Hard News by Russell Brown


Who Guards the Guardian?

I'm very glad the New Yorker has opened Ken Auletta's absorbing profile of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger for public viewing, becase it it provides a context not only for The Guardian's position in the media and political landscape, but on the way Edward Snowden's vital cache of NSA documents has been handled.

This is, lets be clear, an admiring profile. Rusbridger is characterised as steely, unflappable and focused, and his newspaper as a global force for good and transparency that needs to find a way to sustain itself -- for everyone's sake.

But it does answer a question I've asked here before: why were the first few stories in this world-changing series so flimsy in places? Why, when you know you have access to 58,000 documents, do you kick off with a patchy analysis of a Powerpoint presentation? After all, the paper's publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan files liberated by Bradley Manning was preceded by months of patient work, and many subsequent stories have been impeccable.

Because that's what Glenn Greenwald, who brought the story to The Guardian, demanded:

With stories of such complexity, a newspaper often delays publication while it meets with government officials, who try to persuade editors of the harm that would come from publication. TheGuardian did seek comment from government officials about the revelations. But Greenwald, outraged by the content of the material, pushed to publish quickly. “I was getting really frustrated,” he told me. “I was putting a lot of pressure on them and insinuating that I was going to go publish elsewhere.” He helped produce five stories that ran on five consecutive days in June. “I wanted people in Washington to have fear in their hearts over how this journalism was going to be done, over the unpredictability of it,” he said. “Of the fact that we were going to be completely unrestrained by the unwritten rules of American journalism. The only reason we stopped after five days was that even our allies were saying, ‘Look, this is too much information. We can’t keep up with what you’re publishing.’ ”

And then's the arrest:

On August 18th, David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, was detained by British security officials at Heathrow Airport while returning to Brazil. Miranda had spent a week with Poitras in Berlin and was serving as a courier between her and Greenwald. “He was carrying material that she was working on that I needed for journalistic work that she and I were doing,” Greenwald says. The authorities, invoking the Terrorism Act, questioned Miranda for nine hours; they confiscated his computer, cell phone, video-game consoles, DVDs, and U.S.B. sticks. Greenwald called the action “despotic.”

The Guardian sent its lawyers to help extricate Miranda, who Rusbridger said was acting on behalf of a news outlet; he claimed that the British authorities were “conflating terrorism and journalism.” Reuters quoted Greenwald saying that British officials would be “sorry” for detaining his partner: “I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now on. . . . I have many documents on England’s spy system.” Asked what the implications for the British government might be, he said, “I think they will be sorry for what they did.” Greenwald later told me that he had been misquoted and that he never threatened the British government. “I was stressed and angry and tired,” he said. “I was probably not as careful as I should have been.” But he added, “What I said was actually fine.”

Greenwald later gave a vastly more benign account of what he had said in a poorly-conceived and conducted BBC Newsnight interview by Kirsty Wark (which was interesting in itself -- see an analysis here and a very damning comment from former BBC news chief Richard Sambrook here). It seems entirely different from his reported quotes. That's 7.20 in this video of the interview.

The original, threatening language was the result of a poor translation from Portugese, he said. Well, maybe. You'd hope, because uttering threats of revenge against states is more the style of terrorists than a journalist pursuing the public good -- it's the kind of thing that gets used by others to undermine your moral authority. But it's not actually hard to imagine Greenwald speaking as quoted. He's not exactly a stranger to feuding and denunciation. He can be found fulminating on the internet most days.

I'm less convinced by New York Times editor Bill Keller's criticism of The Guardian for letting Greenwald, its forthright opinion writer, work on the news stories at all. Hell, he and Laura Poitras brought in the story; Snowden remains their source. But I do think that in the story Rusbridger emerges as the necessary bulwark between the world and the mercurial characters who would upend it.

It doesn't always work out well. Julian Assange and his many digital acolytes regard Wikileaks' former media partner with contempt. Assange's apparent response to the New Yorker story is summed up nicely in this pique-filled tweet.

So as well as the duress of the officials of state, Rusbridger contends with those who regard him as a quisling and a sellout. A more excitable man might have let rip with an angry tweet or two by now.

Rusbridger seems to take a similarly composed view of a more significant issue: the fact that The Guardian, even as it is showing what newspaper jorunalism can be in the 21st century, and reaching a global audience of 84 million readers, is haemorrhaging cash. Its last annual loss of £31 million was better than the previous year's £44 million, but still.

Rusbridger remains committed to free and open access to The Guardian, which means the focus is on making an advertising-funded model work, and not a paywall. But advertising as a revenue source for editorial work seemonly to become less reliable every month. If the paper isn't making 84 million readers work now, what will make it work in future? I'm interested, and a little surprised, that no one seems to contemplate a sustaining or voluntary subscription scheme -- the subscriber radio model I talked about here. I want everyone to be able to read The Guardian online -- and I'll happily kick in something to help keep that the case (okay, sure, the odd subscriber premium wouldn't be unwelcome). I strongly suspect I'm not alone in this. And when the gap to be bridged is only in the tens of millions, it might just work.

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