1 February 2015

Britain's war on investigative journalism

Free journalism is the last remaining source of opposition in Britain. That is why the state ranks journalists alongside terrorists as a threat.

With the demise of mass progressive organisations in the last few decades, one of the few remaining sources of critique of the existing political order is the writing of journalists. So today, it is the likes of Glenn Greenwald and George Monbiot who carry the torch of political opposition, rather than politicians.

It is hardly surprising that, according to documents from the Snowden cache, GCHQ in Britain ranks investigative journalists alongside terrorists and hackers as targets worthy of surveillance. In a single trawl in 2008 GCHQ harvested around 70 000 emails from journalists working for the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, the Sun, NBC and the Washington Post. The results were placed on the GCHQ intranet for analysis by agents.

The mass hoovering up of electronic communication by the security agencies is now an established fact. The legality of doing so only comes into a play when some of these ill-gotten fruits of mass surveillance need to be brought into the public domain, such as for a court case. To this end, in Britain the state uses RIPA, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which inter alia empowers police to access journalists’ electronic communication without a court order with only the approval of senior officers. Just to take two instances: In the so-called Plebgate affair, police used RIPA powers to access the phone records of a journalist working for the Sun; and the records of a Mail on Sunday journalist were similarly acquired in the Chris Huhne speeding affair. Neither case involved terrorism or serious crime.

Investigative journalism remains one the last means of critiquing political power in Britain. It is under attack, and one small step of resistance is to achieve secure communication by encrypting phone speech and email, end-to-end. Of course that does nothing to hide the metadata - who’s contacting whom, when and for how long - but it shuts GCHQ and the police out of the content. David Cameron doesn’t like that, and that’s why he would like to ban it.

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