I have been fairly astonished at the way some sections of the media have treated the case of David Miranda, held for nine hours at Heathrow. A couple of nights ago, Channel 4 News presented evidence that the Home Office knew in advance that Miranda would be held under Schedule 7, in terms that suggested they saw this news as a smoking gun, proving Theresa May’s guilt. I don’t think Mrs May needs me to defend her, but really this was over the top.
Meantime the opportunity arose for humorous quotations. Dan Hannan Tweeted: “Shakespeare predicts everything: ‘MIRANDA: But this is trifling; and all the more it seeks to hide itself, the bigger bulk it shows.’”
We believe we live in a free society, and we rightly demand that we should continue to do so. We recognise that freedom of the press is fundamental to a free society, and is essential to hold the government to account.
Nonetheless we also recognise that the state has a duty to ensure, as far as possible, the security of the citizen. “Freedom” cannot include an arbitrary and unlimited freedom to damage others. Indeed given the multiple threats we face from terrorism, we rightly demand that the security authorities keep tabs on risks in order to mitigate them, and apprehend those with malevolent intentions.
We have an American whistle-blower (or leaker), Edward Snowden, who seems to have stolen a great deal of information about US and UK security activity and particularly surveillance of electronic communications. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger disingenuously said that it was pejorative to describe this information as “stolen” when it had been leaked. But this is a distinction without a difference. In plain terms, an employee of an organisation who takes and misuses confidential information from his employer without permission has effectively stolen it, whatever word you choose to apply to it.
Rusbridger was equally disingenuous to insist that the detention of Miranda was primarily an attack on press freedom, rather than, as it was in fact, an attempt to limit the damage caused by the leak (though it looks like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, given reports that other copies of the material are available elsewhere).
There has been a lot of comment suggesting that it was wrong to use Schedule 7, an anti-terrorist measure, against a man who was “known not to be a terrorist”. But this is playing with words. It seems that the security authorities suspected (rightly or wrongly) that Miranda was acting as a courier, and possibly carrying leaked material from Snowden, with a view to its publication. If so, this was arguably an action which would have aided and abetted terrorism, and it is splitting hairs therefore to question the use of Schedule 7.
There is of course the quite separate question of whether UK and US security services have been making excessive, unreasonable and possibly illegal use of electronic surveillance. If this subsequently proves to be the case, then that would be argued as a justification for Snowden, and perhaps also for the Guardian. It may be that the law needs to be changed. But we can hardly blame the security services for working with the law as it is, rather than as it might be at some later stage.