Undermining Dissent: Evan Davis Interviews Glenn Greenwald

The Editors, 8 November 2013 | 3 Comments

Categories: The Guardian | BBC News | NSA | GCHQ | Snowden Leaks |

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It emerged this week that the decision to detain David Miranda (partner of former Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald) under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, as he travelled via Heathrow airport in August, was made on the basis that he was promoting a 'political or ideological cause'. It is claimed that Miranda was carrying encrypted intelligence files, leaked by whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. The Metropolitan police based their decision to use the Terrorism Act on the assessment that 'the disclosure or threat of disclosure' of such materials 'is designed to influence a government, and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause'.

The political imperative to detain media-workers (Miranda was at the time in the pay of the Guardian) raises pressing issues concerning the impact on free expression and investigative journalism. It is in keeping with the general draconian response from the state, and some elements of the media, to the NSA and GCHQ disclosures leaked by Snowden.

In a threat to the Guardian concerning its involvement in the publishing of the leaks, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that, 'I think it's much better to appeal to newspapers' sense of social responsibility. But if they don't demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act'.

The government's actions in the wake of the leaks have prompted PEN International to publish an open letter to David Cameron 'voicing concerns about the erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK'. The state's response to the disclosures1 , the letter states, 'clearly violate the right to freedom of expression, which is protected under British, European and international law'.

Yet, in step with the state, elements of the media are singling out media-workers and their associates on the basis of their presumed political agendas. Upon his detention, the Telegraph's Rob Crilly declared David Miranda 'a legitimate subject of concern for UK border authorities' as he is 'deeply enmeshed in Mr Greenwald's work with Edward Snowden'.

Evan Davis's Radio 4 Interviews (listen below)

Against this background of contention on the role of the journalist in relation to the state, and the sustained attempt by the government to silence publication of the leaks2, Evan Davis of BBC Radio 4's Today Show interviewed Glenn Greenwald, who has worked with the Guardian and other newspapers globally to publish reports of the Snowden leaks, and former director of GCHQ, David Omand.

Davis begins his interview with Greenwald by challenging him on the issue of national security: 'You said this [in an interview regarding the reporting of the leaks]: 'Not one line, not one comma of what we've published could even plausibly be said to damage national security'. Is that right?'

Despite Greenwald's assertions of the use of normative journalistic standards in collaboration with government agencies, Davis suggests that repeatedly that 'plausibly' Greenwald's work could have damaged 'national security'. He then moves on to cite an article written by Greenwald following the Boston marathon bombing:

[I]n that article – and it was much criticised at the time – you, to some extent, likened the Boston marathon killings to those perpetrated by the US. You described horrific civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world. Now I wonder whether you are typical of the citizens of our country or the US in likening and equivalising the killings of – random killings of people in a marathon- with say Drone attacks that kill civilians. Do you think that is where most people would be on the issue of killings?

This carefully structured interview with Greenwald leads to Davis's core point:

I suppose I'm wondering whether, if I didn't have your values about foreign policy and our national behaviour, whether I should trust you to make those decisions. That's really where I'm getting, whether I should trust you to make those decisions if I have different values, if I'm more scared of the terrorists then I am of the US government. (emphasis added)

Davis's questioning of Greenwald attempts not to garner further information or perspective regarding from someone deeply involved in an issue so vital for the public interest, but instead to suggest that Greenwald's journalistic work perhaps should somehow be discounted by the public at large if his political views did not precisely match public opinion. His suggestion that Greenwald's particular political views might delegitimise or render compromised his journalistic decisions on matters of the public interest is an extraordinary line of argument from a public service journalist. The implication of the argument is that the legitimacy of one's position in public life depends on the coalescence of one's views with those of supposed political 'norms'.

It is something of a trend to question Greenwald’s authority to determine what should be published. When Kirsty Wark interviewed Greenwald for Newsnight in October 2013 her opening question also addressed this: 'Why should you be the arbiter about what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?' Wark, during her interview with Greenwald, also chose to focus more on his actions and politics rather than discussing the content of the NSA and GCHQ revelations.

Moving from Greenwald to Omand, Davis does not challenge the former GCHQ director to the same extent. While Omand is not a current employee of GCHQ, he is (like Greenwald) being invited on the show for opinions, and should not be any less subject to scrutiny.

Davis questions Omand on the issue of GCHQ secrecy, in response to which Omand repeatedly offers vague and unconvincing rebuttals. Presented with the opportunity to question a former spy chief, Davis simply accepts Omand's evasions without further probing:

Evan Davis: If we believe the Guardian, the reason why we have not allowed intercept evidence in trials … is primarily because GCHQ is scared that if they revealed how much they knew, there would be a public outcry.

David Omand: That's nonsense.

ED: That's nonsense?

DO: Yes


At a later point in the interview, Davis clearly catches his subject unawares causing him to briefly stumble for an answer. However his question is quickly put to rest:

Evan Davis: Why wouldn't we have been told by the way we're so much in hoc with the Americans on this that they actually pay for part of GCHQ?

David Omand: Well, that's been an open… uh, a matter of uh, debate. If you came along to my lectures at King's college you’d have heard all about that.

ED: OK, great.

Again an opportunity is missed for rigorous, sceptical, journalism.

Indeed, Davis seems to be more sceptical of Greenwald, an investigative journalist, than he does of a former spy, who favours state secrets. Inarguably all interviews should be subject to a certain level of scrutiny, but it is difficult to discern how the public interest is served by the attempt to discredit an investigative journalist whose work is responsible for bringing to light what the state has attempted to keep hidden from public discourse and democratic oversight, while passively accepting the vague refutations of the former director of a government spying agency.

At a time when the BBC is in (a somewhat ongoing) institutional crisis, under attack from the right with proposals for cuts to the licence fee and proposals for its replacement with advertising-based funding, there is a need for the argument to be put across for a reinvigoration of the neglected practices of both investigative journalism and public interest media. For journalists in the public service to join ranks with the elements of the media and the state who advocate for a tame and obedient media, maintaining government secrets to the detriment of the public interest, is to undermine their own legitimacy.

Listen to Evan Davis interviewing Glenn Greenwald:

Listen to Evan Davis interviewing David Omand:


1. These include the detention of Miranda, the 'sustained pressure' from the government against the Guardian for reporting on the leaks, including the forced destruction of the newspaper's hard-drives, and the PM's call for a review of whether the Guardian's publishing of the disclosures has damaged national security by the Home Affairs Select Committee 'as part of their inquiry into anti-terrorism', as cited in PEN's letter.

2. On Thursday, twenty-eight Tory MPs wrote 'to the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, asking him to consult the government or security services before publishing any further stories based on the Snowden documents and calling on the newspaper to inform the government and intelligence services of the precise nature of the information it has shared with other journalists and bloggers and the identities of those to whom it has passed information'.

Categories in which this article appears: The Guardian | BBC News | NSA | GCHQ | Snowden Leaks |

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Comments (3)

1. Chris F08 November 2013 14:37

Thanks for a very good article. I heard the interviews and it did seem that Evan Davis was wary of Glenn Greenwald who eviscerated Kirsty Wark for making the same case. Greenwald is far too incisive and takes no prisoners. Rather than embarrass himself in the way that Wark did, it appears that Davis (or the Today producers) opted to follow the Greenwald interview with an establishment toady.

Keep up the good work.

2. Bill de B.09 November 2013 21:58

Why do you think Evan Davies, Kirsty Wark, Jeremy Paxman and the rest are paid so much by the BBC?

Their job is to promote the interests of the ruling elite (god save the queen), to suppress dissent and to help ensure that the population remains docile, obedient and disengaged from politics.

3. orville11 November 2013 12:49

Thanks for the article.

If Evan Davis does get back to you concerning your "misunderstood... bits" I'd be interested to hear what he thought they were.

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