'UK will strongly resist anything that looks like govt control over media' - Lord Charles Powell

The UK press is under attack from two sides. A probe is being held into alleged phone hacking and the publishing of Edward Snowden's explosive revelations have led to barely-disguised threats. Is the so-called Fourth Estate losing its power in Britain? We talk to Lord Charles Powell, Baron Powell of Bayswater, diplomat, politician and businessman who served as a key foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s.


Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is Lord Charles Powell, Baron Powell of Bayswater, diplomat, politician and businessman who served as a key foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back in 1980s.

A new royal charter on press regulation has been introduced in Britain. Most newspaper publishers in the UK see this as an attempt to control them and believe it’s bad for journalism, for freedom of press and for the public. What do you note of it?

Charles Powell: Well, you raise a very difficult topic. It’s quite clear that some of our more down-market, popular newspapers have been breaking the rules for many years by bribing people to get the new information, by intercepting telephone calls and many other things like that. There are some criminal trials in progress at the moment and they will decide whether the people are guilty or not, but it’s quite clear that some elements of our press got completely out of hand.

On the other hand, there is a very strong resistance in this country to anything which is like government control of the media. And so, a device has been found which is to set up an independent body which will monitor the media and stop it from the worst excesses; of course, the opponents of that scheme say, “Ooh, this is just government regulation under different name,” other people think it’s not enough.

I think the only answer at this stage is to try the new system and see if it works, but there is a very strong resistance indeed in Britain to anything which looks like government control of the media.

SS:Like you’ve said – maybe something like this was needed because the media was getting out of hand with all the phone-tapping scandal which has nothing to do with public interest. But I read a statement from the spokesperson of the UK government’s department of culture and it said, “A royal charter will protect freedom of press, whilst operating real redress when mistakes are made.” It does sound like there are loopholes in this legislation that could be used to manipulate the press, no?

CP: Well, all legislation potentially has loopholes, and if we try very hard in parliament and I sit in the upper house of our parliament, the House of Lords. We scrutinize the legislation very carefully trying to make sure there are no loopholes, but you can never completely exclude them. I don’t think there’s any real appetite in government to regulate the media, not least because it would be a very difficult theme on which to fight an election.

If your opponents in the election can say “you’ve been trying to control the independent media”, I think you would lose a lot of public support. So for me, it’s pretty clear that the government can be very cautious in this area, and won’t want to be called out.

SS: David Cameron for example, he pretty much threatened the Guardian or anyone else for that matter, who wants to publish revelations like this from Snowden. Could this new watchdog help him do that?

CP: I think you’re talking about very different issue there. This is…you’ll find the majority of British media is thoroughly opposed to what Mr. Snowden has done, and that is the question of releasing what was supposed to be secret material which he had stolen. I don’t think in Russia you believe in using stolen goods, whether in the media or anywhere else, so to say that, to equate that, with control of the media, is simply quite wrong.

The Guardian have been warned to be very careful in what use they make of this stolen material, and I think, naturally, they have been quite responsible. But nonetheless it has clearly damaged the interests of our national security and that of many other countries, and people here object very strongly to that, you won’t find any support for Mr. Snowden and his activities except amongst small amount of people on the left of British politics.

SS:Since we’re talking about Snowden, I’d like to talk about Britain’s role in NSA spying. Everyone knows Britain is Americas №1 partner, it has always been like that, but the question is how necessary and moral is it to assist the US and spy on Europe, including its allies?

CP: I have to suppress the smile of being asked that question by anyone to do with Russian television or Russia generally, given the Russian record of spying and interception of communications and so on. We all know that in the modern world there’s a great deal of monitoring of international communications, a lot of it is directed at stopping and intercepting terrorist activities, and I think that is legitimate, people support that.

To my mind, the trouble is this that the technology has outrun the political control exercised over it. If a technology permits you to do something, then on the whole people will do it, unless they are specifically told not to do it, and it’s quite clear that we have perhaps got slightly beyond what is necessary for dealing with international terrorism and international crime, into areas where it is a question of unwarranted intrusion in people’s privacy, and that is a problem – we have admitted it, we have dealt with it very openly and I hope in due course we shall see similar openness in this matters on the Russian side.

SS: I do take your remark about Russian tapping with the grain of salt, but with all due respect, we are a fairly new democracy, if you compare us with Britain and American – you guys are the beacons of democracy and transparency. So for the rest of the world, it is even more surprising when it comes from someone like America and Britain than from Russia. So the European delegation went to Washington…

CP: I don’t think anyone is surprised by this. Everyone has assumed for many years that all big countries are engaged in intelligence activities, whether it’s America, or Russia, or Britain or China – and an awful lot of others too. For me the real problem has been the failure of certain people in very sensitive positions, like heads of government in Western Europe, not to protect themselves.

The idea that heads of governments think they can talk freely on their mobile phones without any risk of being intercepted whether by agencies of other state or even by some private enterprise is crazy. Most companies these days - and I speak as a businessman here - most companies won’t take their mobile phones or their iPads when they go to certain countries like China or Russia for fear of interception. And I think the responsibility lies very heavily on states in Europe and America to protect themselves, and that is, to me, has been the most clear problem with this – is that the people don’t take sensible measures to protect themselves from interception and monitoring.

SS:Many European countries worry about breakdown in trust with the US. Do you think it will also affect Britain, their trust to Britain?

CP: I don’t think this is going to be lasting phenomenon. I think there are special reasons in Germany to be rather sensitive on these issues, given the history of Nazism and later the history of the Stasi in the former East German state, and there are generations of German people who remember that bitter experience and are therefore rather shocked to be reminded of it and to find that some interception of communications has taken place.

But do I believe this is going to result in some lasting breakdown or damage to relations between Germany and the US or between Germany and Britain? No, I don’t, and the evidence of that is clear today, when you would see that despite some speculation in the press, negotiations about the trade agreement between Europe and the US are continuing. So no, there won’t be lasting breakdown in trust, there will be a minor problem which I believe will go away.

SS:But Lord Powell, what about the mood within the British public - how do they view the fact that Britain was behind the US to spy on everyone?

CP: I don't think there is any great mood in the British public; the story doesn't really run here nearly as much as it does in many other countries. On the whole we've always accepted in this country that espionage is part of the nation's defenses and that when it is carried out successfully it is something to be rather proud of. And I've noticed very much the same attitude in the old Soviet Union and these days in Russia. There is a certain pride in the successes of intelligence services.

That is really what dominates the mood here, people see them fighting on behalf of our security, our defenses, and they're happy to see that happen.

SS: Britain does have more CCTV cameras per capita than anywhere else and anyone else in the world, so the idea of mass surveillance is nothing really new for Britain - is the same concept just being expanded abroad?

CP: I'm very glad that we do have more CCTV cameras than anywhere else in the world; they were all installed during the time of Irish republic and terrorism, when there were frequent terrorist attacks in the very heart of London. And the best way to deal with these attacks and find the people responsible for them was through the use of surveillance cameras on the streets, and they proved extremely successful. They are being very successful in finding those who perpetrated terrorism from extreme Muslim elements. So they've served a very useful purpose. No one pretends they are used to spy on innocent individuals. Why should they be? We aren't really interested in what people do in their private lives in this country.

SS:Since we’re talking about Snowden, I just want to know your personal take on that. Do you admire likes of Snowden and Julian Assange for their choices or are they traitors and trouble-makers for you?

CP: I think they are traitors and trouble-makers. Basically, what they are doing is that they have stolen property and they are making use of that stolen property. I can’t in any way condone what they’ve done.

SS:But who can resist the system, when system goes too far, if not occasional whistleblowers?

CP: Basically we look to parliament to make sure and to our courts to make sure that the intelligence services behave properly. And this is what they do. You may have noticed that three heads of our tree intelligence agencies were all summoned before parliament last week and questioned about some of their activities, and that I think is a very healthy democratic feature of the system, and I’m sure you’ll be seeing the same in the US as the various Senate and Congressional committees question the heads of their agencies to try to make sure that they stay invariably within the law, and I would like to see that practice spread to other countries, including perhaps your country.

SS: I don’t know about Britain, but I’m not sure that could actually happen in America, because when Obama was coming to power, he was actually promising to cut down on surveillance, but what he did was expand the program, so no one really believes that’s going to be wrapped up anytime soon.

CP: Well, the programs have been extended to deal with the specific problem of extreme radical Islamic terrorism - that has been the purpose of stepping up intelligence efforts in recent years, it is to defend our countries against that, and we’ve all suffered from it. Russia suffered from it, we’ve suffered from it in Britain, the US suffered from it too. That is a legitimate target to have intelligence activities against, governments and our agencies are quite right to do that, including the Russian ones. It’s when it goes beyond that, to the surveillance of private individuals and their private correspondence that one would have objections to, but I don’t really believe that is going on.

As I said to you earlier, modern technology makes it possible to scoop up out of the atmosphere vast quantities of material, but no one pretends they’re crawling all over that material looking for just one or two indicators of people who are trying to plot terrorist activities. You’re looking at the needles in the haystack, but the haystack is the vast amount of the information which is out there. It is pretty discriminating in the sense that people are not trying to interfere in people’s private lives, they are just looking for evidence of terrorism and plans for terrorism.

SS: You know, after the Boston bombing, that argument kind of lost its purpose, because you would think that with all that access to the social media that American secret services had, they would actually detect Tsarnaev brothers.

CP: Well, as you know, particular restrictions do apply in America. It is illegitimate in America to spy on American citizens. So it’s not perhaps surprising that that one slipped through the net. We in this country had a considerable success in tracking down arab-islamic extremist-sponsored terrorism through the surveillance methods which we had, including CCTV cameras and, occasionally, intercepts of messages and conversations coming out from the Middle East. I don’t see any objection to that sort of defense at all. Russia does it too, and I hope it has some success in doing so.

SS:I want to talk a little bit about foreign policy with you, since you’re a pioneer in that field. Syria is an ongoing story. Why do you think the UK parliament refused to back a strike on Syria? Was it Cameron’s weak argument, or perhaps a fear of getting itself into another war, which could stoke Islamic radicalization at home?

CP: I think it’s a difficult question to answer with complete clarity. I think there is an element that people feel after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan that they don’t want to see Britain dragged into another conflict. On the other hand, quite a short time earlier, a year or two earlier, the British parliament had endorsed the government’s involvement in military action in Libya. So you can’t say there’s a clear-cut definitive rejection of the idea of using British force overseas.

I think the feeling was that this time it wasn’t entirely clear what the objectives of military action would be. That was not spelled out sufficiently for people to appreciate it: the limited nature of the action proposed, the precise targets and the objectives. In that situation, the parliament, which was recalled especially to debate this issue, perhaps took – in my view - rather a short-sighted attitude to the proposal.

On the other hand, I have to say that even the possibly, the threat of military force, clearly, in my mind, had the impression of increasing Russian pressure on the Syrian regime, to get rid of its chemical weapons and the decision of the Syrian regime to do so. I think the Syrians believed they were about to be subjected to limited military attack on some of their facilities, and this led them to agree to abolish their chemical weapons.

SS:But do you believe the UK should be involved at all in Syria – either through supporting the rebels or intervention.

CP: Britain has a long history of engagement with the rest of the world, by probably more international than almost any country that I can think of. We are members of the UNSC; we have responsibilities in that part of the world, in the same way as the other members like Russia, China, France and the US. So yes of course we should be involved to a degree, because the UN is involved, and therefore its highest organ, the Security Council, must be involved. Was there ever any possibility whatsoever of British forces being engaged on the ground in Syria? No! None at all, no one had ever envisaged that, this was an attempt to make it clear to the Syrian regime that there were limits beyond which they really should not go.

SS:On a different topic, but also staying with radical Islamists, this time in Britain. Just a couple weeks ago, we spoke to Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the EDL. Now, despite all the criticism that he gets, a lot of his words about immigration and Islamic radicalism appear to resonate with some parts of the British society. Do you think the government is doing enough, both to help the non-Brits to adjust, while protecting the interests of the wider population?

CP: I think, on a broad scale the answer to that is “yes” and we have very substantial immigration into Britain, so does Russia, so you are also familiar with the problem too. We need immigrants in this country. We need immigrants because they are good people, they work and they help our economy grow. As you may have read, our population is set to grow very substantially over the next 20 years, to the point where it will exceed that of Germany, because the German population is declining. So immigrants are very important part of that.

Equally, immigrants do cause limited social problems in parts of the country, where you get big immigrant groups congregating in particular area, then the schools are dominated by immigrant children, sometimes not speaking English. Social services and housing are dominated by the needs of immigrants – that causes some quite natural tensions amongst the original British population.

You have to understand that, you have to work with it, you have to avoid it, try to contain these difficulties. But I think most of the immigrants in this country are nowadays extremely welcome. I think back to the problems of the 1960s and ’70s when there were real demonstrations and worse than that, race riots in this country. That does not really happen nowadays, and that is a sign of the acceptance of immigrants, and, in a way, the immigrants have generally been very successfully integrated into our society.

But it is a problem, no one can deny that, that it is a problem, and the danger is that some groups of people will try to exploit that problem for their own rather narrow political purposes, and yes, we have some extremist movements in this country, very regrettably, who use immigration to increase social tensions. And we have to avoid that, we have to fight against it and we do.

SS: When you bring up schools and parts of England being dominated by people who don’t even speak English, that obviously creates a lot of annoyance around. What can be done to bridge that rift between the cultures?

CP: The best way is to proceed as quickly as possible with integration; integration has been successful in earlier generations of immigrants and now they are regarded as absolutely full members of British society, and they aren’t these problems. But sometimes with newer immigrants, who are just arriving now on our shores from different societies - for instance, there’s a restrictions on immigration from some EU countries - they fall away, then there are fresh problems , particularly because when immigrants from Europe come here. They can sign on immediately to our social benefits, and people think that’s a bit unfair, that they haven’t been here, really just arrived and yet they are beginning to benefit already from the taxes we pay and from the benefits we give to people who are established citizens of this country

And that, again, is a problem which is got to be managed and handled – and it will be. Our government are working very hard on that.

SS:But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s not just Britain that has the problem – you do see the right rise in Europe all over, you do see nationalists coming out on streets – aren’t you concerned about that at all?

CP: I am concerned about it, and I’m concerned about it in Russia too. We’ve seen 13 million immigrants in Russia since the early 1990s, and we hear about politicians in Russia too, like Mr. Belov, who speaks in disparaging terms about immigrants and what should happen to them. It’s a problem that we all have in common, except the societies that virtually ban immigration of any sort. And if you look out in Asia, you won’t find any immigrants in Japan and you won’t find any immigrants in China, and that is the way of dealing with them, but even that is not a very attractive way to deal with the problem, simply to exclude them altogether.