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Press Freedom

'The system is unraveling'

Recent events at the Guardian have called into question the protection of free press in the UK. DW spoke to Richard Keeble, acting head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, about the power of the "secret state."

DW: The partner of Glen Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who has written stories based on data leaked from the US National Security Agency, was detained for nine hours at London's Heathrow Airport this week, and the Guardian's editor claimed British authorities also forced the destruction of its hard drives containing the leaked information. The Guardian is the only paper in the mainstream British media to have published the leaked information, and it appears it doesn't have much support from other UK papers. What has the reaction been from Fleet Street, the traditional home of the British national press?

Richard Keeble: It's not as if Fleet Street as a collective is screaming in outrage at what's going on. Equally, I think the support of British papers for Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks leaker, was also very muted. What I can say, however, is that I've seen the BBC's coverage, and to their credit, they have given the affair due prominence. Though due to obvious legal reasons they can't speak out.

It is very much a legal issue. If the Guardian hadn't complied with Downing Street's requests, they would have been prosecuted. What kind of power does the government have - could they shut the paper down?

Richard Keeble is the acting head of the Lincoln School of Journalism

I would put my mortgage on the government not closing down the Guardian. British political media life doesn't operate like that at all. But there are clear pressures on the media to conform. I think they will continue because if this gets out of hand, then the government and authorities will be concerned. And what they're saying in all this is that there are consequences - particularly for those who are doing the leaking: Snowden is somewhere holed up in Russia. We know how Bradley Manning was tortured as he was being held before his secret trial. They're not going to close the Guardian down, for sure, but they will be telling mainstream journalists, "Be careful: If you're doing things we're not happy with, then beware of the consequences."

How powerful is the intelligence apparatus in Britain?

The secret state is incomprehensibly vast. It's not just intelligence - it's secret armies, it's police forces. And it is penetrating - obviously through the internet - into the very most intimate parts of our everyday lives. The expenditure on it globally is likewise vast. And what that means is that whilst it has vast powers, it is getting out of control. And so whistleblowers like Wikileaks and Snowden are actually exposing the contradiction that as it grows, there will be increasing critique from within because actually what these people are doing is showing that the rulers of our societies are committing offences, including international war crimes. That's the essential point. And they don't like that. So I think there's going to be a danger of more and more Snowdens and Bradley Mannings; the system is unraveling.

Do you think mainstream media outlets like the Guardian, for example, can keep the government in check?

No. Not at all. The intelligence apparatus is vast, and the mainstream media in general are far too closely integrated with the secret state. I don't think they even want to pose a threat to it. I don't think the Guardian is out there to actually challenge the secret state. They want to use Snowden as a terrific news source. But I don't think they want to smash the secret state. That's not the role of the mainstream press. It's too closely integrated with dominant powers and institutions to ever do that.

What I found interesting was the way in which - even the Guardian - covered the recent "confession" by Bradley Manning at his trial. Because it seemed to me that when Manning said things like "I'm terribly sorry to have hurt the United States." Or: "How dare I, as a very small, insignificant man, expect to be able to change the world for the better?" I didn't believe that that came from Bradley Manning. My sense was that he was pressurized to say that. At least you would have thought journalists would have raised these questions. But the Guardian and the Independent, which in theory could have been the most critical of that whole secret trial, just reported it straight. And I was very surprised at that.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Redding has said that she "shares concerns" over press freedom in the UK. Professor Keeble, as an instructor of journalism in Britain, how concerned are you at the moment?

Well I'm very concerned because I see this as being an actual significant trend in both America and Britain. In America, there are - I think - seven cases of whistleblowers who have been actually charged under the Felony Act, and people have been threatened with jail. We know that the government now wants people to as it were snitch on colleagues if they think that they are potential leakers. There's all manner of threats now and pressures on potential whistleblowers. And, after all, until the late 1980s in Britain, there was the defense of the public interest.

Now, you would have thought that when people reveal illegal activity by the state, there should be a public interest defense. This is clearly what the Guardian is claiming. And that, in any civilized society, is what there should be: the protection of whistleblowers. Because how are we going to get to know about the reality of the secret state? Through whistleblowers.

And there are two kinds of whistleblowers: There are those who appear everyday in our newspapers, who are, if you like, acceptable whistleblowers. So the kind of information they're giving us is, in some way, in the interest of the secret state. But there are the other whistleblowers who reveal things that the state doesn't want us to know about. And they are being really harassed now. And I am, as a professor and as a citizen, extremely concerned.

DW.DE