On the first day of this month (June 2016), The Guardian revealed a rift caused in the mid-2000s between MI5 and MI6, Britain's foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, by MI6's involvement in the rendition and torture of people suspected of Islamist terrorism. It was good journalism, but it still took ten years for the public to be told of this rift.
I have been an investigative journalist for over three decades. In that time, just about every case of illegality, immorality or incompetence demonstrated by an intelligence agency I can think of has been revealed by investigative journalists working with their inside sources.
The real story of the Cambridge Ring, Spycatcher, the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco, rendition, torture and ‘Undercover Cops’ are just some examples. Despite intelligence lobby claims, the people who have done the most harm to intelligence agencies have been their own defectors, not journalists. Intelligence officers like George Blake, Michael Bettaney, Geoffrey Prime and, in the US, Jonathan Pollard, who spied for money and the opposition, giving away sensitive secrets, as well as Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames. This applies to most western democracies.
All through my time as a journalist there has been a behind-the-scenes battle going on to close down journalists’ access to insider sourcesPaul Lashmar, University of Sussex
No one doubts that intelligence agencies do a difficult job often well. The staff today are very different from the right wing paranoiacs detailed in Spycatcher. But when people operate in secret, moral relativism can blossom, as with rendition and torture just a decade ago. All through my time as a journalist there has been a behind-the-scenes battle going on to close down journalists’ access to insider sources – people who are usually deeply concerned about what is going on under the cover of blanket secrecy. These are the people who allow journalists to do their aspirational fourth estate role of monitoring what intelligence does, in our name.
Until Edward Snowden’s documents began to be published in June 2013 – again by the Guardian – no one other than the intelligence agencies and a handful of cabinet ministers knew the sheer scale of personal information that was being collected by GCHQ as part of the National Security Agency’s ‘Five Eyes’ network.
The Snowden revelations – that our actions and movements are recorded digitally – raise serious questions over the ability of journalists to protect their sources whether in intelligence agencies, government or corrupt private companies.
Over the last months I interviewed over a dozen investigative journalists, at least two from each of the Five Eyes countries. All have extensive experience of national security reporting. In my paper 'No more sources' published last week in Journalism Practice, I quote their observations about the impact of Snowden revelations on their ability to do their job. All are profoundly concerned, and I concluded there is clear evidence of a paradigmatic shift in journalist-source relations as those interviewed regard Five Eyes mass surveillance as a most serious threat to the fourth estate model of journalism.
"You have to work on the assumption that if the authorities decide to take an interest in you, they will be able to discover nearly anything you are up to, who you are meeting, what research you are doing, who you are talking to and what your networks are," Christopher Hird, former managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, told me in an interview.
Back in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) is progressing through Parliament. This will give intelligence agencies unprecedented powers to collect metadata on all citizens including journalists, MPs, lawyers and even priests, all of whom have confidential relations with members of the public when going about their business.
UK Home Secretary Theresa May and the intelligence lobby have been pushing hard for the IPB to be passed into law without any consideration for those professions. Their position is that there is now a better system of accountability in place with, they claim, robust oversight organisations monitoring these intelligence agencies.
After three decades, I am profoundly sceptical of the official oversight mechanisms. I know of no oversight agency that has ever acted proactively over the excesses of intelligence agencies. Indeed, I am hard put to think of an example of any in all the Five Eyes countries.
There is no possibility that the move to bulk collection of data will be resisted despite the profound implications on the wider society as well as the fourth estatePaul Lashmar, University of Sussex
No oversight agency revealed the MI5-MI6 rift over rendition. The Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is the main intelligence oversight body, yet in its report from February 2013, immediately before Snowden, there was no mention of GCHQ exponential move to collect data in bulk.
It was Snowden’s leaks that revealed GCHQ has the potential for mass surveillance. Oversight bodies are reactive and, as the leading US intelligence academic Loch K Johnson observed, over time, they tend to go native with their charges.
Fortunately, Theresa May and the intelligence lobby are not having it all their way. Last week, the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, under its chairman Harriet Harman, put pressure on the Home Secretary to give some protection to journalists and other professions. Theresa May has to concede, not because she has changed her mind, but because the politics of the situation make it seem like she will not get the bill through Parliament without these changes.
In the 'politics of fear' era, with the war on terror in its fifteenth year, there is no possibility that the move to bulk collection of data will be resisted despite its profound implications on the wider society as well as the fourth estate.
At the very least, I would strongly argue, we need robust and independent oversight in place.
Dr Paul Lashmar is a journalist and senior lecturer at University of Sussex. His paper, 'No more sources? The impact of Snowden’s revelations on journalists and their confidential sources' was published online first on 24 May 2016.
Free daily newsletter
- What journalists can do to hold algorithms to account
- Tip: Bookmark these tools for collaborating on investigative projects
- BBC World Service and NRK are collaborating on an investigative podcast series
- Tip: Take note of this advice for collaborating on data journalism projects
- Tip: Bookmark these ways to be diverse and inclusive in your reporting