Bradley Manning’s Predecessors

Clive Ponting, Sarah Tisdall and the lessons their experiences hold both for Manning and the Indian media.

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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In the Eighties, there were two high profile prosecutions in United Kingdom which came to mind when I was reading about the Bradley Manning trial and the United States government’s attempts to extradite Edward Snowden .


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Sarah Tisdall was a young 23-year-old civil servant who came from a typical middle class family which had links with the then ruling Conservative Party. In 1983, during the course of her duties, she came across a document which made her deeply uncomfortable about the government’s motives. She photocopied the document and sent it anonymously to The Guardian which published the contents.

There was a huge uproar and the Thatcher Government decided to invoke the archaic Official Secrets Act. The newspaper was asked to handover the photocopy it had received. When Peter Preston, then Editor, refused to do so, the Court ordered the newspaper to return the document. The newspaper complied. The trail led to the young lady who was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in prison.

There are two issues here which require attention. First, was it in order for the newspaper to have returned the document. Peter Preston wrote an editorial on this count and regretted having to do so, but claimed that there was no other option available to him. The second and more important issue was whether the prosecution itself was justified. The country’s security was not jeopardised – the prosecution freely conceded that. Margaret Thatcher repeatedly defended the decision to prosecute Tisdall, although public opinion was voiced that some disciplinary action against the young girl should have sufficed.

The second was even more egregious. In 1985, Clive Ponting – a senior civil servant – came across a document which suggested that the government was intent on misleading the House of Commons in a response. He contacted an opposition MP and provided the evidence. Ponting was prosecuted under the same Official Secrets Act.

After the summing up of the prosecution, the judge virtually ordered the jury to convict Ponting. Despite this, the jurors ignored the judge’s instructions and acquitted Ponting. The broad issues here remain the same. Is there any room for acting according to conscience in the secretive word of governance when there are no issues of national security? I believe the jury is still out in most countries.

It is in this context we have to view the Manning trial. There are clear differences between the trials I have written about and this one. The sheer magnitude of the leaks provided to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks made this an unprecedented affair. Besides, there were definitely some documents which pertained to national security.

But Manning had not provided any information to a designated “enemy nation” for fiscal gains. It was a matter of conscience and some of the revelations that emerged make for shocking reading. The inclinations of the US government in certain matters as suggested by the revelations seem more in keeping with the mafia rather than an accountable democracy. I would argue that we all emerge better informed because of these revelations and again while one can make a case for Manning’s court martial and dismissal, to try him for treason seems very extreme.

A test case such as this has not emerged in India but I think it is only a matter of time before it does. I think it would be apposite for the journalist community to device guidelines here which would help it in dealing with such a contingency. The journalistic profession depends very largely on leaks of this nature. As long as they do not endanger national security and are clearly identifiable as matters of conscience, I would feel criminal prosecution should be seen just as an ugly and uncouth attempt by the state to muzzle the right of people to know and be informed – sine qua non in a democracy to hold our representatives accountable.

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