Sinister story and the 'death of journalism' in the Sunday Times
It had all the ingredients of a meaty James Bond plot, it's just a pity nobody bothered to check the facts
It's been called the "death of journalism" and "journalism at its very worst". It happens when journalists and editors are somehow persuaded to give anonymity to government officials to "propagandise the public, then uncritically accept those claims as the truth".
It's dangerous, unprofessional and corrupts the public record. It is a major threat to the workings of a democracy. It is a form of laundering information through the media - in order to make them acceptable to a trusting public. In short, it stinks.
What on earth, you may ask, am I ranting about? Surely not another rehashing of that "sexed-up dossier" which warned us about Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction"? That dossier led a naive and trusting West into a war which had consequences far beyond what the most pessimistic of us could have predicted.
Surely we won't fall for any of that propaganda again? Nope, it's not the Iraq debacle, it's worse. It's Snowden, Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times and the death of investigative journalism in that newspaper.
Last Thursday, David Anderson, the UK government's reviewer of terrorism legislation, condemned snooping laws as "undemocratic, unnecessary and - in the long run - intolerable" and called for a "comprehensive new law incorporating judicial warrants".
According to reports, Anderson was highly critical of the existing system of oversight of the surveillance agencies and set out a series of recommendations for reform.
There were a lot of human rights organisations very happy about this. As one noted: "This thoughtful intervention brought new hope to us and others, for the rebuilding of public trust in surveillance, conducted with respect for privacy, democracy and the law."
Edward Snowden, seemingly, had been partially vindicated. And then, wham! In a complete coincidence of timing, three days later, the Sunday Times published an extraordinary piece on its front page.
I read it in astonishment, and as a person who has written sympathetically of Edward Snowden in the past, I was shocked. The headline said: "British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese; Missions aborted to prevent spies being killed".
Dear God, how awful. Seemingly, many innocent lives were in danger. The story continued: "Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.
"Western intelligence agencies say they have been forced into the rescue operations after Moscow gained access to more than one million classified files held by the former American security contractor, who fled to seek protection from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, after mounting one of the largest leaks in US history."
Wow! Just wow.
Snowden was immediately branded, James Bond-style, a "villain of the highest order", comparisons with Darth Vader were made (I kid you not). The BBC followed up, goggle-eyed, on the fantastical story reporting: "UK intelligence agents have been moved because Russia and China have access to classified information which reveals how they operate, a senior government source has told the BBC."
I'm now breathless with anticipation, aren't you? This is better than James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and Ethan Hunt all put together with George Smiley pulling the strings.
So, where did the Sunday Times get this incredible scoop? How long had they been working on this story? What did it mean and who were the sources behind it? Surely they hadn't completely depended on the word of the [anonymous] "senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services" that they cite in the article?
Didn't they learn anything from the Iraq dossier scandal? Are those who suspected its veracity seeing conspiracies under every editor's desk? Or was the fortuitous timing just a little coincidental? (The new surveillance bill is expected to be a subject of heated debate in the autumn).
As Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, put it: "Last week, David Anderson's thoughtful report called for urgent reform of snooping laws. That would not have been possible without Snowden's revelations. Days later, an 'unnamed Home Office source' is accusing him of having blood on his hands. The timing of this exclusive story from the securocrats seems extremely convenient."
So, tell us, what is the real story behind the story?
This is what CNN anchor, George Howell, wanted to find out when he interviewed the main writer of the article, Tom Harper of the Sunday Times.
The interview, now on You Tube, must surely rate as the most entertaining, excruciating (for the hapless Harper) interview, that should be mandatory viewing for every wannabe investigative journalist ever born.
Howell is no Jeremy Paxman, no Vincent Browne, he didn't need to be. All he did was ask 'how' and 'why' for poor Harper to be flummoxed.
I'll just reprint for your entertainment the first minute or so of the interview:
George Howell: How do senior officials at No 10 Downing Street know these files were breached?
Tom Harper: Well, uh, I don't know, to be honest with you, George. All we know is that this is effectively the official position of the British government…
Howell: How do they know what was in them if they were encrypted? Has the British government also gotten into these files?
Harper: Well. Um, I mean, the files came from America and the UK. So, uh, they may already have known for sometime what Snowden took. Again, that's not something that we're clear on, so we don't go into that level of detail in the story. We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.
Howell: So, essentially, you're reporting what the government is saying, but as far as evidence to substantiate it, you're not really able to explain that at this point?
And so it is revealed that the entire story was completely fed to Murdoch's newspaper to be printed on its front page without any journalist questioning the veracity of the sources. None whatsoever. This is astonishing.
But whatever about that - is the story true? On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Justin Webb asked Glen Greenwald about it. (Greenwald will probably be known to you as the Guardian reporter who played a pivotal role in bringing Snowden's classified documents to public attention. If anyone knows what's going on, he should).
Greenwald had been rather upset at the Sunday Times article, and at other media outlets which quoted it unquestioningly. He tweeted: "Congrats to all the intrepid journalists who spent Saturday night uncritically swallowing & heralding that pitiful Sunday Times article."
"It would be reasonable to assume…" Webb asked him, "that he [Snowden] has given away secrets that have been useful to people who want to do harm to other perfectly innocent people. I just wonder if you accept that those are the two sides of it, and that's what we've all got to live with?"
Greenwald answered him bluntly, saying: "No, I think you just made that up, what you just said. Edward Snowden has not given any documents or any information to anybody, except for journalists with major media organisations... Edward Snowden didn't disclose any documents. He went to journalists and gave the documents to journalists and said, 'I want you to work in order to find the ones in the public interest that the public ought to know."
Greenwald said that there was even a downright lie in the story. It said that, "David Miranda, the boyfriend of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was seized at Heathrow in 2013 in possession of 58,000 'highly classified' intelligence documents after visiting Snowden in Moscow."
As Greenwald said: "As of the time he was detained in Heathrow, David had never been to Moscow and had never met Snowden." He added that the offending sentences had since been removed from the online story. But Greenwad has also insisted that: "The entire report is a self-negating joke. It reads like a parody I might quickly whip up in order to illustrate the core sickness of Western journalism."
Oh dear. And he's not the only one who is more than a bit disbelieving of the whole cloak-and-dagger affair.
Craig Murray, former British diplomat wrote: "The argument that MI6 officers are at danger of being killed by the Russians or Chinese is a nonsense. No MI6 officer has been killed by the Russians or Chinese for 50 years. The worst that could happen is they would be sent home."
Andrew Mitchell, a former cabinet minister, said he was sure the Sunday Times got the story because of the Anderson report. He added: "I think we have to be very careful of the argument, listen sonny, we know what you don't know and therefore you should do what we say."
And journalist Ryan Gallagher said of that infamous CNN interview: "[It] is quite extraordinary because it makes absolutely clear that not only was this entire dubious story based solely on claims made anonymously by government officials, the reporters who regurgitated the claims did not even seek to question the veracity of the information. They just credulously accepted the allegations and then printed them unquestioningly.
"That really is the definition of stenography journalism - it's shameful."