Friday 11 October 2013

The silence of the lambs

"What's sad, baffling and dangerous is that the attacks now come not only from governments but from other newspapers too. We need newspapers willing to do their job, rather than those ready to cheer on the self-interested deceptions of the powerful."

So says the editor of El Pais in defence of the Guardian this morning, after its mauling by the Daily Mail yesterday.  Nick Clegg also says that: "There is a totally legitimate debate about the power of these technologies."  Quite right.

But where are the other voices from the UK defending the right of the press to ask difficult questions?

I remember, it was the scandal at an animal lab called Huntingdon Life Sciences that made me realise the urgent truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum about power.  Secret filming in 1997 revealed that some of those who worked there were systematically cruel to the animals in their care, secretly punching dogs in cages.

It was never really explained why.  Just because they could, apparently. It happens again and again, in hospital scandal and care home scandal. When people are given unfettered power over others, there is a tendency for contempt to creep in as well, and priorities tend to get confused.  Power corrupts.

That is why the Guardian’s revelations of some of the information leaked by Edward Snowden was important to me. Here was a huge security apparatus, operating on both sides of the Atlantic and without the knowledge of the cabinet, and without proper oversight, authorised by themselves to crack the codes of the internet providers to listen and read.

Nobody, least of all the Guardian, has denied that interception needs to happen and to happen secretly.  But watch security staff in operation and you will see why this activity needs to be overseen.  Left to themselves, there is a tendency to concentrate - not on the really dangerous stuff - but on those who question them or fail to look sufficiently compliant.

These things matter.  That is why the USA is now moving to bring it under some political control, without which experience shows things tend to unravel.

So what are we to make of the pompous, not to say portentous attack, in page after page of yesterday's Daily Mail on the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger?

No evidence is offered that the Snowden revelations have actually damaged national security, except the word of the new head of MI5.  And since he and colleagues are using strangely high-flown political rhetoric - "the worst blow to British intelligence ever" - it isn't wholly convincing.  What about Philby?  

But when one newspaper, which had previously been standing up for press freedom, launches such an attack on a fellow newspaper editor, you might expect other journalists to ride to his defence.  Or perhaps someone in the Labour Party.

Not a bit of it. They seem cowed in the face of the Daily Mail, and their claim that somehow press freedom means only asking the difficult questions they approve.  A deafening, slightly fearful, silence has descended.

The Mail also has the BBC in its sights, which has also been bizarrely silent on this story throughout.  But the real story emerged at the end of an equally portentous Mail editorial yesterday, which said this about Rusbridger:

"As for his paper's attack on us over the Labour leader's father..."

It appears that yesterday was also about the interest the Guardian took in flurry of excitement after the Ralph Miliband attack last week, reminding readers of the Mail's support for Mosley and Mussolini in days gone by.  

Yet Ed Miliband is among the silent lambs now.

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