Most Britons support the law that was used to detain David Miranda at Heathrow on Sunday – but there is widespread concern at the way police used the law on this occasion.
Mr Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has been leading the paper’s coverage of the information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former US intelligence officer, about the surveillance activities of the US and British intelligence agencies. Mr Miranda, who has worked with Mr Greenwald on this investigation, was detained for nine hours as he sought to change planes on his journey home from Berlin to Brazil.
YouGov has conducted the first detailed survey of public opinion since these events, and since subsequent reports that the Guardian responded some weeks ago to approaches from the UK intelligence agencies by destroying hard disks containing information from Mr Snowden.
We found that:
- By three-to-one (66%-22%) people back Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, 2000, which allows the police to stop, examine and search passengers to determine whether they are engaged in terrorism (and without needing a ‘reasonable’ suspicion to do this).
- However, only 37% agree with the view advanced by some ministers and officials that it was appropriate to detain Mr Miranda on the grounds that he might have information useful to terrorists. A slightly large number, 44%, thought the police action inappropriate as Mr Miranda was not actually engaged in terrorism.
- By 47-38%, voters thought it unreasonable for the police to threaten Mr Miranda with jail if he did not disclose the passwords to his computer and mobile phone.
- By a wider margin, 50-33%, voters say the police acted unreasonably in not returning Mr Miranda’s computer and mobile phone to him when they released him.
- Most Conservative voters think the police acted reasonably on all counts, while Labour and Liberal Democrat voters divided consistently by around two-to-one against the police actions.
- The public is divided on whether journalists should be allowed to do their work ‘without being detained, or mobile phones seized, unless there is specific reason to believe they have committed, or are planning, a crime’ (45%) or whether ‘the police and intelligence agencies can be trusted to act reasonably when deciding whether to detain journalists entering or leaving Britain’ (38%).
- The public is also divided on whether the Terrorism Act should be changed, with 42% wanting it tightened so that people may be detained only where there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ of involvement in terrorist activity, and 45% wanting the law either kept as it is (33%) or extended to give the police the right to detain anyone in Britain, not just those entering or leaving the country (12%).
- The picture of a country split down the middle extends to the actions of the Prime Minister and the Guardian over the hard drives containing Mr Snowden’s information. 43% thought Mr Cameron was right to instruct the intelligence agencies, via the Cabinet Secretary, to seek to recover the hard drives, while 40% think that either he should have stayed out of the decision (25%) or that the action was wrong whoever authorised it (15%).
- Finally, we asked about the Guardian’s decision to publish Mr Snowden’s information. We reminded respondents that the Guardian has said it was withholding details that might help terrorism and put lives at risk. 42% backed the Guardian, ‘as the public has a right to know about the surveillance activities of the British and American intelligence agencies’, while 38% say the paper was wrong as ‘this is stolen information and the Guardian cannot be sure what information might help terrorism’.
In the past, when events have appeared to force a choice between security and liberty, most people have opted for security, generally by margins of around two-to-one. This time, there is a broadly even balance on most of the issues that we tested following Mr Miranda’s detention, but with signs of concern that the police may have overstepped the mark with Mr Miranda. It seems likely that more chapters of this story have yet to be written, and we can be far from certain where public opinion will settle.