Bars and Spikes

On May 10, London’s Central Criminal Court sentenced two British men to three to six months imprisonment for attempting to publish a memo of a meeting between President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair some three years earlier.

Their defense rested on the belief that the contents of the document, minutes of a meeting recorded at the White House in Washington DC on 16 April 2004, were sufficiently shocking to require one of them, David Keogh, a civil servant with a background in intelligence work to breach the Official Secrets Act and risk the consequences.

The judge who passed sentence on the pair issued a convoluted gag order intended to prevent at least the British media from publishing or broadcasting any copy that linked the case with the purported contents of the memo. The ruling does not extend beyond the jurisdiction of the British courts, which of course includes much of the cybersphere. It will undoubtedly soon be available at such outlets as Al Jazeera, since the Arab world’s premier television news service has reason to believe Bush and Blair were specifically out to do them considerable harm.

The case should be troubling to any media outlet, because if the Bush administration had any real intention of spreading democracy across the world, it would have been sensible to start by ensuring a free press. Instead, the US has bombed Al Jazeera’s Afghanistan offices, shelled a hotel in Baghdad where Al Jazeera reporters were staying, killed one of its correspondents a few days later and hauled several reporters to prison, some in the notorious cells at Guantanamo. Now the most widely circulated version of why the memo was deemed so sensitive is that it detailed President Bush’s desire to bomb the Al Jazeera TV station in Qatar, a key US ally in the Arabian Gulf and the location of major military bases used by the American forces.

On November 22, 2005 the Daily Mirror in London ran the story, emphasizing Prime Minister Blair’s role in opposing such a radical and obviously counter-productive event. While the Mirror has consistently supported the Labour government, it also strongly opposed the Iraq war.

It was the Mirror’s report that prompted the prosecution of the two whistleblowers – both of whom had been arrested shortly after it was discovered that Keogh had sought to publicize the memo in 2004. There is no explanation as to why the police waited 18 months between the illegal act of stealing and receiving the classified document and the press picking up the story.

There can be few more effective strategies in alerting even the most supine sections of the media to the presence of a story than efforts by governments, companies or individuals to suppress it. Judicial bans, editorial pulls and spikes or the threat of libel bestir the trade like little else. The “Al Jazeera Memo” can now be expected to take on a life of its own, far beyond the reach of the bloggers and the distant inside pages that had preserved it until trial and conviction restored interest.

Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera was first off the block with a demand on May 10 for clarification of the memo’s allegation that its office in the Qatar capital of Doha had been targeted for destruction. The media group’s interest goes beyond journalism and into legal and duty-of-care issues surrounding the earlier US attacks on its Kabul and Baghdad bureaus.

Any official record that linked the US to direct action against Al Jareeza would have an obvious and profound impact, opening up Washington to limitless claims and massive diplomatic damage.

The contents of the memo are also set to be raised in the British parliament this week, although there is little likelihood the effort will move beyond the symbolic as the government shelters behind “security” defenses. This may buy a day or so, but the British media are extremely inventive, persistent and frequently sanctimonious when they see ability to report being threatened.

For most journalists, however, the contents of the memo are now literally history. Confirmation that Bush and Blair disagreed over the conduct of the Iraq war in general and the first battle of Fallujah, in particular, or sought means to mitigate the about-to-break Abu Ghraib prison scandal in April 2004 would simply validate widely believed speculation. More problematically, it would also almost certainly place the Al Jazeera threat into its probable context as a careless comment from Bush rather than a serious policy suggestion.

Far more important for journalists is the perceived attempt by politicians and plutocrats to control the management of news and information. Such actions may be encapsulated in the Watergate mantra that scandals are driven less by the original offense than attempts to cover it up. This applies as much to the Al Jazeera memo as it does to more recent and still unwinding stories.

The efforts to stifle information or deter investigation points towards a failure at the highest political and managerial levels to recognize that the likely consequences of trying to suppress or deter publication will only heighten public interest in and speculation over the issues.