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Stop Press: Editor Has Friendly Chat with Civil Servant

by John O'Sullivan

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has edited his recent terrifying intimidation at the hands of “Sir Jeremy” Heywood of Whitehall and Britain’s feared “wireless mob” from GCHQ since I wrote about it here two days ago. For some reason the original version portrayed this encounter as the early scene from a Bond movie in which Bond and the villain are still openly on civil terms.

“You’ve had your fun,” said Sir Jeremy cordially, but there was a hint of steel in his voice when he went on to demand the return of the missing papers.

Rusbridger squirmed uneasily in his expensive brogues: “And if I refuse?”

“Then we’ll take you to court,” Sir Jeremy said in a tone that froze Rusbridger’s hopes. “I’m afraid the Prime Minister will insist on nothing less.”

Rusbridger paled beneath his Fleet Street pallor and his spectacles shook violently. He could picture the scene: the Old Bailey dock, the grim faces of the jurymen, the sobbing girlfriend, the Lord Chief Justice placing the black cap over his wig, the solemn verdict: It is the sentence of this court that you be taken from here to a place of . . .

“Isn’t there some other way?” he asked, striving to keep his voice from breaking. 

Grim stuff. Rusbridger said at the time that it represented a “real and growing threat to journalism.” Others were sterner. One blogger said that the British government had shown in this episode that it represented pure evil. Well, that’ll be the day. And, indeed, Rusbridger himself now evidently feels that he over-egged the cabinet pudding. His later account of the episode and what followed puts one in mind of a very different author. Let us take up from where we left off.

“I say, old bean, isn’t there some other way? Never a good idea to go to court,” said Rusbridger cheerfully. “What with all those Q.C.s eating fivers for breakfast, it can be dashed expensive. Besides, one never knows what a court might decide.”

“It might order you not to publish the secrets,” said Sir Jeremy, laughing heartily.

“We wouldn’t want that,” said Rusbridger. “On the other hand we wouldn’t want just to hand it over. It would look . . . “

“Feeble?” suggested Sir Jeremy. “Cowardly? Not exactly Pulitzer-prize-winning stuff? Beneath the first amendment? That kind of thing?”

“Er, yes, something like that,” said Rusbridger. And I certainly wouldn’t want that?”

“No, indeed,” said Sir Jeremy, now thoroughly gruntled. “Here’s what I suggest: you keep the mcguffin, we send around some spooks from deepest Surrey, good chaps but they knock it about a bit with axes and things, and your man in Valparaiso spills the beans worldwide but outside the ambit of Sir Roderick Spode in the customs shed. Honor satisfied all round, wouldn’t you say?”

“Absolutely, tickety-boo, old sport.” said Rusbridger, relieved.

“Not to mention oojah-cum-spiff,” replied Sir Jeremy jovially. “And certainly worth a double snifter at the Drones’ bar.” And he exited whistling a happy tune while Rusbridger experienced the roughly the same sensations as the man who lost his sea-sickness pills and canceled his ticket on the Titanic.

If you think my account of this re-editing is exaggerated, here’s Rusbridger on the BBC yesterday: ”Given that there were other copies and we could work out of America, which has better laws to protect journalists, I saw no reason not to destroy this material ourselves rather than hand it back to the government. . . . It seemed to me fruitless to go through that exercise of fighting that case, which would have meant that we could not write about the Snowden material when there were other copies. So it’s simply a matter of transferring our reporting to America.”

A ruthless attack on press freedom by a brutal government has within 24 hours become a civil chat between two mandarins in slightly different branches of the political class. My guess is that this change of tone became necessary because, as I predicted in my earlier piece, the sinister version of the story was not supported by the facts; these were gradually coming out; and as they did, they would change popular opinions about the episode. Rusbridger realized this and acted quickly to reshape the story into a less sensational one.

Why, however, did he stress the sinister side earlier? My guess here – and it is simply a guess — is that Rusbridger had been feeling nervous about his discussions with Sir Jeremy Heywood which took place two months ago. He doesn’t emerge from them as a defiant defender of the Fourth Estate and that was bound to come out. What would his excuse be?

Then along came the Miranda story. It gave him the perfect narrative of heavy-handed government into which he could neatly insert his own graphic but misleading picture of spooks wielding hammers in the Guardian basement. All he had to do was to add a line about a real and growing threat to journalism — and he was away to the races.

And none dare call it cover-up.


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