Whistleblowers, Democracy and Authority
You wait months for a whistleblower to say something genuinely newsworthy and then two come along in quick succession: Edward Snowden, a former NSA worker who let the world know about PRISM; and Peter Francis, a former police officer who reports that he was ordered to find out compromising information on family and friends of the murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence. Both men have risked much in speaking publicly and have also, arguably, done serious harm to the capacity of the authorities of their respective countries to guarantee domestic security.
Nonetheless it is clear that the United States government, and the British police force, have acted in highly questionable ways and very likely affronted civil liberties. Both governments maintain that they are democratically accountable to the people they govern, but it seems neither is beyond monitoring citizens’ private correspondences or tarnishing the reputations of those whose testimonies they find inconvenient.
These are not the actions we have hitherto expected in free and democratic states. A free market and a free press are central institutions in our societies such that governments can at times be seen as relentlessly chasing the benefits of the former while desperately trying to avoid questioning and exposés in the latter.
It is increasingly apparent that on certain important points our democratic cultures and democratic governments have started to drift apart. The government is generally understood to be needed for public interests and affairs and to be required to leave essentially private interests alone. But, most of us believe moral conduct ought to be the same in public and in private. We are rather shocked that British and American authorities have taken such invasive and suspect measures to shore up their own power.
It is almost axiomatic of British and American culture that people can believe whatever they like about God, religion, reason and morality as long as we act within the law. Varied ethics are viewed rather like varied aesthetics: sincere and doubtless profound, but ultimately just about feelings and personal experience. While this sort of relativism is perhaps an aid to conversation at dinner parties with guests from widely variant backgrounds it does not aid the growth of a healthy society since it can give no account of why we should take the law seriously. If rational morality no longer has force, the law must take its place, and, if the law is the final arbiter of what is right, the legislature can act as it pleases in the name of public order.
On matters of surveillance both the British and American governments seem to have behaved in an immoral way. At the same time our popular conception of, and adherence to, morality has become so impoverished that the cries that have gone up about Edward Snowden and Peter Francis may take a long time to reach a pair of sympathetic ears.