Apropos Newsnight: Why Edward Snowden is not a Spy but a True Patriot and Hero – and the Continued Americanisation of Political Culture in Britain

If there is one thing that the last fortnight has taught us it is that the right have quite a line in baseless, ad hominen accusations of national treachery. The Daily Mail’s tasteless denunciation of Ralph Miliband has given ample testament to this. What is surprising, however, is when such bully boy tactics are given credence by the BBC.

This is what makes Glenn Greenwald’s appearance on Newsnight on last Thursday particularly worrying. This is still available on i-player for anyone interested.

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When host Kirsty Wark asked Glenn to prove that Edward Snowden had not surrendered the content of his documents to the Russian government and so was a Russian spy she cheapened the show. There was no evidence to show this and even she admitted asking him to prove a negative was impossible. She also allowed guest, and former Conservative Minister of State for Security and Counter Terrorism, Baroness Neville-Jones’s outlandish claims that Edward Snowden had done so to go unquestioned. This is rather reckless when we realise that Snowden is wanted on charges of espionage by the US government. Such grave accusations should be questioned.

Such claims are anyway demonstrably absurd.

First of all, as Glenn pointed out, such a course of action would inconsonant with the behaviour Snowden has exhibited in his life thus far. He gave up a very rewarding job with a government contractors to make his revelations and he does not fit into the typical profile of a traitor or someone who hated his country at all. Indeed his beliefs are rather mainstream for an American, albeit with a slightly libertarian bent: he contributed $500 to Ron Paul’s campaign in the Republican primaries for the 2012 election and enlisted in the army. He appears to be an advocate of liberty and he loves his country.

But why if he is so bothered about liberty does he then flee into the arms of the Russian government, whose own SORM program, leaks in the Guardian this week show, is just as invasive if not more so than anything the NSA has? If he is so hypocritical and quick to judge his own country than surely he must not hold it dear?

Such questions brought about by commentators are depressing. It is precisely because the United States is his country, and because he loves it and cannot stand what it is becoming, that he holds it up to such exacting standards. It is symptomatic of a hubristic culture which has lost the distinction between a patriot and a nationalist that so many intelligent observers cannot see this. As Sydney J. Harris once wrote “the difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does.” A patriot, in other words, is noble and idealistic, someone who expects the best of his country and challenges it to be exceptional as we do of all things that we truly love and believe in. On the other hand, nationalism debases any nation and betrays a fundamental lack of respect for it.

Secondly, asking what the Russians have got out of hosting Snowden and implying espionage is very wrong as its actions can be rationalised quite easily without this insinuation. Simply put the Russians are getting terrific PR out of granting Snowden asylum. By doing so they are associating themselves with a very popular cause not only in the US but all over the world. In this way they can help to build up a mythology of Russia as a defender of global liberty against a rampant and hypocritical American imperialism. This was the same narrative that they used to justify their support of the Assad regime. Vladimir Putin told the readers of the New York Times in his op-ed on the matter that “millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us” ”. Russia, he tells readers, is “not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

This is a narrative that the Russian government is putting considerable resources into circulating. Its relationship with PR firm Ketchum is a matter of public record, having paid at least $40 million for its services between 2006 and 2010. Using this firm it has managed to place many articles in western press, many of which have been introduced with no mention of their providence. There is nothing unusual about a government using PR firm, but I make this point because we have to realise the sophistication of the Russian government. They are very much interested in international opinion – they are not the unreconstructed Bolshevik troglodytes of some commentator’s imagination – and this is why they have taken an interest in Snowden.

It is not enough to hint otherwise. The accusation of espionage is a heavy accusation which naturally carries the burden of proof. The cavalier manner in which a supposedly responsible former Security Minster makes this is truly frightening, as is Kirsty allowing it to go unchallenged.

In a week where Chris Huhne laid bare the already scandalous lack of oversight over the activities of the security services, we can only hope politicians like Baroness Neville-Jones, whose unquestioning attitudes only serve to further enable their clandestine activities, cannot worm their way back into office.

The civility of British political culture is something that he been remarked upon for years as something quintessentially British. It is something a true patriot would surely hope to preserve. But after watching Newsnight I wonder for how long this pacific and splendid climate will last. The Conservatives want to make us more like America – and I fear they are quite on the way to achieving this.

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