In March 1984, Foreign Office clerk Sarah Tisdall was sentenced to six months in prison for breaching national security laws after revealing to the press that American cruise missiles would be based in the UK.
Clive Ponting was a senior Ministry of Defence civil servant who in 1985, was prosecuted, too, under secrecy laws after disclosing that the government was misleading Parliament over the sinking of an Argentine ship during the Falklands War.
Acquitted by jurors, Ponting’s case changed the game for UK whistleblowers. The Official Secrets Act 1989 (OSA) was introduced, amending existing 1911 legislation to remove the public interest defence which allowed whistleblowers to defend themselves with the public’s right to know.
Today, there have been a number of high-profile OSA breaches, though prosecution is at the discretion of the Attorney General. Notably, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) translator Katharine Gun, who revealed the US asked GCHQ to bug phones of diplomats from suggestible UN countries in the run-up to a vote on the Iraq war.
Speaking to Screen Shot, the Green party recognised a need to “sometimes breach undertakings” to expose wrongdoing. A spokesperson said, “Over the years, whistleblowers have saved money, reputations—and lives. The power of truth, spoken for the public good, can never be underestimated.”
That’s why, in its manifesto ahead of the December 12 elections, the Green party had pledged to introduce a public interest defence for OSA breaches.
For current and former employees within security and intelligence services, any unauthorised disclosure is a criminal offence under OSA—no matter the circumstance. As a result, employees are faced with a dilemma: break the law or watch the law be broken.
This inability to justify action is not unique to the UK; Edward Snowden claims he would return to the US if there were a public interest defence. The call for a ‘proper’ public interest defence has been made consistently since it was removed.
“Re-instituting it would obviously be a positive move,” said Naomi Colvin, UK Program Director at Blueprint for Free Speech. “The number of adverse Investigatory Powers Tribunal rulings against GCHQ in the wake of Snowden’s revelations suggest external disclosure by whistleblowers to media or politicians is still absolutely vital for holding agencies to account. I suspect this is well understood by the public at large.”
NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, the first since Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers to be charged under America’s Espionage Act, believes the use of the “draconian” OSA “reveals tension between openness and transparency versus secrecy and a closed-door government, too often hiding from accountability under the veil of national security.”
Speaking to Screen Shot, Drake highlighted the lack of coherence between what citizens should know and what the government wants them to know, referring to UK whistleblowing laws as “a mixed bag and a conflicted patchwork with huge carve-outs for national security,” that “don’t adequately protect a whistleblower from reprisal, retaliation or retribution.”
He added, “If it is left up to the government to determine what are state secrets, the government is perversely incentivised to declare any disclosures it does not like as state secrets. In the absence of meaningful oversight over secrecy, how do the public trust Government to operate and function in the public interest? Once the pillars of democracy are eroded away, it is quite difficult to restore them.”
The ongoing Ukraine whistleblowing case in the US has been agenda-setting for the Green party, which, a spokesperson told Screen Shot, “highlights the duty of individuals to blow the whistle in the public interest, and the duty of the state to protect them.”
As it stands, any person willing to blow the whistle from within the security and intelligence services does so at great risk—professional suicide, an unlimited fine, a prison sentence of up to two years and 14 for crimes relating to spying and sabotage.
While the Greens are alone in making it the defence a manifesto promised, during the general election a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats also told Screen Shot, “Those calling out misconduct are vital to tackling misbehaviour across all organisations in our society. These people are doing their jobs. It is paramount those who call time on bad and sometimes illegal behaviour should be given strong legal protection. We must redress the balance of power between employee and employer on this issue.”
When clarifying whether the party believes in a public interest defence specifically for OSA breaches, they said, “In principle, we support a public interest defence for exceptional cases where breaking the law is necessary to expose corruption and criminality.”
However, as minority parties, it was unlikely that the Greens or Lib Dems would be elected with a majority. But the Green’s manifesto should start a wider conversation. Dr Ceri Hughes, a visiting lecturer in communications at Brunel and Middlesex universities, said, “This is an excellent example of thinking from minor parties which can serve to widen or initiate a debate on an issue. Labour and the Conservatives would not have a vested interest in pushing for this sort of scrutiny. Such legislation may negatively impact them in the future.”
Even without the Greens, refreshed laws are to be expected. Brexit will change things, but will national security whistleblowing be one of them? Who knows, only the Conservatives can answer this question. The ball is in your court, BoJo.
A media sensation erupted earlier this week when Vermont Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders and rapper Cardi B teamed up for a political partnership aimed at encouraging young people to get involved in politics.
The two met up at a nail salon in Detroit to shoot a video in which they discuss their mutual concerns about the country and hash out possible solutions. While the video itself has yet to air, a post by Cardi B with a picture from the shoot featured a caption stating, “Stay tuned to see how he will fight for economic, racial, and social justice for all. Together, let’s build a movement of young people to transform this country”.
In a separate post, Cardi B called on bloggers, YouTubers, and social media influencers to use their platforms in order to get their followers involved in the 2020 election campaign. “We get distracted with people putting Trump on blast, like CNN constantly putting Trump on blast for the evil shit he has been committing in this country, because he puts things on Twitter that distract us from all the bullshit that he actually be doing”, the rapper wrote on her Instagram, “So instead of us posting the little bullshit that he be posting on Twitter, why don’t we post every single day the positive things that these Democratic candidates want to do for our country?”. Referring to Sanders, Cardi B added, “This man has a big chance of winning in 2020, and we can change that”.
Sanders has repeatedly welcomed Cardi B’s endorsement, which dates back to 2018 (when the singer called on her fans to vote for ‘Daddy Bernie’). The presidential hopeful commended Cardi B for her enthusiasm regarding getting the youth engaged in the political sphere, and in an interview for CNN stated that, “The future of America depends on young people…They are voting in large numbers, but not large enough numbers”.
Cardi B’s desire to get young people interested in politics and assume an active role in shaping America’s future is certainly positive. That said, the manner in which she proposes to go comes with its own issues. There are numerous examples of how social media platforms and celebrity power have been effectively harnessed to call attention to social, political, environmental, and human rights issues. Just last month, Sudanese-American Shahd Khidir used her Instagram profile to shine a spotlight on the dreadful massacre which took place in Sudan’s capital. But to suggest that, as a general rule, pop culture figures and social media personas are naturally endowed with the ability to determine ‘what is right’ and become social leaders simply because they are popular is absurd.
There is no one ‘right’ way to go about addressing socio-political disparities and injustices. Instead of feeding their followers with a particular answer, popular figures ought to raise issues, engage their audience in a real conversation, and encourage them to think critically about what they believe would be the best course of action—based on their unique views and circumstances.
By adhering to a particular candidate and calling on your audience to throw their support behind them, you inevitably foster a herd mentality. Progress on such complex and serious issues doesn’t emanate from forcing ideas down people’s throats, but rather by acquainting them with the situation and inspiring them to find their own voice. Chance The Rapper’s 2016 march to the polls, #ParadeToThePolls, was a blueprint for how celebrities can use their influence and reach to inspire political engagement without dictating who we should all be supporting per se.
Cardi B is right in her criticism of media outlets for emboldening Trump by keeping him in the limelight, and for refusing to place more focus on positive acts committed by other politicians and community leaders. She’s also justified in her call for harnessing the youth to get involved in what’s happening in the country and end their overall apathy to social issues. But is turning celebs and brand stewards into spokespersons of one presidential candidate a positive step to follow?
Equating celebrity and popularity with moral authority is a slippery slope. We must be cautious in how we merge popular culture with politics and use it as a force to drive social change. Because when we don’t we run the risk of blurring the lines between activism and self-promotion, not to mention ending up with reality TV stars in the White House.