The detention took place under the UK’s Terrorism Act, which is badly written enough to provide cover for behavior that has naught to do with preventing acts of terror. In this case, the detention is a reaction to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA leaks, and any detention that treats journalism as a crime is wrong. This comes on the heels of Whitehall threatening the Guardian, and sending GCHQ representatives to the Guardian newsroom to oversee the destruction of some hard drives. That too is wrong.
None of what follows is a defense of the UK’s thuggish behavior.
But there is something disturbing about the way the Guardian has presented its relationship with Miranda.
Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist spearheading the NSA reporting, and they live in Rio. Miranda was passing through Heathrow on his way back to Rio from Berlin, where he had been staying with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been collaborating with Greenwald on the reporting.
When the story first broke, it appeared that Miranda had been traveling in a personal capacity. We now know that Miranda was traveling on a trip funded by the Guardian and was carrying some flash drives pertaining to the reporting. We also know, from a previous account of the dealings with Snowden, that Greenwald has been sharing details of his work with Miranda for some time. And we learn from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that Miranda often helps Greenwald with his work.
The Guardian initially concealed these details. The New York Times broke the news about the flash drives and the plane ticket, at which point the Guardian updated its own story to include this information. But even then, Greenwald told the New York Times that Miranda, “is not even a journalist,” a claim repeated by Alan Rusbridger.
But David Miranda is a journalist, because he is committing acts of journalism while he is in the Guardian’s employ. His role as described above is similar to the temporary staffers western news organizations routinely hire in developing countries. Local journalists who do the background reporting for pieces with American or British bylines. Fixers who make calls and arrange meetings with difficult sources. Drivers and receptionists who make and take deliveries that contain sensitive material.
It is an ongoing struggle inside news organizations to argue that so long as these people are involved in the production of news, they are in danger of persecution by governments in countries where there is no press freedom, and that they deserve the same protections that major international news organizations afford to their full-time staffers. When Rusbridger enumerates a set of duties any fixer would recognize, and then says, “he’s not a journalist,” he is hurting the cause of people who work in far more dangerous places than London, New York or Rio.
Moreover, if those debating the incident decide it doesn’t matter whether Miranda is a journalist, they endanger thousands around the world who have the (mis)fortune to be related to reporters. Many governments would love to round up the families and friends of journalists and interrogate them about their loved ones. Many reporters live in fear that this will happen. They guard against it by keeping their work secret from family and friends and making sure the authorities never think otherwise.
The UK’s actions have set a terrifying example for other governments that family members are fair game, but if those challenging Britain’s actions are not absolutely clear that Miranda is a journalist, not just a journalist’s partner, it will make that example worse.
I understand that for the purposes of evaluating whether the UK acted wrongly Miranda’s role is not the key fact. Either way, the detention was an attempt to suppress the story, and either way, detentions of anyone for a non-terror issue under a terrorism law are wrong.
Yet events do not take place in a vacuum, and while British and American journalists may be evaluating this incident with respect to press freedom in our countries, others around the world will be applying its lessons in their own political context.
Journalism is beset from all sides. Journalists in the places where, relatively speaking, things are not as bad as they could be need to make choices and use language sensitive to the interests of our colleagues in far more precarious positions. David Miranda is a journalist, as are many others, and we should protect them all.