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Why Is the Media So Silent About the Content of Edward Snowden's NSA Leaks?

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When I first heard about the NSA/GCHQ snooping revelations, my initial thought was: "Well duh."

Truth be told, I would have been deeply surprised if our intelligence agencies hadn't been intercepting our online communications on the flimsiest of subtexts. Nevertheless, it's always slightly alarming to have your worst suspicions confirmed.

While the Guardian's revelations seem set to keep on coming - the most recent story revealing that the US has been carrying out a large-scale bugging campaign at the embassies of its European allies - it's noteworthy that many other British media outlets seem surprisingly unwilling to report on the content of Snowden's leaks. The central story - the creation of a mass surveillance machine by our largely unaccountable intelligence agencies, which is being used to indiscriminately cull personal data - seems to have been entirely bypassed by many publications, who are instead directing their focus on Snowden's globe-trotting attempt to find asylum abroad. I say "surprisingly unwilling", but in many ways the lukewarm response from most of the mainstream media is entirely to be expected.

So, why are the British press largely keeping Snowden's leaks at arm's length? It's impossible to give a comprehensive answer to this question, but here are a few suggestions.

1. Because the intelligence services told them to?
In case you think this sounds like the talk of a swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist, have a read of this story. The day after the NSA's PRISM programme was revealed, the Ministry of Defence issued a DA (Defence Advisory) Notice - often referred to as just a D-Notice - to try and limit the fallout from the Snowden revelations.

The entirely voluntary DA-Notice system is intended, as the official website clearly states:

to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations and methods, or put at risk the safety of those involved in such operations, or lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure and/or endanger lives.

Obviously the D-Notice system serves a useful purpose, as no journalist in their right mind would want to pen anything that presents a credible threat to national security or puts lives at risk. However, if you read the notice (as leaked by the blogger Guido Fawkes), it's not hard to see how it could have a chilling effect on journalists and serve to shut down further debate and discussion of the issues raised by the leaks.

2. Because it's not really that big a story?
Speaking on Radio 4's The Media Show last week, Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover suggested a couple of reasons for the minimal column inches given over to Snowden's revelations. The main thrust of his argument was that the Guardian had "overblown" the importance of these leaks, a point he attempted to make by focusing on their story about British intelligence spying on our allies at the G20.

True, the idea that nation states' intelligence services spy on one another, even on their allies, does not come as a great surprise. However, if the construction of a global dragnet surveillance system is not a big story, I'd dearly love to know what is.

3. Because the media are still unsure about the narrative surrounding these leaks
This was Glover's other claim, and one which I wholeheartedly agree with. Is Edward Snowden a "goodie" (giving up a $122,000 a year salary and a home in Hawaii to expose mass snooping by our intelligence services) or a "baddie" (recklessly revealing intelligence secrets and endangering innocent lives)? The press, in particular the tabloids, like black-and-white morality tales, not shades of grey.

4. Because most of the media don't have access to the main source
If there's one thing sure to leave a journalist disgruntled, it's lack of access. If there's one thing guaranteed to send a journalist apoplectic, it's being scooped. While news organisations are normally happy to crib stories from their competitors, the fact that Snowden chose to work almost exclusively with the Guardian and the Washington Post is part of what drives the spite behind stories like the New York Daily News's attempted smear piece on journalist Glenn Greenwald.

5. Because it challenges official sources
Yes, some UK news titles are owned by proprietors or run by editors whose political stance prohibits active questioning of the intelligence services. But, perhaps more depressingly, there's an awful lots of journalists who are deeply impressed by power, despite it being their job to interrogate it.

6. Because it's a complex story, and hence time intensive and less easily digestible
This is a consideration that far too many people overlook. PM, the BBC's flagship evening radio news programme, ran with the Snowden story on Tuesday evening. The item began with a lightning-quick round-up of the programmes Snowden had exposed, before devoting a good 15-20 minutes to Snowden's attempts to negotiate asylum. The focus on the man is in some ways entirely understandable - it adds a strong human interest angle to what is otherwise a very complex, detail-heavy story - but there's no doubt that it moves the spotlight away from privacy abuses and a real analysis of the implications of Snowden's revelations.

While the lack of coverage can feel maddening at times, there's no doubt that the NSA leaks have encouraged a vast number of people to start taking their online privacy seriously. Take, for example, the huge popularity of the PRISM Break website, which provides web users with a list of companies who are not currently part of the NSA's PRISM program. It's also worth pointing out that media outlets, like political parties, often follow rather than lead on an issue. If concern about online surveillance reaches a tipping point among their readers, you can guarantee there will be a whole lot more articles about it in the future.

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