“Picking on journalists is the lowest form of police work”

‘‘This case potentially could close down journalism,” said the Sunday Tribune journalist Suzanne Breen after her hearing at Laganside court in Belfast on 12 May. The judge, Tom Burgess, had told Breen’s lawyers he was provisionally minded to grant the order that would force her to disclose her sources in the Real IRA to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Breen said it was “disgraceful”, particularly as the police refused to make their case against her public. “What is the PSNI frightened of?” she demanded.

Breen’s case will progress to a full hearing on 29 May. Her lawyers will put forward the argument that the protection of sources is a journalist’s right, and that her life might be at risk if she hands over the information. Her case is not the first of its kind. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, police were given the authority to issue “production orders” for material or evidence if it is believed to be of “substantial value” for a terrorist investigation. Journalists are covered, to an extent, by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression. But it does not amount to total protection; “interference” with that right is allowed on the grounds of “national security, territorial integrity, public safety, and the prevention of disorder or crime”, among other things.

In a similar case at the end of June last year, a freelance investigative journalist, Shiv Malik, was forced to give Greater Manchester Police source material he had gathered on Hassan Butt, a former militant Islamist extremist. Malik, who has also written for the New Statesman, had been writing a book, Leaving al-Qaeda, which traced Butt’s early life and jihadi career. At first, the police (who turned up unannounced at Malik’s front door) had demanded he hand over all his material, but a judicial review narrowed the terms of the order so that it was evidence relating directly to Butt only (after he was mentioned by a defendant in a forthcoming criminal trial).

Malik is now helping Breen with her case. He hopes it will go to the high court and ultimately result in a change in the law. He is clearly still smarting from his own experience. “Sadly this is getting to be an annual event, where the police believe they can go and solve investigations by picking on journalists,” he says. Malik describes the habit of fishing for information from journalists as the “lowest form of police work”, a lazy way of gathering evidence. He says the graft that goes into investigative journalism, in particular terrorist investigations (expensive months of building relationships, the delicate handling of sources), often leaves a journalist’s life at risk. And when the police issue a production order, they simply succeed in putting the journalist in further jeopardy.

It is a view that the National Union of Journalists vehemently supports; the union is publicly backing Breen, and has arranged an online petition and a London rally that she will address on 26 May. Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, outlined Breen’s potentially impossible position. “If an order is granted, then it will leave Suzanne Breen with a stark choice: if she doesn’t give up her notes she could be sent to prison. If she does, she could face the wrath of her sources – and in the context of the conflict she is covering, that would put her life at risk,” he said. Breen’s paper, the Sunday Tribune, is resolutely determined to defend her right to keep her sources confidential, stating in an editorial that “we will do so to the very highest level”.

Everyone involved sees the case as a matter of principle. Breen’s personal safety is clearly essential, but, besides that, a victory for the police would fundamentally alter the nature of journalism. As Dear puts it, “If the police seek to make an informant out of the press then the very future of independent journalism will be put at risk.”

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times