15 October 2014

The Guardian is about to face investigation by the British Government. The London-based newspaper has been at the forefront of the global surveillance controversy since their journalist Glenn Greenwald published in its pages Edward Snowden's revelations last June. Supported by Prime Minister David Cameron, a parliamentary committee is due to launch an inquiry to determine whether the Guardian's publication of Snowden's leaked documents was a threat to national security.

In a functioning democracy it is expected that a free press would come to the defence of a fellow news outlet facing governmental interference for publishing information about a matter of public interest. Britain has prided itself on having some of the oldest and strongest press freedoms in the world. Yet for all that, the powerful media barons in the UK have all fallen in step with the government's line on security: that the Guardian has helped terrorists.

On October 9th, several newspapers ran the exact same angle on their front page to decry the Guardian as a threat to national security. The Daily Mail wrote “Guardian has handed a gift to terrorists,” the London Times wrote “spy leaks put Britain in danger,” and the Telegraph's headline said “leaks a gift for terrorists to attack us at will.”

The international community is, broadly speaking, not fooled when it comes to seeing how distant and entrenched the British press is from its people. Unlike the obsequious corporate media in the UK, many of the most respected outlets of the international press – such as Le Monde, Der Spiegel, El Pais and the New York Times – have defended and praised the Guardian's actions. But international opinion is out of step with the state of Britain in one crucial aspect: it still sees the BBC as a bastion of good public journalism.

When Glenn Greenwald appeared on the BBC's flagship news show, Newsnight, he was treated to a bizarre interview in which senior journalist Kirsty Wark grilled him with hostile questions that were based on an unmistakably pro-government premise. Wark began by asking Greenwald, who was on a video call from Rio De Janeiro, “why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest?” – which Greenwald, who has managed the leaks with the help of dozens of editors and legal advisors, is not.

Greenwald told the BBC: “I hope we've learned after the Iraq war that government claims are not tantamount to truth,” before saying of the level of care that he and his colleagues have maintained while handling Snowden's leaked documents that “not one comma that we've published could be said to damage national security.”

Despite this, Wark still managed, like the rest of the corporate British media, to accuse Greenwald of aiding the enemy, telling him that “by your actions you have made it easier for terrorists to evade all the checks that are made of them online.” She later asked, “Do you not think that there are many members of the population who might actually find it quite reassuring, who might actually feel quite safe?”

The BBC has maintained an uncomfortable role as a government mouthpiece since Thatcher was in power, largely due to the steady erosion of its mandate to impartiality by politicians seeking to bend its news coverage to their will. Tony Blair's government bullied the BBC into line on many issues, particularly its coverage of the Iraq war, while Cameron's government has enjoyed broad BBC support for its dismantling of the welfare state by an economics editor who recently left to work for JP Morgan.

Of greater concern to those concerned with civil liberties is that Wark's interview of Greenwald was not out of the ordinary. The BBC has been reporting on the Snowden revelations with immense sluggishness since the story initially broke in June, while its coverage and commentary has been consistently almost as supportive of the government and security chiefs' line as the corporate media.

Recently the BBC Trust, the board which controls funding and directorial appointments at the public media giant, received a new chairman in the form of Lord Patten, a powerful figure in the Conservative party. With the current pro-government editorial line thus stitched up, and with waves of funding cuts (and threats thereof) for the past three years, the BBC has now joined the ranks of News Corporation and the Daily Mail in protecting the government from being properly held to account for its surveillance programs.

David Cameron's own words about the Guardian's political position have strengthened over the past few months. At first, back in July, the Prime Minister was more cautious and copied President Obama's line in welcoming the debate; but last week his discourse had morphed into a much stronger stance, declaring that “if they don't demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”

This shift in rhetoric over the past few months may demonstrate that Cameron's media strategy, which is coordinated through dozens of private meetings with Rupert Murdoch and sons each year, has started to pay dividends. The BBC, which is the biggest media organisation in the UK, has helped to smooth the way for the Prime Minister to make threats to a free press attempting to hold him to account.

The BBC's complicity with the establishment is, however, not recognised in public discourse. Just as Republicans view (or say they view) CNN as left-wing propaganda, British Conservative politicians and supporting commentators have over recent years developed a strategy of relentlessly accusing the BBC of having a left-wing bias. When this argument is squared with the fact that their party has political control of the BBC, and that their policies are either reported on uncritically or barely at all, we are left to wonder if it is really the journalists who write the news.