Free Press

Is Embarrassing the Government Terrorism? British Politicians Think So.

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Alan Rusbridger
UK Parliament

If you aren't already thankful for the existence of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the fact that it's not as badly eroded as some other parts of that document, watching a newspaper editor squirm under the questioning of a parliamentary committee because his publication was among several that revealed information they find inconvenient should make you so. That's the ordeal Alan Rusbridger (pictured at right, being grilled), editor of The Guardian, suffered in Great Britain—and ultimately, he and his colleages have been threatened with prosecution for violating anti-terrorism laws because they published details of domestic and international spying by the National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ.

Video of Rusbridger's testimony is available at the Website of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. In it (you may have to have some patience, as it keeps stalling for me) you can see not just Rusbridger's judgment being questioned, but also his patriotism.

Such concerns have been raised by American politicians, of course, but editors at the Washington Post, which also published revelations about NSA surveillance derived from Edward Snowden, have yet to be called before Congress to answer for their effrontery in telling about the government's repellent and intrusive activities. It's unlikely, still, that Congress could get away with doing any such thing, since press freedom in this country continues to enjoy a level of legal protection not shared even in other "free" countries. In fact, Rusbridger points out in his testimony that what he's suffering in his own country couldn't happen in the U.S.

Ultimately, as Reuters reports, committee members threatened to invoke laws against aiding terrorists.

Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick, who heads London's Specialist Operations unit, told lawmakers the police were looking to see whether any offences had been committed, following the brief detention in August of a man carrying data on behalf of a Guardian journalist. …

Lawmakers put it to Rusbridger that he had committed an offence under Section 58A of the Terrorism Act which says it is a crime to publish or communicate any information about members of the armed forces or intelligence services.

"It isn't only about what you've published, it's about what you've communicated. That is what amounts, or can amount, to a criminal offence," said committee member Michael Ellis.

Asked later by Ellis whether detectives were considering Section 58A offences, Dick said: "Yes, indeed we are looking at that."

Section 58, if you're curious, says:

A person commits an offence if—

(a)he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b)he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

Violating that law carries up to ten years in prison, upon conviction (or six months, upon a fast-track summary conviction).

In reality, though, the grilling by lawmakers and threats by police are punishments in themselves. Many British journalists will have this sort of treatment in mind when they consider government-embarrassing stories in the future.

Which, no doubt, is the whole point of the process.

Note, by the way, that The Guardian supports government press regulation. Maybe Rusbridger and company will rethink that position.