16 Jun 2015

Edward Snowden: publishing the position of the government?

Last Sunday, a broadcaster led its news bulletins with the shocking news that British agents had had to be moved from their posts. This was because in a dramatic act of symmetry, both Russia and China had cracked the encryption codes of the documents taken by Edward Snowden.


It was a bold claim attributed to the Sunday Times. The only tangible evidence appeared to reside in the writers of the article, including the Sunday Times reporter Tom Harper – of whom more in a moment.

There was a sense of inevitability about the whole story. First Congress rejects America’s own surveillance law; then within days Britain’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism, David Anderson QC, follows suit. What could be worse? Suddenly Snowden was back on track for “saviour of the world” status.  The fightback could not be far behind.

And there, alone, fuelled by un-named persons in the “Home Office” and “Downing Street”, rides the Sunday Times to recast Snowden as the most dangerous man on the planet. And there the story might have sat had it not been for a a very weak account of their accounts that the unfortunate Mr Harper gave to CNN in which the phrase “we don’t know” appeared to be the stated answer to almost every one of the network’s reasonable questions about the Sunday Times’s claims.

The Washington Post, no less, castigated the reporter, his paper, and his hapless interview with this immortal headline: ‘Sunday Times reporter on Snowden story – We don’t have a clue’.

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Not only was one of the rare “facts” in the Sunday Times article so wrong that it has been excised from the online edition of the paper, but the claims the report made were quite simply without any independent verification or substantiation. Yet to claim, as the paper did, that both Russian and Chinese intelligence had cracked the encryption of Snowden’s files, without a scintilla of evidence and a subsequent series of “we don’t knows”, is going some.

It was credited not to the CIA or any US source but to un-named sources in the Home Office and Downing Street with absolutely no proof whatever. Subsequent efforts to get the government in any form to corroborate the story failed. “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment,” was the line from the aforesaid CNN/Harper interview that said it all.

Whose interest the Sunday Times was serving, heaven knows. Indeed the rival broadcaster doesn’t emerge from the matter well either. They ran the story on all their radio bulletins on Sunday morning, only adding that no one had been harmed. There must be those who beg to differ in journalism. Once you’ve watched Mr Harper’s efforts on CNN to defend his story, you may feel that a wholesale apology for the article itself is also due.

Perhaps I am best to leave the final word with the Sunday Times: “This story was responsible journalism and another example of the Sunday Times setting the news agenda.”

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