The Guardian Was Right to 'Help Terrorists'

17/10/2013 12:08 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

It's a matter of supreme irony that The Daily Mail choose the same week in which they condemned the Royal Charter on Press Regulation as censorship, to invoke the language of McCarthy against a fellow newspaper.

Magic words: "Open sesame" opens caves, "Expecto Patronum" wards off Dementors and "National Security" turns everyone in the press and politics into a hysterical idiot.

That's why it's dangerous. When we hear "national security" we accept whatever is said without question. Why? Because we're scared. We've been scared of Catholics, we've been scared of Communists, once we were even scared of the French. Now we're scared of terrorists.

The terror threat is real. There are people who want to hurt innocent civilians for no other reason than that we believe something different to them. I imagine they read the reports of the Snowden revelations with un-suppressed glee.

But The Guardian was still right to print them.

Yet, for doing so, The Guardian has been accused of endangering British lives, aiding our enemies and threatened with prosecution. The Daily Mail* have lead the howls of treachery in the wake of Andrew Parker's accusation but, hot on their heals, came the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and a motley lynch mob of right wing columnists.

But their condemnation is far more insidious, and potentially far more damaging to Britain, than anything printed in The Guardian.

It's worth noting that if The Guardian hadn't published Snowden's information, someone else would. It misses the point to say that Alan Rusbridger lacks the expertise to know what is and isn't safe to publish. Snowden wanted to give that information to someone. Better that it was a newspaper who used it in the national interest.

But that's not what's important here. What's important is that the right wing press and a right wing government are trying to lay the blame for a dramatic breach of public trust by the security services at the door of those who exposed it.

Snowden wasn't "turned" by The Guardian. He didn't pick up an ideological agenda from the Russians, the Chinese or Al Qaida. He's not a Cambridge spy. He blew the whistle because he was so appalled by the actions in which he was being ordered to take part. The British and American security services brought this entirely on themselves when they decided that they could violate the privacy of innocent citizens without cause or judicial restraint.

To reduce the debate to "transparency or national security" is to invoke the language of despots, not democracies. Dictators subvert their subjects' rights in the name of protecting them. Democracies seek to protect both freedom and security.

In a democracy, there are certain lines that the state can't cross. If the state can intrude on the private life of the citizen, then the state can control the citizen. Here's Political Science 101: It's supposed to be the other way around.

The security of our state must be protected but it's equally important to protect the essence of our society. Malcolm Rifkind said that the British intelligence services should be allowed to operate in secret because they are not "political tools" like those of China or Russia. He got it the wrong way round. We distinguish ourselves from China and Russia because, in Britain, the repressive organs of the state are under democratic control. And the democrats are held accountable by, amongst other things, a free press. The Guardian fulfilled its democratic function in revealing how that control failed. If Rifkind had any sense of his own democratic duty he'd resign. Instead he panders to a system of oversight which is clearly unfit for purpose.

But, at heart, this isn't about Edward Snowden or Al Qaeda or Russia or China. This is a very British matter. And it's all about power.

The political power of the right wing press was dealt a devastating blow when The Guardian broke the phone hacking stories. The cosy relationship between the intelligence services and the elected politicians, supposedly responsible for their oversight, was exposed to the harsh light of public scrutiny when The Guardian revealed PRISM. They want revenge.

It's no surprise that the attacks on The Guardian are couched in the shadowy language of "aiding the enemy". This is the language that, for centuries, the powerful have used to attack those who would hold them to account. It's the language of Petain and Pinochet and Franco and a thousand other tyrants across continents and centuries.

It was the language the House Un-American Activities Committee used to persecute hundreds of innocent writers and activists. It's a matter of supreme irony that The Mail choose the same week in which they condemned the Royal Charter on Press Regulation as censorship, to invoke the language of McCarthy against a fellow newspaper.

If The Daily Mail want to see how a free press should really work, perhaps they should pick up a copy of The Guardian.

*N.B. I refuse to link to any articles in The Daily Mail because I don't want to contribute to their "angry liberal click-through" tally. Steven Baxter over at the New Statesman does a great job of explaining why.