The internet offers many definitions of McCarthyism, named after US Senator Joe McCarthy, who launched a campaign of persecution against alleged communists and traitors between 1950 and 1954, during the Cold War. Let us drop the part about the communists and focus on the traitors instead. Now, consider what is happening to British daily The Guardian for exposing the mass citizen surveillance conducted by US and UK intelligence agencies, and for publishing a portion of the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines McCarthyism as “the practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence” or as “the use of unfair investigatory or accusatory methods in order to suppress opposition.” Either definition could apply to The Guardian, now the victim of a campaign launched by the secret services and encouraged by media industry rivals, as well as by UK Prime Minister David Cameron with the inestimable help of the Conservative Party and the odd Labour member.
This campaign reached its climax — for now at least — last Tuesday, when newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons to answer questions about the leak. In a key moment, committee chair Keith Vaz, a seasoned politician who has been a Labour MP for over a quarter century, adopted an innocent gaze and, in the softest of voices, asked Rusbridger: “Some of the criticisms against you and The Guardian have been very, very personal. You and I were both born outside this country, but I love this country. Do you love this country?”
We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who love this country"
Is there anything more McCarthyesque than insinuating that someone who commits a politically significant act is not a patriot? Faced with such an unexpected question, the newspaper editor was at a loss for words for a few seconds.
“We live in a democracy and most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things,” he eventually replied.
Alan Rusbridger also underscored the difference between the attacks on his newspaper and the assertions by the US attorney general that American journalists working on the story will not be prosecuted. Washington makes a clear distinction, he said, between what Snowden did and what a journalist does with Snowden’s material.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has gone down the way of Tony Blair. Just as Blair’s moderation dissolved when it came to the invasion of Iraq, Cameron’s has been wearing thin for the last year, with increasingly radical and reactionary attitudes toward Europe, immigration and personal liberties. Harassment of The Guardian has been two-pronged. First there was private pressure; then there was public pressure after the private attempts failed to produce the desired effect.
During his appearance, Rusbridger dropped numerous hints about the nature of this private pressure, which he said would be unthinkable in other countries. There was a high-ranking Whitehall official who came to tell him that “There’s been enough debate for now” and there were deputies who called the police to have the editor prosecuted, for instance. “I have the feeling that the purpose of all those activities was to intimidate The Guardian,” he said.
There were repeated accusations of negligence throughout the appearance, and references to the fact that the British daily had sent some material to The New York Times. The most aggressive interrogator of all, Tory member Michael Ellis, claimed that sending documents to the US with the names of British secret agents had violated terrorism legislation. Ellis’s attacks reached bizarre heights when he accused Rusbridger of outing a group of gay members at British signals intelligence station GCHQ. “You’ve completely lost me, Mr Ellis. There are gay members of GCHQ, is that a surprise?” inquired the editor.
Ellis claimed that sending documents to the US with the names of British secret agents had violated terrorism laws
Ellis was also angry about The Guardian revealing that GCHQ members and their families went to Disneyland Paris. At one point he asked: “If you had known about the Enigma code would you have transmitted that to the Nazis?” — a serious accusation of treason in which Ellis additionally makes the mistake of thinking that Enigma was a British encryption system. All the British did was decipher German messages; the Nazis already had the code because they, in fact, invented it.
Another Conservative, Mark Reckless, accused the editor of breaking the law by sending material to The New York Times via FedEx.
The appearance before the House Affairs Select Committee was the culminating moment in a public intimidation campaign that began in August, with the nine-hour detention at Heathrow of David Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, and who was used by Snowden as an intermediary to get his documents to The Guardian.
But that was just a warning. The real pressure began on October 8, when MI5 chief Andrew Parker said in a press conference that the revelations had been “a gift to the terrorists” and had hurt the nation enormously. Some media outlets devoted more space to those statements than to the revelations themselves. Cameron added two days later that The Guardian should reflect on its responsibilities and consider whether it was helping to keep the country safe. Rusbridger responded with an announcement of new revelations.
This new brand of McCarthyism seeks to prevent a debate on the permissible limits and dimensions of the secret services in Western democracies at a time when terrorism and the communication revolution have made previous models obsolete. And the enemies of the debate are doing what they always do: try to kill the messenger.