecutions arising from that episode are going through the courts at this moment. Anyone who is in email contact with national newspaper journalists in recent months might have noticed the increasing use of personal email addresses, rather than company ones. They have diverted to Gmail and Yahoo accounts because lots of journalists have seen for themselves the potential for the companies for which they work to sell them out.

There are other threats – cyber attacks on journalists’ web sites, dwindling news-room resources, the blanket use of production orders to trawl journalistic material for criminal evidence and social media campaigns targeting publishers’ advertisers.

I could go on. But let us instead consider what can be done about any of these threats?

Campaigning and awareness raising in civic society is important, of course, that is why an event like this Don’t Spy On Us day of action is so valuable.

But fundamentally, the group of people who will most effectively, most consistently and most vocally stand up for journalism is journalists ourselves.

We need to build a culture among journalists where our first instinct is to defend the right to report, the right to take photographs and the right to do both without being snooped on by the state. And the place to build that culture and to give expression to those ideals is through a trades union.

Some newspapers and their owners have shown their contempt for freedom of speech and freedom to report. Politicians are generally more interested in bending the media to their will than defending its freedoms. And the general public is understandably not always first rush to the defence of journalists.

Members of our trade coming together to discuss issues in our working lives will always be the first to spot threats and the best to work out how to fight them. Through discussion and democratic decision making we are the ones best placed to formulate effective strategies to defend press freedoms. Of course we will need more general public support – but self-organised, freely associating journalists will always been in the vanguard on issues that threaten what we do.

That is why I say, to those journalists, or other media workers who are not members of the NUJ, now is the time to join. Whatever threats the state poses, it is by working together that we stand the best chance of mounting an effective defence. And despite ours being an intensively competitive trade and all the better for that, it is by co-operating as workers that we will best safeguard these most vital freedoms.

In the picture: Kate Goolde (Bindmans), Ewen MacAskill (The Guardian), Duncan Campbell (investigative reporter) and Jo Glanville. Tim Dawson is at the lectern. Photo: Ian McKenzie

Duncan Campbell was convinced by my case and filled in an NUJ application form on the spot.










Photographs © Ian McKenzie