Trust between politicians and citizens has always been fragile. The MPs’ expenses scandal brought that relationship to an all-time low. Trust in another institution, British journalism, also low, was further ruptured by the hacking into the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s mobile. This doesn’t mean that people want a shackled press – far from it. It does mean another pillar of the establishment is cracked from top to bottom.
The journalistic enterprise of The Guardian and investigative reporter Nick Davies uncovered the scale of the hacking and lit the touch paper. Hacking the phones of celebrities, politicians and footballers seemed to be of little concern. Hacking the phones of ordinary people, who in a moment of their lives had become “‘extraordinary”, was of a different order entirely.
The Guardian has done us another favour by publishing National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks on mass surveillance. It seems this isn’t solely the preserve of authoritarian despots. The extent of alleged spying by the United States on leaders of allied nations sparked a major diplomatic row and embarrassed Barack Obama.
According to classic liberal theory of the media, its role is to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire. Everyone knows the theory. Putting it into practice is another matter. The Guardian succeeded with its revelations on the hacking scandal, and did so again with coverage of the mass surveillance by the state. Unsurprisingly, the newspaper has come under attack from other titles and Conservative MPs. During a parliamentary debate, Julian Smith, Tory MP for Skipton and Ripon accused The Guardian of breaking the law and urged its prosecution.
A Guardian spokesperson said Smith’s speech had “propagated a series of myths” about the reporting of the Snowden documents. “When responsible journalists working on the same story share documents, they are engaged in journalism not terrorism. Senior politicians and government officials in the UK and internationally, over 30 of the world’s leading newspaper editors, and an overwhelming majority of the public, have all said that The Guardian’s reporting on this story is important for democracy.”
David Cameron said newspapers were aiding Snowden. “What Snowden is doing and, to an extent, what the newspapers are doing in helping him do what he is doing, is frankly signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques That is not going to make our world safer, it’s going to make our world more dangerous. That is helping our enemies.”
Writing in the Observer, former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans defended The Guardian explaining that the same tactics were used against him. “The diaries of the scholarly Cabinet minister Richard Crossman have been recognised as shedding valuable light on the way we are governed, but government made a full-scale attempt to censor their publication. The same, yet again, in the long ordeal of Northern Ireland. Cheerleading was exalted and real reporting excoriated.”
In the days post-Leveson, when it seemed that self-regulation was definitely on the way out, a royal charter was drawn up by the politicians. This appeared to be a useful solution to meaningful regulation which would still enshrine press freedom. Instead it provoked hysteria. Media academic Professor Steve Barnett was scathing. He said: “Labour and Liberal Democrat parties published an amended royal charter designed to implement the majority – although not every one – of Leveson’s proposals, in particular cementing independence from both industry and political influence throughout the proposed regulatory structure. In one of the most overwhelming parliamentary majorities of the modern political era, the motion was voted through by 530 votes to 13.”
Snowden’s leaks and Davies’ investigations are proof positive of a free press not cowed by the powerful. Independent regulation would not have restricted either of them.