12 May 2011

The Guardian restricted in publishing Wikileaks

The Guardian was afraid to publish and sought the protection of the New York Times.

The idea that the press in Britain is subject to state censorship and intimidation is hardly a revelation, but seldom has the point is been demonstrated so clearly.

When Julian Assange and Wikileaks handed over the US Embassy cables to The Guardian in London, the paper was afraid to publish them. In the first place, The Guardian feared publication would be prevented by court action.

In a lecture on 10 May 2011, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, spelled out the point:

We suspected that, if we went it alone under the framework of laws governing newspapers in this country, we simply wouldn't be allowed to get away with it. We would be sued, or injuncted,"

Such legal threats of prior restraint were not all. Rusbridger was also given “some bloodcurdling learned opinions" about what might happen to him personally and to the newspaper if he published the material.

The solution was to publish in partnership with the New York Times - in other words, to hide behind the US constitutional protections of American media. The Guardian would be safe because there would be no point in attacking it as the New York Times was simultaneously publishing the same material.

Rusbridger made the point like this: "It seemed a good idea to harness the whole exercise to a country with extremely robust media laws rather than risk it all on the quicksands of the British legal system."

I am not saying that the decision was wrong, but it is interesting to ponder on what Rusbridger might have done, had the New York Times not agreed to assist in the publication.

Most of the discussion about the control and bias of the press centres on issues of ownership and finance. Yet it is still the case that the British state retains powers to gag and intimidate the press. The Left often seek to criticise liberal democracy, but it is often more to the point to criticise the limitation on liberal democracy in Britain.

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