In a conversation with C-SPAN‘s Brian Lamb (11/7/83) in 1983, then-Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens explained the United Kingdom’s Official Secrets Act, which, he said, says that “anything the government defines as a secret is a secret…. You can define something that is well-known by everybody as a secret under that law.” It gives the government a legal mallet to employ against investigative journalists probing national security.
Lamb asked Hitchens, a British expatriate living in Washington, DC, if American journalists were freer than the ones in his home country. “Infinitely,” Hitchens replied, noting that Americans “have a constitution” that protects the freedom of the press.
Americans are accustomed to thinking that Britain is the European nation most like the United States, and with its robust market of salacious tabloid newspapers and saucy pop culture, Americans think of it as a free society. But Hitchens, like many British journalists, constantly challenged this myth. And the current imprisonment of blogger Craig Murray is a reminder of that gap.
‘Chilling effect on reporting’
Murray is a Scottish former diplomat who is vocal about his support for Scottish independence. He is also an outspoken advocate for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (New York Times, 1/4/21). According to the Scotsman (8/1/21), however, Murray “was judged to have been in contempt of court over blogs he wrote during the trial of former First Minister Alex Salmond”:
[Murray’s] posts contained details which, if pieced together, could lead readers to identify women who made allegations against Mr. Salmond, who was acquitted of all 13 charges, including sexual assault and attempted rape in March last year.
An official at Reporters Without Borders said that a “prison sentence on charges related to his blogging is disproportionate and highly concerning,” adding that “journalistic activity should not lead to prison sentences anywhere,” because “imprisonment in connection with any journalistic activity should only ever be a measure of absolute last resort—if at all.”
Scottish PEN (Twitter, 7/30/21) said that Murray “is the first person to be imprisoned in Scotland for media contempt for over 70 years,” and the organization feared the “ruling will have a chilling effect on reporting and free expression.”
But the New York Times hasn’t reported on Murray’s jailing, nor has AP. A search for his case at NPR and the Wall Street Journal yielded no results.
Why is this not big news? Belarus arresting a journalist who was flying outside the country (NPR, 5/25/21) was major news in the U.S. press. The New York Times (12/28/20) made a big deal about the Chinese government clamping down on citizen journalists who challenged the government’s narrative about COVID-19. And NPR (2/4/21) reported on a Russian journalist who was briefly imprisoned for publicizing an anti-government protest on Twitter. It should be at least as alarming to American media that a key US ally would use jail as a weapon against any journalist.
Not a neutral voice
Let’s be clear: Murray isn’t a neutral voice untethered from any agenda. The Courier (5/11/21) described Murray as a partisan supporter of Salmond, even standing for election with Salmond’s Alba Party, which Salmond helped found after leaving the Scottish National Party. The piece went on to say that Murray’s posts were a response to what he felt was a politically motivated prosecution of Salmond by the “SNP leadership, the Scottish Government, the Crown Office and police.”
The judge in the case went so far as to say Murray was “relishing” writing posts that could be used to piece together who the accusers were (Scotsman, 7/31/21). The reporting portrays Murray’s blogging as being less about a disinterested pursuit of truth, and instead taking one side in an internal power struggle with the Scottish nationalist movement.
Any attempt to unmask women who have made sexual assault allegations is problematic, even if one believes they have political motivations. But even distasteful speech or journalism shouldn’t be threatened with jail. And this type of legal maneuver could easily be employed against any journalist who is probing abuses by the state.
History gives anyone concerned about the free press a right to be worried, as there are other examples of how the British press is censored to protect the powerful. The voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was once banned from BBC broadcasts (BBC, 4/5/05). The BBC cited “legal reasons” for not naming one of the soldiers on trial for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland (BBC, 7/14/21). The Guardian (8/20/13) was forced to destroy leaked documents from Edward Snowden because of “a threat of legal action by the [British] government that could have stopped reporting on the extent of American and British government surveillance revealed by the documents.”
While it’s tough to imagine all of this happening in the United States, there has been an intense legal effort against leakers (FAIR.org, 8/27/13, 7/1/21). Reality Winner, who leaked documents alleging Russian election interference to the Intercept (leading to a series of stories that can be found here), was recently released from prison to a halfway house (New York Times, 6/14/21). New York (7/20/21) published a compelling profile of Daniel Hale, who was recently sentenced to several years in prison for leaking documents about U.S. drone killings, also to the Intercept. And we all know about Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
An attack on all journalists
Laura Poitras, co-founder of the Intercept and one of the principal journalists involved in the Snowden leaks, said in the New York Times (12/21/20) that the prosecution of Assange is an attack on all journalists, and that use of the Espionage Act, which forbids the leaking of classified materials, could be used against the journalists who receive that information. She said:
I have experienced the chilling effect of the Espionage Act. When I was in contact with Mr. Snowden, then an anonymous whistleblower, I spoke to one of the best First Amendment lawyers in the country. His response was unnerving. He read the Espionage Act out loud, and said it had never been used against a journalist, but there is always a first time. He added that I would be a good candidate, because I am a documentary filmmaker without the backing of a news organization.
As a British blogger, Murray is simply not protected by the First Amendment, and at first glance it would seem improbable that he would face this predicament if he was working in the United States. But given the aforementioned instances of the state going after leakers, the censorious trends in the Anglophone media are reasons for concern. U.S. media should pay more attention.