Britain and America, as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said, are two countries divided by their common language. As of this week they are divided by something else, too: their common interest in the fight against terrorism. While David Cameron’s government has announced an Investigatory Powers Bill to beef up surveillance powers, the US Senate voted to allow the surveillance powers in the Patriot Act to expire. American spies will have replacement powers soon, but ones that do not enable the routine surveillance of citizens.
There is a good reason why senators, led by the Republican Rand Paul, voted as they did. Although the motives of whistleblower Edward Snowden may be suspect, his revelations have caused deep unease. Few Americans are willing to accept the idea that their telephone calls and emails must be monitored for their own protection. As Paul argued, at no point has the US public or its representatives given their consent. The mass collection of personal data is a result of mission creep on the part of officials who, thanks to the secret nature of their work, have been able to expand their empires without the public scrutiny which bears down on other arms of government.
In Britain, the story is different. The less responsible elements of our media have tried to whip up outrage about the activities of MI5 but, by and large, the public assume that our spies have the power to spy when necessary — and would be alarmed if this were not the case. This is, in part, because we have been living under a terrorist threat longer than America. And because MI5 and MI6 have used their powers sparingly. The problem now is that anti-terror legislation is being used by police to hack journalists’ records. Or by councils to tackle dog-fouling, parking in disabled bays, and other minor offences.
All we have been told about the new Investigatory Powers Bill is that it will provide security services ‘with the tools to keep you and your family safe’. Such language smacks of propaganda — the words are intended to prepare us for something we might not want to hear. Over the past three years, according to freedom of information requests submitted by the privacy organisation Big Brother Watch, police have accessed such private data an astonishing 679,000 times. Unless we have hugely under-estimated the threat, this is way beyond the level required to monitor potential terrorists.
Ten years ago, the Blair government played the ‘national security’ card as it sought to lock people up for up to 90 days without charge. Opponents, including most Conservatives, defeated that proposal, leading Tony Blair to warn darkly that the naysayers might ‘rue the day’ they rejected his plans. Ten years on, no one is rueing anything because no one has presented a single case of a plot which would have been thwarted had the police had such powers.
David Cameron and his ministers should remember that they were once on the liberal side of the argument and deal far more sceptically with those who insist they need greater rights to snoop on the population.
When not hacking into journalists’ telephone records, the police have been busy prosecuting them. Juries don’t seem impressed: so far, 13 journalists have been cleared for paying public officials for information and just one has been convicted. Rebekah Brooks, a former editor of the News of the World, was cleared of all charges in her phone-hacking trial. This week Andy Coulson, her successor, walked free from a perjury trial with ‘no case to answer’.
Coulson was driven, rather than flown, to Scotland so a police escort could meet him at the border. This pointless drama betrayed certain excitement at the idea of capturing David Cameron’s chief spin doctor — so much so that a basic problem was overlooked. His newspaper had published a story about the depraved antics of Tommy Sheridan, a former MSP, who denied the allegations made by the newspaper in court. Hacking had no relevance to this fact, the judge ruled, so Coulsen did not perjure himself when he denied knowing about hacking. On this basis, the case collapsed.
Hacking is a crime, one for which Coulson has served time. But it was not the crime of the century — in spite of being treated as such by sections of the media allied with the Labour party. The police, to their shame, were swept up in the hysteria. They now join the long list of those who emerge from this imbroglio with no credit at all.
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