Britain’s lazy reaction to state intrusion is the real concern for democracy

The revelations that agents of the state destroyed databases in the basement of a national newspaper and detained a journalist’s partner for hours in an airport without suspicion have caused a stir in the British media. As a result the government has, quite rightly, come under increasing scrutiny and criticism for their actions over recent weeks.

However, the major concern is the almost apathetic attitude shown by many ordinary British people towards what is a massive intrusion on privacy. The revelations about the NSA caused a stir in the US while in Germany Angela Merkel is facing serious threats to her premiership after the public reacted angrily to reports that security forces had used information from the CIA’s interception of online communications.

Meanwhile, Britain seems to have largely accepted what’s going on and seems reluctant to do anything to oppose the official line. That of course being that it isn’t illegal to detain people for hours on end without reasonable suspicion, it isn’t wrong for governments’ to pressure newspapers into destroying evidence which is potentially embarrassing, and finally that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. This is a worrying attitude to have, especially when the state defines what is worth hiding. In a poll published by The Guardian on 22nd August, over 60% of people asked believed that Schedule 7 – the ability to detain someone at a port or airport without the suspicion that they are involved in terrorist activities – was reasonable and a slim majority of 43% supported the destruction of evidence by civil servants and GCHQ.

If this wasn’t bad enough we’ve got to remember the context in which this is all taking place – in Egypt a coup – in all but name – has taken place and protesters are being shot in the streets for being ‘terrorists’. Equally, in Syria just yesterday hundreds of civilians were allegedly killed by nerve gas used by government forces. The UK has joined an international call to stop the brutality and allow UN investigators into the reportedly affected areas. This of course is absolutely right. But the hypocrisy is plain for all to see. To preach the need for civil liberties and democracy and then clamp down on those same freedoms at home not only sends out the wrong message, it undermines those fighting and dying for the same freedoms which we seem happy to sit by and see eroded.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the obvious hounding of ‘whistleblowers’ who, despite acting to reveal government injustice and wrongdoing by military forces, end up as fugitives or worse. The arrest and sentencing of Bradley Manning yesterday only serves to underline this issue – embarrassing the state can have serious consequences. While there have been no similar arrests in the UK, the increase in surveillance and ‘stop and search’ tactics are a precedent we should work to fight against or else we risk having to outsource our own liberal media to countries where databases aren’t destroyed under the orders of the state. Without conflating the situation in the west with the ongoing effects of the Arab Spring it’s almost a little embarrassing how complacent we’ve become by comparison. We willingly give up details of our personal life to governments, corporations and machines in order to make our lives seem slightly easier or more cutting edge.

We need to have a frank debate about the levels of surveillance in this country as well as a more careful attitude to surrendering private information. Until the population is motivated to do this, the encroachment of the state into the private sphere will continue. As the editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger said in his comment piece on the Miranda revelations – “Most reporting – indeed most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint.”

5 responses to “Britain’s lazy reaction to state intrusion is the real concern for democracy”

  1. James says:

    Rather then claiming British people are ‘lazy’ I would say they understand the demands and requirements of national security.

    David Miranda was stopped by Scotland Yard for fears of carrying “highly sensitive stolen information”, which was discovered and subsequently destroyed. A solicitor was there throughout the 9 hours of questioning, and he was  then released after that time. As you probably know, this is all legal as it is within Section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000

    David Mannering was found guilty of ” Seven out of eight espionage charges, five theft charges, two computer fraud charges, five military counts of violating a lawful general regulation, one of wanton publication of intelligence on the internet”, to me that warrants a 35 year sentence.

    • James says:

      Apologies, where I said ‘David Mannering’, I meant ‘Bradley Manning’.

    • Greg says:

      Hi James,

      Thanks for commenting on the piece I wrote. I understand what you’re saying about how this is all enshrined in law, I’m not disputing that. However, in my opinion, the problem in this sense is the law itself which allows for the government to arrest journalists or people acting on behalf of journalists. We can challenge laws and we can repeal them if they’re being abused.

      As I’ve made pretty clear I think that arresting people under the auspices of ‘national security’ is a petty flimsy mandate, not to mention the fact that I’d find it pretty hard to believe that ‘The Guardian’ would seriously want to undermine national security. Incidentally, as Rusbridger himself said, this is all a token effort by the government in any case – The Guardian will continue reporting using this information as the second it was handed to them it was uploaded onto a thumb drive and sent over to New York where the constitution protects the right of the paper to publish these revelations.

      The issue with Bradley/Chelsea Manning I think is slightly different in the sense that he was jailed not for embarrassing the government (which he certainly did), instead he was jailed to be made an example of. My point here is that it’s pretty hypocritical of the US and the UK to criticise what it claims are the suppression of democratic movements in Egypt and Syria while itself undermining the right to free speech and expression in their own countries.

      Now, coming back to the issue of the British public having a ‘lazy reaction’ as I put it towards these issues. In this sense you’re right, many British people do think that it’s okay to arrest people under Section 7 of the Terrorist Act (2000) but I would stress that this is still a lazy reaction. If we see ourselves as a liberal state we shouldn’t be so lazy as to constantly trust what the government says. I know I open myself up to the criticism of scaremongering here but I feel Britain has become too comfortable in its own conception of the world and assumes that the liberal rights we enjoy are permanent, but a slow erosion of these is what leads to the removal of certain rights and liberties and that’s something we need to fight against – hence why I think it’s a lazy reaction. That’s why I made the point of us willingly handing over information to corporations and governments and even worse letting gadgets and machines such as mobile phones track us just to make our lives that little bit easier.

      I’m sure you’ll come back with some criticisms of your own but I hope this at least makes sense of my thoughts on the issue, once again thanks for commenting though!

      • Greg says:

        Sorry actually, just to clarify, I do think the government is right to criticise the suppression of democratic movements in Egypt and Syria – not sure that came across very clear in my response!