In Britain the question of whether the barrage of banner headlines about the Snowden leaks deserves the highest journalistic honours has already been decided – but only, on the evidence, with deepest ambivalence.
No, we do not know any of the judges behind the 2013 Paul Foot Award ‘for campaigning and investigative journalism,’ established in memory of a legendary Private Eye investigative reporter who died in 2004. When we thought to look up its winner, after last week’s post about the argument over a possible Pulitzer for the Snowden story, we made the brow-raising discovery that although the Paul Foot prize was awarded last month to David Cohen of The Evening Standard for a series about London’s criminals, a ‘special investigation award’ went to The Guardian’s Snowdenia saga.
How in Hades could that have happened? Private Eye has had strikingly little – mostly, nothing — to contribute in any form of commentary (not even as cover cartoons or inside drawings) to the Snowden brouhaha. And yet anyone can see that the saga has an infinitude of giggly possibilities. The prize-givers made the predictable nod, in their citation, to ‘one of the biggest stories of the decade.’ But it seemed bizarre that as a compromise between handing The Guardian’s surveillance-consciousness-raising team the £5,000 main prize and the £1,000 that four shortlisted finalists took home, a £2,000 consolation prize had to be specially invented to placate … someone or other.
We took the logical next step, which was to look into the source of the prize money. Ah. The Paul Foot Award is co-sponsored by the Eye and … none other than The Guardian. … Just fancy that. … For anyone as mesmerised as we have been by the hopelessly confused allegations of ‘Orwellian mass surveillance’ – a misplaced cliché that seems mercifully to have been put to bed, in most coverage – the recording of Ian Hislop, the Eye’s editor, summing up l’affaire Snowden on Have I Got News for You, is a must-see. His body language telegraphed irrepressible glee, last October, as he delivered an explanation that seemed to account for his magazine’s lack of interest in the story:
The new head of MI5 has said that The Guardian has acted really irresponsibly in pointing out that we’re spying on people. It’s pointed out that we’re all being spied on all the time. [ … ] It’s a matter of consent, really. You can debate this and say, ‘Yes, I’d like to be spied on.’ I know I would. Anyone showing any interest in my life would be terrific. [Howls from live audience.] I’d be very, very, happy with that. But it’s a matter for public debate. And if we want to pass laws saying we can spy on people, we can. […] It’s just what The Guardian did was point out this is happening and nobody knows it.
Nobody would have needed telling if, as this blog has pointed out with tedious frequency, papers like The Guardian and The New York Times had only been listening to their own technology correspondents – instead of treating them as back-room bores. The public would have been educated about the all-pervasive ‘surveillance business model’ keeping track of everything we do on the internet, all the better to manipulate us for profit.
We complained earlier this month about the failure of the journals of record for the Snowden fount of classified information to acknowledge that it was corporate spying – as by internet giants of the likes of Google and Microsoft and most newspapers – that led to copycat government spying in the UK and US. The lead story in the business section of last Thursday’s New York Times by Nick Wingfield and Nick Bilton on the paper’s technology reporting team was titled, ‘Microsoft Software Leak Inquiry Raises Privacy Issues’. Its opening paragraphs said:
Technology companies have spent months denying they know anything about broad government spying on people who use their Internet services.
But a legal case filed this week against a former Microsoft employee shows the power these companies themselves have to snoop on their customers whenever they want to.
That is still a long way short of shouting about the government’s adoption of people-tracking tools routinely used by businesses, but it reveals Microsoft’s and other technology companies’ protests against NSA monitoring as resoundingly hollow.
Shortly before that, on 17 March, came a virtual admission of reader surveillance by Emily Bell, one of twelve non-executive directors of Scott Trust Limited, which owns The Guardian, and a former director of digital content for that newspaper who is now a senior academic in New York. We suggest reading past her obligatory parenthetical softening of what she had to say last Tuesday:
Using NSA-style techniques (although naturally much more benignly), the Guardian or any other publisher can track every movement you make on an online piece, where you come from, where you go to, whether you are actively reading or whether you have tuned out.
We do not think it mad to insist that it is time for both our corporate and government spies to admit that they are all equally guilty and proceed to the public debate about solutions — just as Ian Hislop said.
LOOKALIKE ( with thanks to Private Eye for vision-sharpening )