If you (still) need a spoiler alert for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” you should call the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) because this article is going to spoil the book’s plot (and possibly ruin your faith in government surveillance). The secret British intelligence agency, which observes electronic communications, reportedly stopped an online leak of the book before it was published on the July 16, 2005. All fans had grown anxious as rumors spread about J.K. Rowling’s hints that a major character would die in the course of the book.
Bloomingdale Publishing’s founder Nigel Newton reported in an interview last week that there had been intense security measures surrounding each book release. Newton informed the BBC, “We fortunately had many allies. GCHQ rang me up and said, ‘We’ve detected an early copy of this book on the internet’. I got them to read a page to our editor and she said, ‘No, that’s a fake’. We also had judges and the police on our side.”
The GCHQ spokesperson was witty in their response. Instead of simply declining to answer, the GCHQ spokesperson commented, “We don’t comment on our defense against the dark arts.”
However, what no one seems to be asking is why the release of a fiction book, even an extremely popular one, has anything to do with this intelligence agency. Why was this even on their radar? Shouldn’t the UK government, theoretically, be separate from the businesses and their interests?
Their job is mainly to find terror plots, and in 2005 that was of major importance. There were terror attacks in London on July 7, 2005, just days before the release of the novel. However, I don’t want to criticize nor interpret the actions and focus of GCHQ. I only wish to draw attention to the amount of information that security agencies have access to in their daily work.
Manuscripts’ pre-release dates are not really listed as national security concerns in the official mandates of these offices, but exposures like this clearly show the reach of these agencies.
There is a silver lining in that this case allowed the first read of the book to be a surprise. Imagine what Newton suggested to ABC Radio in his interview. “If newspapers splashed ‘Dumbledore dies’ what pleasure is there going to be for a kid reading it? The enemies stood to ruin a great deal of pleasure for the world.”
The pressure was huge on Bloomingdale Publishing to release information on the books because of their popularity. The company enlisted extra security and guard dogs to protect its publishing process, but still reportedly contended with a tabloid reporter attempting to bribe workers with £5,000 to steal a copy of the book. Newton has also quoted J.K. Rowling as saying, “Please will you release the name of the title because I have people outside searching my trash can looking for bits of paper.” This helps to contextualize the situation where these kinds of measures were being used.
So, does it really boil down to happiness and security versus privacy in the world of intelligence agencies? This is something that is up for debate almost everywhere. Surveillance is becoming more and more common as a discussion topic in the U.S. and around the world.
Juniors Annie Chester and Alena Klimas also contribute to this featured blog, “Critical International Media Perspectives.”