Surveillance, privacy, and the British press

In the surveillance versus privacy debate that followed Snowden’s revelations, the UK government and the British press have been rather strange bedfellows.

Jonathan Heawood
27 October 2015

Demotix/Jonathan Nicholson. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Jonathan Nicholson. All rights reserved.

In June 2013, the Guardian newspaper began to publish Edward Snowden’s account of mass data collection by the British and American governments. The revelations which followed led to public and political outcry across the world. But the reaction from the British press was almost more extraordinary than the leaks themselves.

Despite their routine proclamations of press freedom–which if it means anything, means the freedom to hold the state to account–newspapers such as the Mail, Telegraph, Times and Sun turned their backs on the Guardian. They ignored significant developments in the Snowden affair. And when they did turn their attention to the issue, it was to accuse the Guardian and its editor, Alan Rusbridger, of ‘betraying Britain’.

Two years on from the Snowden revelations, what should we make of the contretemps between the Guardian and the right-wing press? Is it just a function of political differences? Of course, the liberal left tends to be more suspicious of the security state than the right. But right-wing newspapers are quite capable of speaking out against state surveillance when it touches on their own interests. Witness the Save our Sources campaign, which–rightly–questioned the use of police powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to gather data on journalists’ sources. The Sun was a vocal supporter of the campaign – but welcomed state surveillance of the general public.

So why is the majority of the British press so relaxed about mass surveillance? Why do they not associate this threat with the ‘300 years of press freedom’, which they hold so dear? Have they not read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which explicitly links the death of freedom with the death of privacy? Even the United Nations (not always first off the mark where human rights are concerned) is able to see the danger here, as evidenced by the creation this year of a new special rapporteur on ‘the right to privacy in the digital age’.

Is the cognitive dissonance of the press a function of underlying resentment over the Guardian’s part in exposing phone hacking, and thereby bringing the Leveson Inquiry down on the heads of other newspapers? Certainly, newspapers which specialise in breaches of privacy are unlikely to celebrate our ‘right to be let alone’, as Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis described privacy in 1890. They did not welcome Leveson’s recommendations for independent regulation of their own powers of surveillance. Why should they welcome the inconvenient truths published by the Guardian about data collection?

But the argument between the Guardian and other newspapers over Leveson is a symptom of an underlying issue here, not the cause. Some newspapers’ desire to snoop, and their embrace of state snooping, have a common root which is not so much ideological as commercial.

Look again at Edward Snowden. He not only revealed the state’s growing power to listen in to our every digital thought. He also exposed the complicity of the major ISPs and telecoms companies in this. He contributed to our dawning realisation that new media is not ‘free’, as it appears. It is in fact very expensive. And the price we pay is our privacy. Snowden helped us to understand that the interests of the ‘authoritarian’ state and the ‘libertarian’ new media giants, far from being divergent, actually converge on a shared holy grail: knowledge.

What knowledge do these strange bedfellows prize above everything else? Why, the things that we want to keep most private, of course: where we are; what we are doing; what we think; who we love; how we love; who we worship; what we believe; what we desire; what we can afford; what we can’t afford. They want to know our bank balances, our hopes, our fears, our corruptions and our innocent fantasies. Wouldn’t you, if you were trying to maintain order in a fragmenting world–or trying to sell advertising to it?

And what are the interests of news publishers in this world where knowledge is revenue? They are also increasingly driven by a hunger for private data. The collapse of the print business model is driving British newspaper publishers into global hyper-competition for a finite advertising market. News publishers need to sell advertising on a scale never before seen if they are to keep operating. In the digital economy, every click is worth slightly less than the last one. So the data which our online activities provide about our habits becomes an ever-more keenly desired commodity. This is as true of old media providers that seek to compete in the digital age as it is of new media.

Thus, it appears that the commercial interests of newspaper publishers are oddly aligned with the security interests of our governments. Ideology undoubtedly plays a part in press positions on surveillance and interception, but it is at least equalled by commercial considerations. These considerations may not be explicit, or conscious, but they contribute to a culture in which privacy is consistently under-valued, and the importance of unrestrained powers of data gathering is over-hyped.

The British press is quite capable of mounting an effective opposition to the security state when it treads on their own toes. But when it interferes with the rights of the public at large they seem to care rather less. In any case, as the former Chief Surveillance Inspector has recently commented, the media ‘often relies on the very covert techniques it criticises’.

Whatever Snowden’s motivations, and whatever the merits of the coverage in the Guardian and other liberal newspapers around the world, the substance of his revelations is overwhelming. Our governments, and corporations both old and new, with an unprecedented power to set the global news agenda, have the capacity to know more about all of us, in every aspect of our lives, than they have ever had at any time in history. And if that doesn’t pose a fundamental threat to our freedoms, what the hell does?

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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