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Everywhere in chains

No press freedom illustration

© Belle Mellor

The British press was born free but it is everywhere in chains. Some of those chains are financial. As the internet takes away our readers and advertisers, news organizations struggle to find the money to pay for basic news gathering and even more so for long, complicated investigations. Instead, they lapse into recycling PR and propaganda served up in neat packages by governments and corporations.

Other chains are political. In every limb of the British state, the activity of the public sector is concealed by a blanket of official secrecy which is enforced by politicians and which means quite simply that civil servants, police officers, care workers and others are banned from talking to reporters. We are expected to take our information from their press officers.

But the tightest chains are legal. That culture of official secrecy is reinforced by an Official Secrets Act which can be wheeled out to prosecute whistleblowers from the state. David Shayler, for example, worked for the internal security service, MI5, and went to a journalist to expose incompetence in its operations against IRA terrorists. He was chased across Europe, jailed in Paris, brought back to London and jailed again. The message to other whistleblowers was chilling and clear.

If the British criminal law can be harsh, the civil law can be even more oppressive. When Julian Assange and I first agreed to set up the alliance of newspapers which published the secrets which had been given to Wikileaks by Chelsea Manning, we immediately decided to involve The New York Times as a kind of escape route from the British courts. The US courts generally will not allow ‘prior restraint’ of material which news organizations intend to publish. In London, by contrast, it was clear that the US could go to court, use the magic words ‘national security’ and obtain an order to prevent the Guardian or any other British outlet from publishing.

Similarly, when representatives of British intelligence indicated that they were going to come to the Guardian’s office to physically destroy laptops on which we had stored some of the material which we had been given by Edward Snowden, the editor, Alan Rusbridger, took the precaution of ensuring that The New York Times had a copy of the material.

Britain is globally famous for its libel laws. They are almost useless for most genuine victims of media aggression because they are so insanely expensive to enforce. But they are highly effective instruments of suppression for the rich and powerful who can afford them. Crucially, they mean that it is not enough for British reporters to publish the truth: they also have to be able to prove it in open court, which is out of bounds for the kind of off-the-record sources who so often provide the most important information. And if a British reporter happens to make a mistake, he or she can expect to be punished with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of legal costs and damages.

Our contempt of court laws are equally restrictive. I became a reporter because of the Watergate scandal, which began with the arrest of burglars inside the Democrat party’s office. In the US, their brief appearance in court the next day gave reporters a way into the story. In Britain, it would have closed the story down: we’re in contempt of court if we publish anything that could prejudice an upcoming trial.

All whistleblowers take risks. In Britain, those risks are particularly clear. Those who succeed tend to do so by seeing their role as a political one and coming out openly at some point so that they can become the focal point for a political campaign which can succeed (sometimes) in persuading the state not to wrap them in the legal chains which are so readily available.

Nick Davies is an award-winning investigative journalist and documentary maker. His most recent book, Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, was published in August 2014.

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