Paul Lashmar on UK: "They want to close down journalistic access to intelligence and security sources"

by Jane Whyatt

In light of the UK Law Commission’s proposal for legislation that would treat whistleblowers as foreign spies and put convicted reporters in prison possibly for 14 years – among other rights violations – the ECPMF has interviewed University of Sussex’s Paul Lashmar at length.

After a successful career as an investigative reporter and news producer, Lashmar obtained his PhD from Brunel University. His research has dealt with the relationship between the media and secret (state) intelligence.

ECPMF: As an investigative journalist, what are your main concerns about what is proposed?

I work from the simple premise that a free inquiring press (news media) is vital for democracy. This is an untidy process but it sort of works better than any other model, a bit like democracy. As I have often said the news media have been the only effective oversight mechanism for intelligence. This is historically proven.

Media oversight is not perfect, official, or consistent, but almost because of that it has worked as the control of it is not in one set of hands or interests. The British state has been noted for its penchant for secrecy compared with other liberal democracies and thus has an innate resistance to transparency (as shown by Aldrich, 2004; and Walton, 2013). 

Journalists cannot affect oversight of the intelligence state just by asking the official channels. It is a difficult case by case approach usually done by investigative journalists working with sources and whistleblowers.

This has worked time after time. Snowden may be controversial, but even the outside experts on intelligence before his revelations had no idea how invasive GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] surveillance of UK citizens (and others) is and was. It was clearly breaking the law. The same is true with the other “Five Eyes” countries including the US (NSA).

It’s not as though we had not been warned. In 2006, the NYT revealed the Bush administration had (illegally) authorised warrantless interception of American citizens’ communications post 9/11. In the UK, we don’t even have such a restriction on surveilling UK citizens. When you discuss the activities of intelligence agencies with those involved, they tell you that while there may have been problems in the past, "It’s alright now". It never is – we just don’t know what is going on.

If you want a recent example of the press revealing security forces' malfeasance, look at the "Undercover Cops" scandal. (Thanks to The Guardian for their excellent work on this story.) Make no bones about it, the current government is the most authoritarian and doctrinal we have had in modern times, and they want to close down journalistic access to intelligence and security sources.

Since 9/11, we have allowed an enormously powerful mass surveillance machinery to be put in place with inadequate safeguards. It is one thing while a democratic state operates, but if we continue to move in an authoritarian direction, that is quite literally frightening.

In the wrong hands GCHQ, can now make the Stasi in East Germany look like a surveillance cottage industry."

The election of Trump who can, in theory, direct the NSA’s global surveillance programmes to target anyone, is a very disturbing thought.

From my now academic point of view I would suggest that, if philosophy and political theory have real application in statecraft, there are few more important tasks than to develop a normative and conceptual framework for the way intelligence agencies should serve democratic nations without undermining the very democracy they are there to serve. This is still unresolved.

The consultation on the Official Secrets Act has proposed a new model that is designed to frighten and stop journalists and whistleblowers. It is the next step on the path to the authoritarian, all surveilling state.

Theresa May is authoritarian in character. I have it on good authority that even her intelligence chiefs were shocked by how hard line she was as Home Secretary. She has pushed through the Investigatory Powers Act, supports the Digital Economy Bill, and now this. She says the OSA is not targeting journalists. I do not believe it for a minute. They were pushing to see how much resistance there is and, believe me, we must resist. 

spy stories Paul Lashmar's journalism and research have focused on exposing the secret workings of power, and the relationship between media and state intelligence. (Art: ECPMF)

Actually, there have not been many official secrets or espionage cases in recent years, and the British press and public have probably got used to trials where intelligence agents appear behind a screen as Agent X or whatever. Should we just accept that some official information cannot be revealed in open court - for example, to protect the lives of serving soldiers and agents...?

As I say above, each event has to be taken case by case. In each case, healthy scepticism has to be exercised as to whether there is a real justification.

The Secret State is well versed in reeling out lines designed to convince us they are acting in the best interests of the public. They trot out the line every time the press deliver a revelation that we are putting the lives of intelligence agents and their sources in danger. No one wants to be responsible for the life of an intelligence agent. But the evidence for this is very flimsy.

What is not flimsy is that the intelligence agencies have cost the lives of journalists by using journalistic cover and subverting journalists. Journalists have quite literally lost their heads as a result of this.

We need a mature press that can exercise good judgement and experienced investigative journalists who can cover national security, and there are simply not enough."

One of the big changes proposed by the Law Commission is to remove the defence that information was leaked in the public interest, to reveal wrongdoing. They argue that even without this defence, they are still complying with the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 10. What’s your view?

I recall the last time that the Official Secret Act was amended in 1989, and it was in response to the prosecution of Clive Ponting, the civil servant, who was acquitted by his jury on public interest grounds around the Belgrano case. There started the process of making it harder to be a whistleblower.

We need a public interest defence as it stands that a whistleblower clearly acting in the public interest, say from MI6, revealing illegal acts can still be subject to decades in prison.

Revealing the Belgrano scandal

The General Belgrano was an Argentinian warship involved in the Falkland Islands conflict. It was torpedoed by the British nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, with the loss of 323 lives, even though it was sailing away from the conflict zone and not engaging with the British fleet. Three years later, a Ministry of Defence whistleblower named Clive Ponting was presecuted under the Official Secrets Act for passing details of the sinking to Labour MP Tam Dalyell, a critic of the Margaret Thatcher government’s decision to go to war on Argentina. Dalyell argued that the secret papers revealed the sinking to be a war crime. Clive Ponting was tried but acquitted because the revelations were in the public interest. He later wrote the book The right to know. Argentina invaded the British colony of the Falklands in 1982 and still claims sovereignty over the islands, which it calls the Malvinas.

Whether it complies with Article 10 or not, it certainly is not in the spirit of Article 10. But then we are withdrawing because there is some national notion that only we, the British, have the moral high ground to make judgements about Human Rights, to which I say go and talk to Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Mau Mau in Kenya and nationalists in a host of countries.

You are involved in a “Surveillance” group of journalists – how does that work and what is its perspective on the proposed new law?

I am part of an interdisciplinary group at the University of Sussex – it’s not just a journalist group. We have philosophers, criminologists, digital specialists and law academics as well. It really is very interesting. We are also linked into the external interdisciplinary groups like DATAPSST! which study surveillance and privacy issues.

What is clear is that the growth of surveillance is impacted on us as a nation in the way we behave, think and speak. It’s all very Panoptican. But regarding discussion, the extremely badly conducted consultation was only recently released, so we have not conducted a deep analysis.

I and others also work with the GCHQ specialist Duncan Campbell, whose article on the new proposals is worth reading.

Parliamentary oversight of the UK intelligence agencies has been largely discredited since the Snowden revelations. If MPs don’t know what’s going on, how can journalists keep the public informed?

We hear much about the official oversight and accountability mechanisms. But they have a poor record for identifying malpractice in the intelligence agencies. In their last report before Snowden, the Intelligence Security Committee (ISA) made no mention that GCHQ as part of “Five Eyes” intelligence agencies was acting without appropriate legislation or indicating the exponential growth of mass surveillance. Nor [did they mention] the very dubious activities of parts of GCHQ. They were either fools or knaves.

We need robust independent forensic experts (security cleared of course) who are prepared to delve into agencies and look in the dark corners to make sure they are acting in the public interest"

I would point out that, as I say above, only journalists have a consistent record for revealing intelligence agency malpractice, but you have never seen one hired as an investigator in an oversight body. Why might that be then? 

At the ECPMF, we are concerned that foreign journalists or whistleblowers working outside the UK, and embassy staff in London, will also be covered by these catch-all proposals which do not only apply to UK citizens. How serious is that threat ?

These stories and revelations are episodic and there is no template. So how an OSA revised in the way suggested by the Law Commission would be applied will only be clear as it happens. Therefore, I cannot assess the threat. The zeitgeist is increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic and this may well see a much more aggressive and vengeful approach to prosecution.  

Do you have any other major concerns that we have not yet touched on?

Please remember that government and intelligence complain vociferously about leaks but these people leak all the time when it suits them.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –