We should worry when police seize a reporter’s laptop

THESE almost daily outpourings are, as has been mentioned, composed on a laptop. Or possibly a passing whim and a laptop.

The portable PC is far from a new invention, but it is a very useful tool for journalists and writers everywhere. So useful that the police can use powers under the Terrorism Act to seize a reporter’s laptop.

The Independent reports today that this has happened to the Newsnight reporter Secunder Kermani, who joined the BBC2 news show last year and specialises in reporting on British-born jihadis. Because of this work, officers obtained an order from a judge to confiscate his laptop.

Newsnight’s editor, the former Guardian journalist Ian Katz, is quoted as saying that while he would not seek to obstruct any police investigation, “we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest”.

A BBC spokesman added that the order concerned “communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an IS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source”.

What seems to have upset the security services is that Kermani makes contact with western-born Isis fighters and questions them online about their motivation.

Reporting is partly about understanding – or trying to understand, attempting to dig to the roots of a matter in search for the truth, or a truth or a reason. If we want to understand why people raised in the west are sometimes drawn into the dark corners inhabited by Isis, then we have to understand these people and their motivation. And this applies even if what they are doing seems abhorrent – or it applies especially if what they are doing seems abhorrent.

Sometimes reporters have to navigate difficult waters. And if the security services and police put the frighteners on journalists, if reporters feel cowed and threatened, this will have what the media lawyer Gavin Millar QC describes as a “chilling effect – I know material has not been published or broadcast because of anxiety to protect sources”.

There are accompanying concerns that police may use the same legislation to curb academics who research Islamic extremism. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College in London is reported to have built a huge data base of western jihadists.

Journalists and academics who work in this area are investigating a deeply troubling aspect of modern life. In doing so they are doing us all a favour. The former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones complained previously about one of Kermani’s Newsnight reports, arguing that it was possible to be informed about the views of western jihadists “without giving them access to mainstream media on a corporation that has a reputation to preserve”.

Is this partly a case of police and the security services protecting their patch? The suggestion seems to be that they feel it is their job to deal with the matters, and journalists should keep away. The difficulty with that lies in the different cultures. The security services, by their nature, want to keep everything secret, while a journalist wants to uncover.

Both have important roles, both have their roles to play. But we should be worried if the police start to get heavy-handed.

On the whole, Man On Ledge suspects that his laptop is safe from the security services. Most of what lies in the innards of this laptop has been put out on public view already.

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