The Guardian’s move to defend its publication of the NSA revelations shows how polarised the British press is over the ground rules of investigative journalism, and the larger issue of regulation

Last week The Guardian took the unusual step of publishing the statements of a cast of international editors (including from the present Editor of The Hindu, and from its former Editor-in-Chief) supporting its editorial decision to run a series of investigative reports that have served to throw a shining light on the dark and hidden recesses of state power.

The publication — regarded as being in the vanguard of adversarial investigative journalism in the United Kingdom — started running the series from June this year. Based on information provided by the former NSA employee and whistle blower Edward Snowden, the stories uncover the vast surveillance capabilities of the GCHQ, Britain’s communications intelligence gathering centre, and its unfettered access to all digital intelligence generated in the country.

Barrage of criticism

The newspaper came under a barrage of criticism after a talk by Andrew Parker, the head of M15, to the Royal United Services Institute. Mr. Parker raised the dangers of making public “the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques,” warning that “such information will hand the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will.”

At the heart of the raging public debate that followed lies the question: what constitutes freedom of the press, and what, if any, are its limits? The Daily Mail, a conservative newspaper that, interestingly, is the most vociferous opponent of any form of press regulation when its own interests are involved, led the attack against The Guardian, accusing it of “lethal irresponsibility” in publishing the Snowden leaks. The Daily Mail, which has cultivated a shrill, sensational and intrusive journalistic style, bolstered the opposition to The Guardian leaks within the political establishment and some sections of the media. Even Chris Blackhurst, content editor of the generally sober The Independent, wrote asking, “If M15 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?”

The debate has serious implications for the future of the press, which in the U.K. is already facing the far greater challenge of institutional oversight in the form of a press self-regulatory body.

“I am very concerned that the mainstream press is prepared to sell press freedom,” Gavin MacFayden, Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism told The Hindu. “The U.K.’s political consensus is reflected in the papers. Unfortunately, there is no opposition politics in Britain, which has become a benign and soft one-party state. And it is very interesting that the harshest criticism of government secrecy has come from within the Conservative Party by those who uphold the civil libertarian position.”

The Guardian, while acknowledging the “tensions between the total secrecy that intelligence agencies crave and the transparency that…democracies demand” argued that The Daily Mail’s condemnatory editorial “is a statement of anti-journalism” where editors “must defer to the state.”

It sent the editorial to a large group of editors of leading international publications, many of which have published the Snowden leaks, for their comments. They wrote back in resounding support of The Guardian’s decision to publish. “Collectively and in calm tones, these distinguished editors make a powerful and thoughtful case for journalism itself. Our searchlight, they say, should be shone on security matters as brightly as anything else,” the newspaper’s editorial noted.

Preparing for control

Sharply polarised over the ground rules of investigative journalism, the press is also divided in its response to a greater challenge that looms before it, namely, the press regulatory body that is likely to find form soon.

A draft Royal Charter for a press self-regulatory body is up before the Privy Council awaiting the royal seal on October 30. It is supported by the three major political parties plus the influential campaign group, Hacked Off, that claims to represent victims — many of them celebrities — of press intrusion.

With the exception of some of the smaller regional newspapers, the press has rejected the draft. In a statement, the newspaper Industry Steering Group, which represents large newspapers, said: “Lord Justice Leveson called for ‘voluntary, independent self-regulation’ of the press. It is impossible to see how a regulator operating under rules imposed by politicians, and enforced by draconian and discriminatory provisions for damages and costs in civil cases, could be said to be either voluntary or independent.”

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is the press group’s answer to the government’s charter. Conceived by the publishers of The Daily Mail, The Times, The Sun, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror, IPSO is yet to win support from the publishers of The Independent’s titles, The Guardian and the investigative magazine, Public Eye.

The move for press regulation in the U.K. is a fallout of the Leveson Inquiry that was set up in July 2011 by the government with a mandate to look into the “culture, practices and ethics of the press.” It followed revelations on how a section of the media — notably the News of the World and The Sun owned by media-baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers — had turned rogue, resorting to practices such as hacking into the phones of individuals and making secret pay-offs in the pursuit of stories. Judge Leveson’s key recommendation in his report submitted in November 2012, was an independent self-regulatory body to be set up by the press.

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