2013 11 09 NYT Why Do Brits Accept Surveillance? – NYTimes.com


Why Do Brits Accept Surveillance?

LONDON — Think of it as the ‘‘Skyfall’’ session. In a committee room of the House of Commons, the heads of the British secret services appeared on Thursday before a panel of M.P.’s in what might have been a re-enactment of that scene from the latest Bond movie — minus the shootout.

Even without gunfire, it was not short of drama. The mere sight of the heads of Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, along with the director of its listening post, G.C.H.Q., was spectacle enough. This was their first joint appearance in public, addressing a parliamentary intelligence and security committee whose hearings had, until now, always been held behind closed doors. (Indeed, little more than 20 years ago even the names of the intelligence chiefs were a state secret.)

That fact alone guaranteed coverage on the evening news. Which meant a rare focus on the topic that provided the session’s most electrifying moments: the Edward Snowden affair. Rare because the dominant British reaction to the revelations provided by Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, has been a shrug of indifference. The Guardian helped break the story — that the N.S.A. and G.C.H.Q. (Government Communications Headquarters) have engaged in mass surveillance of American and British citizens online — and has covered it intensely, but the rest of the British media have largely steered clear. In Parliament, a few maverick individuals have raised concerns about civil liberties and privacy. When others have mentioned the subject, it’s mostly been to accuse The Guardian of damaging national security, rather than to ask whether the intelligence agencies have gone too far.

What explains this reaction — so at odds with the response in the United States, where Congress is reviewing its oversight arrangements and where everyone from President Obama on down has acknowledged that a debate is necessary, if not overdue, and so at odds with, say, Germany, where memories of Stasi eavesdropping ensure revulsion at the notion of all-seeing surveillance? The answers say much about the current political landscape of Britain — and much of what lies beneath.

Start with the politics. One might expect the opposition Labour Party to have picked up the Snowden issue, eagerly casting the government as Big Brother. The trouble is, Labour was itself in government just over three years ago, doubtless allowing many of these same practices. It is in no position to throw stones now. Until 2010, the smaller Liberal Democrats could have been relied on to champion personal liberty. Untainted by power, and denied ministerial office for 65 years, they had never had to make the ‘‘tough decisions’’ so often cited in defense of the security services. Now, though, they are in coalition as the Conservatives’ junior partner. They can no longer complain about government intrusion: They are the government.

The media terrain has proved equally unpropitious for this story. The British press is known for its vicious rivalry: At least ten national daily newspapers, all headquartered in London, fighting over an ever-shrinking market. Few media outlets have run hard on the N.S.A. revelations, perhaps reluctant to give traction to a rival’s story. It’s worth admitting that The Guardian is resented by its rivals for exposing the phone hacking scandal that has resulted in the prospect of state-backed regulation of the newspaper industry. What used to be Fleet Street is in no mood to follow a lead set by the paper that’s caused them so much aggravation.

Which brings us to the intelligence agencies themselves. At a time when so many other British institutions — from Parliament to the police to the B.B.C. and the National Health Service — have seen their reputations tarnished by scandal, Britain’s intelligence establishment remains in good standing. A YouGov survey last month, long after the Snowden revelations, found that only 19 percent of Britons believed the security services had too much power; 64 percent reckoned they had the right amount or not enough.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian.