Published on:

I don’t know if tyranny or terrorism is the greater threat

Belatedly, here is my Times column from last week
on the case of David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow airport:

I am not usually an indecisive person who sees
both sides of a question. But the case of Edward Snowden, Glenn
Greenwald and David Miranda versus the British and US governments
has me swinging like a weathervane in a squall between liberty and
security. I can persuade myself one minute that a despicable
tyranny is being gradually visited upon us by a self-serving
nomenclatura and the next that proportionate measures were taken by
the authorities to protect British citizens from irresponsible
crimes perpetrated by self-appointed publicity seekers.

Such indecisiveness does not seem to afflict most of my fellow
columnists elsewhere in the media. Sometimes, however, it is
necessary to stick up for indecision. On behalf of those of us
struggling to decide where justice lies, let me follow Boswell and
“throw our conversation into [this] journal in the form of a

Boswell Sir, is it not evident that David Miranda’s detention at
Heathrow airport was perfectly within the law, given that Schedule
7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows the police to detain people for
up to nine hours and that ample and reasonable suspicion existed
that he was acting as a courier between a film-maker in Berlin and
a journalist in Brazil, carrying stolen secrets that could
potentially threaten the safety of British citizens?

Johnson Aye, sir, but Schedule 7 was intended to catch
terrorists, not the courier-partners of journalists. It has been
used more than 143,000 times with only five convictions. And why
hold him for the full nine hours? A mere 30 minutes conversation
would surely have sufficed to decide whether Mr Miranda was a
threat to the security of the State. “They were threatening me all
the time and saying I would be put in jail if I didn’t co-operate,”
he says. Which is indeed what Schedule 7 allows — jail for refusing
to answer questions. Is that proportionate and just? Was this
prolonged interrogation, under a statute that specifically suspends
all the usual human rights protections in a port or airport, not
clear evidence of an attempt to intimidate the press?

Boswell I don’t remember you complaining about press
intimidation when more than 100 tabloid reporters were arrested,
often in dawn raids, by the police on suspicion of using illegally
obtained material from private citizens to furnish salacious
stories, and then left dangling on lengthy bail. Indeed, as Brendan
O’Neill of Spiked Online reminds us, The Guardian
itself was one of the cheerleaders against the tabloids over the
phone-hacking scandal. It’s plain that the press is out of control,
whether hacking phones or stealing state secrets that could be of
use to terrorists, and thereby leaving a trail of potentially
ruined lives in its wake in both cases.

Johnson The press out of control? As the persecution of tabloid
journalists shows, it is the State that is out of control, my
friend, and but for whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden we would
not know that the National Security Agency was able to demand
access to e-mail metadata in the US and share these with GCHQ in
Britain. In the basement of a London office building, we now know,
agents of the State instructed journalists in how to destroy
laptops, because they refused to hand them over. This is what
Britain has sunk to and even the White House spokesman says he
finds it “very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would
be appropriate”.

Boswell Oh, come off it. If Mr Snowden is such a conscientious
hero, how come he fled to Moscow airport (what is it about transit
lounges in this tale?) and put himself at the mercy of a despotic
regime with a record of violently bullying journalists into tame
submission? The Guardian’s laptop-destruction
scene shows just how tolerant and law-abiding the British State is,
because it was in effect saying: as long as you journalists destroy
the secrets so they cannot fall into the hands of terrorists, we
will stop harassing you.

“While Russia passes regressive laws, oversees unfair trials,
stops public demonstrations and bankrolls the butchers in
Syria, The Guardian gets upset about one man
being held for nine hours at Heathrow airport,” said The
Daily Telegraph
’s Tim Stanley. The innocent have nothing to

Johnson Tell that to the Birmingham Six, to Jean Charles de
Menezes, Andrew Mitchell, MP, or the family of Stephen Lawrence who
found they had been spied upon by the Metropolitan Police fishing
for dirt.

It would be passing strange to expect that the tendency of
bureaucracies to look after their own interests rather than those
of their customers applies to nationalised industries and quangos
in the public eye, but not at all to spy agencies living behind
walls of secrecy. Even if you think the police and the security
services generally do a good job, you must concede they also
generally love a bit of mission creep, power accretion, threat
exaggeration, budget maximisation and spin. Their obsession with
stopping the Snowden leaks has more to do with avoiding
bureaucratic embarrassment than securing our safety.

Boswell But we have perfectly good checks against the abuse of
power. In this case, the Government was properly informed in
advance about the detention of Mr Miranda — so the police could not
be said to be acting in an arbitrary way. Yet the Home Secretary
did not take the decision to detain him — so the police could not
be said to be at the beck of politicians. The case is now being
reviewed by David Anderson, QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of
terrorism legislation. These are correct procedures in a democracy,
balancing freedom against security.

Johnson You, sir, are a boiling frog. You have not noticed the
water is warming up and when you do it will be too late. Was it not
that estimable American Benjamin Franklin who said: “They who can
give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety,
deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And did not even such a pillar
of the Establishment as Sir Simon Jenkins write this week: “It
remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem
reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and
growth of state surveillance.”

See what I mean? I agree with every one of the paragraphs above.
The problem, I find, with this topic is that it entirely depends on
how necessary the powers given to the police and security services
under Tony Blair are to avert serious threats to our safety. And
that is something we mortals can never know. The suspicion that
they have become an excuse for tyranny therefore lingers.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times