Alistair Fairweather
Alistair Fairweather

Glenn Greenwald vs Newsnight – when did the BBC become the lackeys of the security state?

Something deeply disturbing is going on in Britain, right under the nose of one of the oldest democracies in the world. Watch the video embedded below to see what I mean.

For those of you unable to see the video, it’s an interview of Glenn Greenwald by veteran BBC journalist, Kirsty Wark. Her first question – “Why should you be the arbiter about what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?” – sets the tone for the whole interview.

But what’s striking here is not the combative tone of the interview, although I find that extremely unprofessional of Wark, but the blatant lapses in quality journalism. Throughout the interview Wark simply parrots the government’s official position, and makes all kinds of vague and unsubstantiated statements.

Time after time she repeats serious accusations of which she has no proof other than what she has been told by the GCHQ. She claims that David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was “carrying around his password on a piece of paper” when he was (illegally) detained by British police at Heathrow airport in August. Greenwald has to remind her that government statements shouldn’t be simply accepted, and then goes on to disprove the claim with hard facts.

Wark feels quite comfortable speaking on behalf of her fellows Britons. She proposes that people might “actually feel quite safe” to know that “spies do spy”. Glenn counters with the fact that the NSA and GCHQ do not only spy on terrorist, but on ordinary people, companies and organisations including Petrobras and the Organisation of American States.

Later Wark quotes a mistranslation of an interview Greenwald gave with a Portuguese publication in which he appears to threaten the UK with revenge reporting. She asks if anything is “coming down the pipeline” since the interview was “several months ago”.

Greenwald has to explain to her first that the interview was only four weeks ago and second that a report on GCHQ spying on Petrobras had been published since then. He then goes on to rubbish her suggestions that he is seeking revenge, explaining what he actually said in the badly translated interview. And still, she will not quit, insisting that “you can see how people think that” (he is engaging in such revenge).

Wark also repeatedly interrupts Greenwald, haranguing him in the hopes of winning an argument for which she is ill equipped. The vagueness of her questions speak of an extremely shaky grasp of computer security, which perhaps explains some of her bluster.

She asks Greenwald if he has the documents “on a memory stick in your pocket” which is an idiotic question to anyone who has read anything about the Guardian’s technology protocols and expertise.

There’s a nasty, grimy undertone of homophobia to Wark’s questions about Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda. She sneers that Miranda is “your partner and, I suppose, collaborator” and later says that his illegal detention “must have been very distressing for you.” Given the tone of the interview that remark comes across as snide and disengenuous. She asks, at one point, “Is it (the unreleased information) in your bedroom in Rio?” to which Greenwald replies, “I’m not going to talk about what’s in my bedroom.”

Although angered by Wark’s bombast, Greenwald retains his composure and gives measured and reasonable replies with hardly an “um” or “ah”. He also retains his sense of humour qipping “not being able to visit the UK is not really something I regard as particularly great punishment”.

And if the first clip hasn’t convinced you of the bumbling incompetence of Newsnight’s producers and hosts, this one should do the job. Pay particular attention to the polite reverence shown towards Pauline Neville-Jones.

The most disturbing thing about this whole affair is that it is a product of the BBC, not a right-wing mouthpiece like Sky News or Fox News. What happened to the bastion of balanced and independent broadcasting? How could they allow such an ill informed apologist to attempt a character assassination on a fellow journalist without so much as blinking an eye?

It smacks of lickspittle journalism and government interference. As I’ve said before, I’m generally a national security hawk, but this kind of willful blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence is appalling. And if we can’t rely on the BBC to have some balance and common sense, Britain’s democracy is in more trouble than I had ever feared.

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