Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Miranda's rights are our rights

‘Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’

Great words of Benjamin Franklin’s.

That’s not to say that safety’s not important. It decidedly is: if you’re not safe, you’re unable to enjoy any other freedom. 

On 7 July 2005, 52 innocent civilians were murdered in the streets of London by people claiming to speak for Islam (and who ignored the fact that several of their victims were Muslim). That’s not the kind of thing I want to see repeated, and it’s been impressive that it hasn’t happened since. I have little doubt that much of the success in preventing a repetition of ‘7/7’ has been excellent intelligence gathering and I’m deeply grateful to the security services for getting that right.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy for those shady, powerful figures Le Carré christened ‘espiocrats’, to run amok over our hard-won rights. And when David Miranda was detained for nine hours at Heathrow airport on Sunday under anti-terrorism legislation, with no suggestion he had been even remotely involved in terrorism, it struck me that espiocracy was reaching a great deal too far.

It struck me, indeed, that the security establishment was asking us to give up an essential liberty, too expensive a cost for a little temporary safety.

Because of course Miranda’s detention had nothing to do with terrorism. He’s the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who’s been working with Edward Snowden on his revelations of highly disturbing behaviour by the security services in the UK and US. Miranda was known to be carrying files between Greenwald and a film-maker in Berlin; it’s hard not to wonder whether the detention, followed by the confiscation of Miranda’s electronic equipment, was all to do with preventing further embarrassment to the two governments, and nothing to do with countering terrorism.

Greenwald (left) meets Miranda
on his return from detention in London
That makes the action against him merely a further demonstration, on top of the Snowden revelations, of how far out of hand the security services have gone. It was sad to hear the British Home Secretary today defending the actions of the police, showing where the Conservative Party stands on individual freedom. This is not, however, a partisan point: the legislation on which Miranda was held was passed under the previous, Labour government.

It seems that on either side of politics, power is far too easy with abusive authority.

There was another revelation of abuse today. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian told the BBC that the security forces obliged him some time ago to destroy hard disks on which Snowden files had been held. If the action against Miranda sounds like the behaviour of a tinpot dictatorship, the action against the newspaper sounds like that of a banana republic: it’s as ludicrously funny as it is grotesque. Copies of all the files destroyed had already been sent to other jurisdictions. Rusbridger will keep publishing from them, but in the US where the Constitution prevents the kind of action taken against him over here.

It comes as something of a relief that the land of Franklin still has legal frameworks in place that go some way towards protecting the freedoms he cherished so deeply. Only some way, though: the US espiocracy has its tentacles at least as widely spread and noxiously active as in the UK. The campaign by Greenwald and The Guardian is as vital on the other side of the Atlantic as on this.

It’s curious that Miranda rights in the US are those that protect an individual against the kind of highhanded action taken against Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow. Now we need to speak out for the rights of Miranda in Britain. Because they are, after all, our birthright.

And, though safety is vital, our birthright is far too high a price to pay for it.

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