31 March 2014

In a move that bears striking resemblance to Eric Holder's recent talks with press leaders to suppress reporting of human rights abuses, the British government and large elements of the press have colluded this week to censor coverage about Edward Snowden's latest leak this weekend, which proved that the UK government had spied on its G20 partners during the two economic summits in 2009.



Facing questions about GCHQ's secret surveillance of the summits, defense officials in the British government issued a D-notice to all of the UK's major news outlets to refrain from covering the story whilst the G8, containing many of the same diplomats as before, met in the British capital last week. The D-notice was eventually written about by rightwing blogger Paul Staines despite its being marked as "private and confidential: not for publication, broadcast or use on social media", but aside from some commentary in the Guardian there has been a notable silence throughout the British press on both the serving of the D-notice and the public discussion it hampers.



As one of the more arcane features of the confusing and often ill-defined British constitution, a D-notice is a formal request from the government to refrain from reporting on a particular issue pertaining to national security. It is important to note that while a D-notice bears no intrinsic legal force and is not linked to the Official Secrets Act, it often performs in an unofficial capacity as a warning to a news outlet not to overstep the mark. It is usually used about a dozen times a year, with recent high-profile examples including a 2009 D-notice designed to censor stories about toxic waste dumping by oil multinational Trafigura, and a 2010 D-notice requesting that press elements not discuss Wikileaks on the front pages. The latter caused the BBC to remove some of its online coverage of the Wikileaks story that spanned several days, pushing the public debate out of its most widely broadcast outlet.



The patterns of behavior of the British press make the issue surrounding this D-order a matter of collusion with (rather than suppression by) the government when placed in the context of last year's controversial phone-hacking scandal. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and other organizations that make up Britain's predominantly conservative press came under fire last year after it was revealed that the hacking of celebrities' phones had long been a widespread practice throughout the media, including at the Daily Mirror when CNN's Piers Morgan was editor.



This and a culture of systemic false-reporting led to an official inquiry, the Leveson Inquiry, which after a year of intensely-covered investigation of editors, politicians and police officers eventually recommended a series of statutory press regulations. Prime Minister David Cameron did not follow the advice to make statutory regulations after lobbying from his allies Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail), which demonstrates the power of the British media to influence government policy to suit its own interests.



It is thus interesting that the British press, which fought so hard for its own freedom to continue its old gutter activity as usual after the Leveson Inquiry, did not see fit to assert that freedom in the service of public debate about the state's 2009 spying operations. This in spite of widespread cynicism about Westminster's image as the unquestioning arbiter of London's immensely powerful financial elite suggests that Britain's political class is as cozy as it ever was with highly influential press magnates.



It was reported last year that Rupert Murdoch's head lobbyist received text messages from Cameron's culture secretary Jeremy Hunt (who was at the time responsible for deciding whether or not to allow a lucrative and monopolistic merger for News Corporation) in which Hunt called him “daddy”. Equally of note is Murdoch's former right-hand in Britain, Rebekah Brooks, who is the godmother of Cameron's daughter. Brooks is currently on trial for endorsing the hacking of phones in all News Corporation subsidiaries in the UK.



Murdoch and Rothermere have provided with their media empires a great deal of support to Cameron's government in justifying austerity with anecdotal evidence and flimsy economic arguments that are made so frequently they appear calculated to deliberately mislead the public. The D-notice's lack of legal weight appears therefore to be largely irrelevant to a press who makes no effort to hide the part it takes in its triumvirate with Westminster and the financial sector.



When the support for austerity and the absence of reporting on the G20 spying story is measured against the way the American press frequently colludes with an increasingly paranoid and repressive White House, a behavioral pattern between the UK and the US begins to make itself clear, evinced most recently in America by Eric Holder's secretive meeting with journalists in May to discuss guidelines for refraining from reporting on certain topics. Murdoch's wrangling, meanwhile, is no better on this side of the Atlantic, as was demonstrated for instance by his plot to throw the full weight of his media empire, including funding, to support General Petraeus as his own personal candidate for the presidency prior to his public disgrace after his affair was discovered. The Washington Post, who printed the story, chose to hide the controversial story in their lifestyle section, with the section editor calling it “a buzzy media story that … didn’t have the broader import.”



The special relationship between the two nations that collaborated through PRISM to make the largest web of intelligence and surveillance operations in history cannot depend alone on the activity of governments to maintain its power. The role of a compliant media is essential in censoring itself to black out or distort important subjects that would otherwise foment public anger. The late Ernest Bevin, a British statesman from the first half of the twentieth century, said it best: "Why bother to muzzle sheep?"