Why the British government forced the Guardian to destroy its hard drives

Potential terrorist threats trump press freedom in the UK.
Potential terrorist threats trump press freedom in the UK.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One Saturday in July, British intelligence officers watched as two Guardian employees used grinders to destroy hard drives and memory chips that held documents from the US and UK spying programs revealed by Edward Snowden. It was their only choice, the Guardian later wrote, other than to surrender the equipment to officials.

According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, the incident was foreshadowed by sinister warnings from the UK government, including: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.”

Today, Reuters reported that British Prime Minister David Cameron personally dispatched his Cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, to try to stop the Guardian from publishing its Snowden stories.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said on Tuesday that he had been approached by “a very senior official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister” after his paper had published a series of exposes based on the Snowden material.

The sources named the official as Heywood, who is Cameron’s most senior policy adviser. “The prime minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to deal with this matter, that’s true,” one source told Reuters.

Civil-liberties advocates believe this explains the order to destroy (or surrender) the Snowden hard drives, as well as the arrest and detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport on Sunday.

Theresa May, the British interior minister, defended the detention, saying police had the right to do so if they thought Miranda was “in possession of highly sensitive, stolen information that could help terrorists, that could risk lives”.

Though much of the NSA-leak saga has been concentrated on the US and its own efforts to capture Snowden, the recent revelations of pressure on the Guardian journalists who reported the disclosures also shed light on the extremely stringent media and anti-terrorism laws in the UK.

Miranda was stopped and held by police for nine hours under Schedule 7 of Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000, which gives police ”broad authority to detain, search, and question persons traveling through UK airports in order to determine their possible involvement in terrorism.”

Throughout Miranda’s detention, police questioned him without a lawyer present, threatened him with jail time, and took his laptop, hard drive, phone, watch, memory cards, and DVDs.

This isn’t the first time journalists have raised issues about how Schedule 7 is enforced. According to past Guardian reporting, ethnic minorities are as much as 42 times more likely than white people to be targeted under this clause, and those questioned are usually not provided a lawyer unless they ask for and pay for one. In the year 2012-13, 61,145 people were stopped under Schedule 7, but most were released after an hour or less.

In 2006, a report by a British privacy group found that the terrorism law had been used, among other things, to arrest a pedestrian for walking along a bicycle path, to stop and search an 11-year-old girl participating in a peaceful protest, and to detain an 80-year-old Royal Air Force veteran.

The same act also prohibits the possession of material that could be associated with terrorism or national-security breaches. Simply possessing a copy of Inspire, the Al-Qaeda magazine, for example, can result in up to 10 years in prison. Last year, that very statute was used to sentence a man to 14 months of jail .

In their criticism of the law’s breadth, the group Article 19 wrote that “the definition includes many acts or types of behavior that, while unlawful, simply do not reach the level at which the extraordinary intrusive measures provided under anti-terrorism legislation can justifiably be used.”

That appears to have been the case with Miranda, who, as Greenwald noted this week, was engaged in “journalism, not terrorism.”

The terrorism law is layered on top of an already quite restrictive UK media environment that is likely to only become more challenging for newspapers in the coming months.

This year, the UK ranked 29th on the freedom index compiled by watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, slightly higher than the US but lower than places like Uruguay and Slovakia, as well as much of the rest of Europe.

Along with extremely strict libel and defamation laws, Britain also aims to prevent the publishing of government information through its Official Secrets Act, which in the past the British attorney general has threatened to use against the country’s newspapers when they wanted to print embarrassing memos about the UK-US relationship during the Iraq war. More recently, authorities have brought up the act in their attempts to get the Guardian to hand over the Snowden information and to put pressure on a whistle-blower who exposed abuses within the Scotland Yard.

(And yes, the US is also rigorous in its pursuit of leakers, as evidenced by the Bradley Manning prosecution, the Snowden debacle, and countless other examples.)

To be fair, the British media has also shown itself capable of massive overreach. The News of the World famously hacked the cell phones of celebrities and of a murdered schoolgirl, prompting a government investigation into the country’s press. As a result, the government recently proposed a system where newspapers would be overseen by a harsh regulator that would monitor their standards and would fine them for infractions.The country’s newspapers have countered with their own, less stern media-regulation plan.

The government’s proposal was met with criticism from rights groups and from the press, who say the country’s media laws are already too constraining and that the new oversight measures overcompensate for the abuses of the offending tabloid.

“Like any strong detergent, the work of the British media may cause a certain smarting of the eyes,” London Mayor Boris Johnson, himself a former journalist, wrote at the time of the proposal. “But if you want to keep clean the gutters of public life, you need a gutter press.”

Olga Khazan is the global editor at The Atlantic.

This originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site:

The horrific plight of Hungary’s Roma

How Syria’s Jihadists win friends and influence people

The real, terrifying reason why British authorities detained David Miranda