Codes and tropes of silence

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Outside the headquarters of 'Daily Mail' in London, a protest against recent articles regarding the father of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP

Edward Snowden, the former NSA systems analyst, in a file image made from video released by WikiLeaks on October 11. Photo: AP

IT may be that, to borrow the words of Thomas Paine in Common Sense, “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right”. Or, it may be a considered but unstated decision, in which most news media are complicit. There is a sense of the fourth estate fraternity being bonded as thick as thieves and bound by a code of omerta about one another’s failings, particularly in India. It may appear to be a matter of professional propriety or social grace for one newspaper or television channel not to comment adversely on the performance of another. But for a calling whose lodestar is the public interest and where even not so legit means like the hidden recorder or camera or other intrusive methods of “sting” journalism are absolved or pass muster in the name of the larger public good, this pretence of not noticing the sins of omission and commission in its own ranks smacks of hypocrisy. This is a type of self-regulation the news media can do without, because it is self-serving and goes against their vaunted cause of ensuring transparency and informing and empowering society. It is not the making of a common cause; it is the masking of a common minimum programme whose sole purpose seems to be to protect themselves against, to get away with, their own ineptitude. In fact, often commercial advertisements in the same media come across as more honest, as when one toothpaste or detergent brand debunks competing brands by portraying them as etiolated, drab and ineffective, and sets itself up as a class apart with a unique selling proposition. There is a forthrightness about that fiction, about that sales pitch.

Television news channels, on the other hand, routinely make a joke of the idea of “Live and Exclusive” in their mutual one-upmanship. Surfing channels, you find the same bit of news or the same person speaking at the same time on more than one of them, sometimes on every one of them, with the legend “Live” or “Exclusive” boldly supered on the screen. Any child can, of course, see that what appears simultaneously on different channels can be neither “live” nor “exclusive” to any one of them.

The pack mentality of the media watchdogs, then, makes for a double whammy. It holds no one in the pack to account for excesses or lapses; when the media won’t talk about their own faults, who or what else will, and how else will they be addressed? And, it drives them to make wrong or tall claims of exclusivity and instantaneity, as each channel seeks to pip the other in the ratings game. The net result is that you begin to take the credibility of such media with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, it behoves a self-confident and conscientious news media to lay themselves open to criticism just as much as, and in the same spirit as, they criticise all and sundry around them. A regular print column or TV slot dedicated to such intra-media appraisal and self-audit to monitor how the media are acquitting themselves at the bar of public accountability would, surely, be part of best practices in the profession.

There is, of course, the risk that envy and meanness and narrow business rivalry or misplaced notions about the role of the media in a democracy, rather than any sense of a larger moral or professional obligation to the public, may prompt such media-watch activism by the media themselves. But even when it is pernicious the result could be salutary, as the recent high-visibility spat between The Guardian and Daily Mail in the United Kingdom illustrates.


It began with a rather gratuitous, if predictably right-wing, attack in Daily Mail of the Labour leaders David and Ed Miliband’s father and well-known Marxist, Ralph Miliband, in an article headlined “The Man who hated Britain”.

In the seething aftermath of its publication, when Daily Mail found itself under fire from various quarters, including The Guardian and, in what seemed to irk it more, the BBC, the paper opened a new front against The Guardian with an editorial comment titled (much like that on the hatchet job on Ralph Milband) “The paper that helps Britain’s enemies”. The Mail seized on a comment by the new chief of MI5, the British spy agency, that publication by The Guardian of the Edward Snowden disclosures on indiscriminate and mass spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States and its counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in the U.K. was like gifting terrorists the means “to evade us and strike us at will”.

The editorial “argued that a line needs to be drawn between the civil liberties we treasure and the interests of national security” and held that “ The Guardian, with lethal irresponsibility, had crossed that line”. It sounded incredulous that The Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger, could, despite the MI5 chief’s warning, insist that he would continue to release the Snowden material and that he would make sure that nothing that imperilled lives would be published. “But how in the name of sanity,” it expostulated, “can he know. He is a journalist, not an expert on security.”

It went on to contrast The Guardian with even Ralph Miliband who, although “he hated so much about this country that he wanted a workers’ revolution to overturn everything from the monarchy to Parliament, property rights and the common law”, “never once” gave “practical help to our enemies”; and, delivering the final punch, asked, “Isn’t that a great deal more than can be said for The Guardian?”


The Guardian struck back, calling the Mail editorial “a statement of anti-journalism: editors, it says, cannot be trusted. They must defer to the State”; and referred it to some 32 top-notch editors in the world for their opinion of it. Their responses, read together, could well be a manifesto for journalism in our troubled times. They eloquently weigh in for the rights of the free press over the fears about national security; in fact, forcefully argue that the less free the media, the less secure that state. These are views and voices wrought by conviction and experience and constitute a bold guideline for the journalist at the receiving end of the machinations and obfuscations of the state. “A public debate”, says Jill Abramson, the Executive Editor of The New York Times, in her response, “about the proper perimeters for eavesdropping by intelligence agencies is healthy for the public and necessary.”

Its former Executive Editor, Max Frankel, is even more explicit and scholarly: “There is a superficial appeal in the argument that intelligence ‘professionals’ know better than editors what information must be suppressed, even if it has already escaped their control. Particularly at this time of terror, much of the public is impressed by that argument and so are American attorneys and judges, causing David Rudenstine of Cardozo Law School to name this the ‘age of deference’…. Arrogant though it sounds, the fact is that experienced editors and correspondents who deal daily in the subject matter of ‘national security’ know better than most judges and prosecutors whether a given piece of information could seriously threaten lives or damage national defence.”

The Editor-in-Chief of Der Spiegel, Wolfgang Buechner, notes that “it is a classic approach for governments to attack media that have the courage to publish such stories with arguments that they threaten national security or that they are supporting an enemy of the state”. He goes on to point out that “exposing the intensity with which intelligence agencies conduct surveillance on the Internet does not provide proof that such reporting in any way assists terrorists”.

The Editorial Director of Le Monde, Sylvie Kauffmann, sees it in terms of each to its own with a linking role for the media: “The heads of intelligence services are entitled to voice their concern at the extent of the leaks, as ordinary citizens are entitled to ask what use is made, by whom and to what purpose, of private data collected from their daily life activities. Editors of media organizations are central to this debate.”

The Director of the Spanish paper El Pais, Javier Moreno, finds it “sad, baffling and dangerous… that attacks now come not only from governments but from other newspapers too”. “Newspapers”, he observes, “have many duties. Having to protect governments and the powerful from embarrassing situations is not among them.”

The Publisher of the German daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, sees the Snowden phenomenon as a “milestone” marking the “transition to a post-industrial society” that the German intellectual Hans-Magnus Enzenberger spoke about. The Snowden “revelations are not only about secret services, but just as much about all the new social touchpoints of every citizen who is equipped with a smartphone and online access”. The Editor-in-Chief of the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, puts it in historical context: “From the Washington Post with the Watergate case to The New York Times with the Pentagon Papers, the history of journalism is full of revelations that, according to the people in power, should have been kept secret, but later it has become clear that to publish them was a service to democracy, not a ‘lethally irresponsible’ act.”

The Executive Editor of the Washington Post, Martin Baron, reminds us that “a highly intrusive surveillance apparatus has been built without public knowledge and debate” and that “there would have been no public debate had there been no disclosure”. The Editor-in-Chief of Norway’s largest circulating daily, Aftenposten, Hilde Haugsgjerd, states pithily, “Truths are at times inconvenient, but inconvenient truths are at times of the highest importance.”

The Editor-in-Chief of the Swedish Dagens Nyheter, Peter Wolodarski, declares that “the attacks against The Guardian by both the government and the representatives of the British press are unacceptable”, while the former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N. Ram, rubbishes as “the worst kind of intellectual philistinism” the notion that “editors of newspapers, not being experts on security matters, are unfit to make decisions on publishing confidential material and must leave the whole field of surveillance and security to the state to handle as it thinks fit, under an impenetrable veil of secrecy”.

The Director of Fairfax Media, Garry Linnell, is biting in his sarcasm: “Hell, let’s not ask questions at all. Let’s not scrutinise those with the power and ability to carry out widespread surveillance on their own citizens. Let’s keep the public in the dark, rather than serving their right to know. And when the state acts unlawfully, let us look the other way. Then we will truly have the society our enemies wish upon us.”

Editor after editor strikes, in this vein, a defiant tone against the aggrandising role of the state in using the alibi of public safety and national security to justify secretive mass surveillance, and against the state’s attempt to keep journalism’s reach short of investigating the breaches it has made into the individual’s right of privacy.

Interestingly, that right, codified by Justices Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890 as the “right to be left alone”, was initially meant against the intrusions of what they called “too enterprising press, the photographer, or the possessor of any other modern device for recording or reproducing scenes or sounds”. The same press is now fighting for the people’s right to be left alone by the state. Or, rather, the press is, for good part, buttressing and carrying forward the act of defiance of the whistle-blower.

The whistle-blower as the supra journalist is really personified in Snowden. His understanding of, and commitment to, the core democratic values of individual freedom and privacy are not a whit less than that of the high priests of the news media. Nor is his articulation of his faith in these values any less eloquent. Sample this from Snowden in his latest interview, in Moscow, with The New York Times: “So long as there’s broad support amongst a people it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive or morally wrong programme, as it was an informed and willing decision. However programmes that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalisation of ‘governing in the dark’, where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

The operative phrase here, “governing in the dark”, harks back to the 18th century Benthamite concept of the Panopticism which Michel Foucault analyses at length in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” proposes an architecture of perfect surveillance with a circular construction of rooms facing a central tower from which all inmates would be observable day in and out. It was a construct, as Foucault interprets it, for a disciplined society in which power would be “visible and unverifiable”: “Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”

“In order to be exercised,” Foucault elaborates, “this power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible. It had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere, mobile attentions ever on the alert…. And this unceasing observation had to be accumulated in a series of reports and registers… a permanent account of individuals’ behaviour.”

This could as well be an account of the contemporary surveillance state. Except that the Benthamite model had a redeeming feature of accountability. For, anyone could come to the “central tower” and “see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function…. There is no risk, therefore, that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible ‘to the great tribunal committee of the world’…. This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that any observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.” It is such public oversight that the current system of “governing in the dark” dispenses with and the dark side of the state resists by trying to keep the entire process of the blanket surveillance under wraps and beyond the reach of an enquiring media.