Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, was quizzed about the Snowden leaks in select committee today. The chair was amply filled by Keith Vaz who always comes across as well-fed, well-meaning and well-nigh useless. He began by thanking the Harry Potter clone for showing up at all.

‘I didn’t know it was optional,’ said Rusbridger frostily. Vaz wondered if the Guardian boss loved his country. Rusbridger affected surprise at the question and said he loved our principles of free speech and democracy. He was a patriot. Labour members toadied up to him and hailed his paper as a champion of liberty. But the Tories were ready to lock him in the slammer and grind the key into iron filings.
Michael Ellis tried to get him to admit to treachery under Section 58 (a) of the Terrorism Act.

‘You authorised files stolen by Snowden which contained the names of security personel to be communicated to another jurisdiction. Yes or no?’ ‘Those are your words,’ shrugged Rusbridger. Ellis accused him of breaching the privacy of GCHQ personnel by revealing the existence of a gay pride section within the service. ‘You’ve lost me there,’ mocked Rusbridger, ‘so there are gay members of GCHQ?’ Ellis rebuked him for turning the issue into a joke. But Ellis’s bullying tone had began to irk Vaz. Time’s up, said the chairman.

Emollient, white bearded Paul Flynn saluted the courage of Rusbridger, and other editors around the world, for published the Snowden data. ‘I don’t want to blow my own trumpet,’ began Rusbridger. ‘But please do,’ said Flynn. Tory Mark Reckless tried a softly-softly approach. Polite and quietly-spoken he probed Rusbridger about files sent by FedEx and wondered if such files were truly ‘in his control.’ Reckless then led him to admit explicitly that he had shared secret information with the New York Times. ‘Which constitutes communicating information outside this jurisdiction?’ he asked blandly. Rusbridger: ‘Self-evidently’.

Reckless hit him with a killer line. ‘You have committed a criminal offence in your answer there.’ He meant ‘admitted’ not ‘committed’. But it was a thrilling moment. Midlly, he asked if the public interest would be served by Rusbridger’s doing a spell in the nick. It would only hurt the cause of free speech, said Rusbridger. If he’s in jail, the next leaker will avoid newspapers altogether and pump top secret info straight into cyber space.

He cited top security experts in America who say the Snowden leaks have highlighted malpractice on an embarrassing scale. Then he held up a copy of Spy-Catcher. In the mid-1980s, he said, the government had been in the absurd position of sending officials to Australia ‘to stop the publication of something already published.’

Vaz was intrigued by the visit of the cabinet secretary to The Guardian offices to destroy the newspaper’s hard-drive. A special ‘food mixer’ had been produced to pound the silicon chips to smithereens. But it wasn’t used it in the end. Two journalists fired up some ‘black and Decker chain-saws’ to put the computers beyond use. Everyone who participated in this surreal lumberjack exercise knew it was futile since the data had already existed elsewhere.

Michael Ellis was given one last go. He accused Rusbridger of being ‘woefully irresponsible with secret information and people’s lives.’ ‘I don’t accept that premise,’ came the answer. Rusbridger looked measured and assured today but he was helped by questioners who failed to pick up on his well-rehearsed evasions. His favourite tactic was to use the time-lapse defence and to argue that all the evidence against him had been widely publicised six months ago. All this proves is that prosecutors are sluggish, not that he is guiltless. Those calling for his prosecution won’t be silenced by today’s questioning. But my guess is he’ll remain free.

Tags: Alan Rusbridge, Keith Vaz, Select committees, UK politics