Earlier this year, two rather shocking examples of over-reach by the security services were revealed. The police have used controversial powers in the Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to bypass the need to get a warrant before accessing phone records. They were therefore able to snoop on journalists in a bid to unmask whistleblowers. This is a threat to free speech and something a judge would never have signed off on.
The two cases both involved political scandals. The first was the hacking of the Mail on Sunday journalists reporting on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal. The second was spying on the political editor of The Sun who was reporting on the Andrew Mitchell #Plebgate affair (for once, a pleasing use of the ‘-gate’ suffix since the scandal did involve an actual gate).
Both these cases have outraged journalists and human rights campaigners. It’s an invasion of privacy and discourages free speech. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. However, I wonder whether these cases persuade the public at large that there is a problem. Journalists and politicians are among the least trusted professions, so I wonder whether they garner much sympathy. These are not scandals that relate to the lives most people are living.
I’ve argued before that campaigners need to ground their defence of human rights principles in stories that are meaningful to ordinary people. Good recent examples of this approach in action: The Labour Campaign for Human Rights (see here and here) and the Daily Mirror (see here and here).
There is another news story bubbling away at the moment that I think may persuade the public of the dangers of unchecked surveillance, and that is the investigations into alleged child abuse by senior establishment figures including, apparently, a former minister. There were apparently two dossiers about alleged pædophiles presented to Home Secretary Leon Brittan in the 1980s, which have since gone missing. And according to Zac Goldsmith MP, detailed records seized from the notorious Elm Guest House disappeared after they were taken as evidence by the police.
Here’s what I reckon. It’s all conjecture and hypothesis, but I think it’s plausible: I think there must be former policemen and civil servants out there with knowledge of a cover-up. I think that some of them would like to ‘blow the whistle’ and tell the country what they know. But since police-officers are likely to be implicated in a cover-up, we run the risk that they will use RIPA and other surveillance powers to track-down and discredit anyone seeking to tell their story to the media, in confidence.
Potential whistleblowers know this. They have seen how people talking to journalists in the public interest are hounded by the security services.
I think that people who should be speaking up about child abuse today are keeping quiet because of the surveillance of journalists. My sad prediction is that we will one day discover this to be true, and that victims were denied a chance at justice.
Politicians like to say that surveillance keeps us safe, but sometimes, too much surveillance can cause irreparable damage, too.