You are probably familiar with the Observer story, published in April, about a bungled MI5 plot to “turn” a Libyan spy that led to the murder of a Libyan dissident living in London. What you will not know about is the background.
The information had been openly published on a website, but repeating it would have rendered the newspaper liable to criminal and civil penalties. In fact, simply by checking out the website, the Observer journalist Martin Bright committed a criminal offence. So the Observer consulted the D-Notice committee and the Treasury Solicitor about the story, and faxed it to MI5 to gain official consent and absolution for publishing it.
The D-Notice folk responded that, if the Observer could show that the story contained no new news, then it might escape prosecution. The Treasury Solicitor said that the paper could publish, but he would not promise not to prosecute. The Observer held the story for several editions while the tortuous negotiations proceeded, but published the story in its final edition, withholding the address of the website – “voluntarily” – at the state’s request.
This is how Britain’s subtle state censorship normally operates. The prosecutions of the Observer, Guardian and Martin Bright over their contacts with the renegade MI5 agent David Shayler are simply examples of what happens when the media don’t play ball. The two editors and Bright have been ordered by an Old Bailey judge to hand over all their material relating to Shayler, or risk huge fines and prison. They have appealed. In the meantime, other journalists – Liam Clarke, of the Sunday Times, Tony Geraghty and Ed Moloney – have been in legal trouble for publishing other information on the security services.
The point is that state censorship – or self-censorship – is routine and generally unreported. Only the occasional rogue, like Mark Thomas on Channel 4, actually reveals how the D-Notice officials interfere in his stories.
This is all utterly shocking to an American journalist such as Greg Palast, the investigative reporter who works for the Observer and BBC2’s Newsnight. In an angry and funny article in the current Index on Censorship, Palast acknowledges the subtle brilliance of news suppression in Britain: “Its prime victims, the nation’s editors and reporters, have developed a nodding acceptance of the principles justifying limits on their freedom, a curious custom of English journalists to kiss the whip that lashes them.”
We came into the Observer/Guardian story when we decided to organise a protest advertisement in the Times (eventually signed by more than 160 people and published on 3 May) and the Rowntree Reform Trust agreed to underwrite it. We did not want this to be simply a protest of the liberal left; we hoped to persuade journalists to put political and sectional differences aside and defend their joint interest in the freedom of the press.
The signatories crowded in: Max Hastings (editor of the Evening Standard); Rosie Boycott (Daily Express); Simon Kelner (Independent); Piers Morgan (Daily Mirror); Colin Myler (Sunday Mirror); David Yelland (Sun: “I think David Shayler’s a traitor, but you’re right in principle”); and Phil Hall, (then News of the World). But most broadsheet editors stood aloof (naturally, the Guardian‘s and the Observer‘s could not sign up). Some BBC staff were instructed not to sign.
There was intense interest in the responses of the new Labour political class in view of the party’s very old Labour hard line on dissent. “Has Helena [Kennedy] signed?” asked several people trembling on the very brink of Schadenfreude. “Oh great,” they said disappointedly, when we said she had. Others associated with new Labour, such as (Lord) David Currie, Julian Le Grand, Neal Lawson, Bernard Crick (sardonically asking, “They won’t be able to call me a toadie now, will they?), also signed. But several recent peers and would-be peers were unusually unobtainable. One or two explained that they feared losing influence on issues that mattered if they signed. Lord Lipsey refused forthrightly: “I am not a liberal.” (MccGwire: “Neither is Max Hastings.” Lipsey: “Touche.”)
Some wanted not to support the unworthy nature of much recent media activity. “You know the litany,” wrote Peter Kellner, “mendacity, distortion, intrusion, sensationalism, indolence.” Kellner argued that journalists should only have a legal right to preserve confidentiality if they were bound by rules that would outlaw a large amount of current journalistic abuse. He and others like him have a point.
Yet we do need media free to expose the wrongdoings of the security agencies, who are known to have acted treasonably in the past. The idea that the official secrecy laws are set in place to defend “national security” is a fiction. They were passed to protect the elite’s control of the release of official information against leaks by lesser officials. To adapt E P Thompson’s memorable phrase, official security bosses can “piss in the gutter” through their media chums, but the likes of Shayler or Sarah Tisdall may not piss on them.
Meanwhile, we advise you not to buy a copy of the latest Index on Censorship, which actually publishes the address of the dreaded website and reproduces part of a leaked MI5 document from the site. If you so much as eyeball the site, you may well be joining the criminal classes and rendering yourself liable to prosecution. The journal is even more at risk. You may well think that the security forces have brought down enough contempt and ridicule on their own heads and the government. But do not underestimate them.
Scarlett MccGwire is a social and political writer. Professor Stuart Weir is director of Democratic Audit at the University of Essex