The Myth of ‘Liberal Democracy’
Three recent events, each involving police suppression of the press to report on State crimes, expose the myth of ‘liberal democracy’. The three cases are the arrest of Julian Assange, the recent judicial review of the arrest of two Northern Irish journalists and the police raid on Australia’s ABC News Headquarters, following a raid on the home of journalist Annika Smethurst. Each has been condemned by journalists around the world as attacks on press freedom. The condemnation by journalists is based on their concern that these actions are more akin to a ‘Police State’ than a ‘liberal democracy’. The problem with this conceptualisation of Police raids rests firmly on the widespread myth that we live in a ‘liberal democracy’.
In most advanced capitalist countries, the ‘liberal’ treatment of citizens has long been reserved almost exclusively for those at the very top of its social and economic structure. For everyone else, the mode of governance employed by the State involves increasing levels of punitive paternalism. In short, the State uses ‘velvet gloves’ for its elites and an ‘iron fist’ for anyone who it sees as a threat.
With its dysfunctional electoral system, unelected second chamber, disproportionately powerful and almost entirely secretive lobbying sector, as well as the widespread lies and corruption – from the ‘£350 million-a-week’ on the side of a bus to the steady flow of dark money funding political institutions masquerading as ‘think tanks’ and grass roots organisations) – the notion that the UK can be defined as a ‘liberal democracy’ is somewhat questionable.
Each of the above cases draws into question the freedom of the press to hold the State (whether UK, US or Australian) accountable for its crimes, so provides a good starting point for this particular debate. So lets briefly consider each case in turn.
Policing the States Truth
Julian Assange, against whom charges of sexual misconduct have been dropped by the Swedish authorities, now faces many years fighting extradition to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act for, among other things, the publication of US state war crimes. He was recently convicted of failure to comply with the conditions of a bail order by a single judge who branded him a ‘narcissist’, before sentenced him to 50 weeks in the high-security prison HMP Belmarsh. Assange did not get the opportunity to say a single word in Court. The presiding Judge, Chief Magistrate, Lady Emma Arbuthnot, refused to step aside when it was revealed that she had links to the intelligence and security industries – and, therefore, a clear conflict of interest.
If extradited to the USA, Assange faces up to 170 years in prison under legislation aimed at addressing crimes against the State. This is the first time the Espionage Act has been used against a ‘third party’, rather than a ‘whistle-blower’. It thus represents a clear and fundamental attack on journalistic freedom worldwide. Chelsea Manning who is currently in prison is enduring another protracted period of solitary confinement for her refusal to name Assange as her collaborator. Few would dispute the fact that the US is not a liberal democracy.
The second case study relates to the arrest on 31st August 2018 of two Northern Irish investigative journalists, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney [pictured], who had made a documentary about Police collusion in the murder of six Irish Catholics, shot as they watched the 1994 World Cup by UVF paramilitaries in a pub in Loughinisland. The journalists had evidence that Special Branch withheld the known identities of the killers. The arrest of the two journalists, followed the issuing of a warrant by a Judge, was carried out by 100 police officers who searched each of their homes and work premises confiscating documents, computers, phones and other devices. Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were arrested and charged with breaches of the Official Secrets Act. In May 2019 a Judicial Review found that the warrant should not have been granted and the charges against the two journalists have, for the time being, been dropped.
The Guardian coverage of this incident began:
‘The arrest of two Northern Irish journalists after they embarrassed authorities by obtaining documents relating to a mass murder “was the kind of operation more associated with a police state than with a liberal democracy”.
Again, the mistake here is to hold the false belief that the UK is indeed a liberal democracy. In this case, six men were murdered with the aid of the British State, the names of those involved in the massacre are now known to the authorities and the Police, yet the only two people to be arrested and charged were the two journalists who sought to expose the truth.
The third event relates to the Police raid on the 5th June on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News Headquarters, Australia’s equivalent of the BBC. The Corporation had run a series of programmes in 2017 exposing State perpetrated crimes in Afghanistan. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) entered the ABC newsroom and produced a warrant, the contents of which prompted ABC journalist John Lyon to take to Twitter:
“I’m staggered by the power of this warrant. It allows the AFP to “add, copy, delete or alter” material in the ABC’s computers. All Australians, please think about that: as of this moment, the AFP has the power to delete material in the ABC’s computers. Australia 2019”.
The day before the ABC raid, the Australian Federal Police enacted a warrant to enter and search the home of newspaper journalist Annika Smethurst which related to her 2018 report on government plans to spy on Australian citizens. The Police said their warrant was linked with “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret“. After insisting that the two raids were unrelated the AFP issued a statement saying;
“Both however relate to separate allegations of publishing classified material, contrary to provisions of the Crimes Act 1914, which is an extremely serious matter that has the potential to undermine Australia’s national security.”
It would seem that Australia is not a liberal democracy either.
Mythic Liberal Democracy within the Police State
There is nothing liberal or democratic about a State where the Police infiltrate democratic organisations such as climate change protest groups and other political organisations who seek to ‘legally’ bring about change through engaging with the democratic process. There is nothing liberal or democratic about a State which employs undercover Police officers to trick ‘law-abiding’ activists into having relationships with them, sometimes even fathering their children, in order to infiltrate every aspect of their personal lives. There is nothing liberal or democratic about a State in which the Police infiltrate trade unions and proactively hand over information to private sector employers pertaining to certain individuals who, as a consequence, end up on a black list and are unlawfully prevented from securing employment.
There can be no doubt that the Police raids on the homes and work premises of journalists, as well as the unprecedented treatment of Julian Assange, are intended to send a clear message to both journalists and ‘whistleblowers’ around the world that revealing the truth about State crimes will not be tolerated. This is an integral part of a general trend whereby the punitive function of the State has expanded to include more and more people within its criminalising ambit. Presently, its tentacles have reached the field of journalism, so who is next?
New Possibilities for an Independent Scotland
Rather than the UK State being conceptualised as a ‘liberal democracy’, it should be recast as an increasingly authoritarian, anti-democratic, surveillance State that seeks to continuously expand the boundaries of its own jurisdiction in directions that serve to augment the strategies of punitive paternalism that underpin its principal mode of governance. But do we want to live in this kind of Police State?
In Scotland there is the chance of breaking away from the British State, as well as the strangling grip of its policing and security institutions. If we are serious about Scottish Independence then we must also take time to think more seriously about the big questions regarding the relationship between the Police and the State. We may have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to completely rethink the role of the modern Scottish State. A good starting point here is to bring into sharp focus the myth of ‘liberal democracy’ in formulating our vision for a better nation. We need to start thinking these things through and reframe what we want as a State. This brings me back to the question I previously posed regarding policing, security and the state, namely: what exactly do we do with the institution of the State Police within an independent Scotland?