Why the Guardian?

One of the interesting questions is how it came to be that the Guardian has become such a major player in international media. It is, after all, at its core a relatively small British newspaper with a daily print circulation of around 160,000. And yet it has broken major story after major story, sidelining ostensibly bigger players like the Washington Post and the New York Times. It was the leader in publishing the WikiLeaks documents, it uncovered Rupert Murdoch’s illegal phone tapping, and now it has been the clear leader in revealing Edward Snowden’s documents.

As Paul Farhi asks in the Washington Post, “The NSA and WikiLeaks revelations also raise a question: Why is a London-based news organization revealing so many secrets about the American government?”

What is its secret? The answer lies partially in in its ownership structure. In their classic work Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed how the ownership structure of newspapers plays a significant role in determining the scope and slant of its news coverage. Owners, stockholders, and advertisers play a huge role in determining, either subtly or overtly, editorial policy.

But the Guardian has an unusual financial base.

[Guardian editor Alan] Rusbridger explains that some of the Guardian’s willingness to experiment, and much of its independence, is a result of its unusual ownership structure. The newspaper has been owned for decades by a charitable foundation, the Scott Trust Limited, whose “core purpose” is to secure the paper’s editorial independence “in perpetuity.” The trust also owns a sister newspaper, the Observer.

It is this that has given the paper a greater degree of independence than other major media outlets. This does not, of course, mean that it is totally immune from the pressures to stay within the boundaries of what is considered ‘respectable’ opinion. But it does mean that it can tug at that leash much more strongly than other media.

The paper’s reputation for editorial independence was enhanced when it hired Glenn Greenwald as a regular columnist in August 2012. Major US media are quite willing to give a platform to political party hacks, right wing extremists, family members of their clan, racists, and bigots as long as they do not stray beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. But anyone who does so (like Greenwald or Chomsky or Herman or the vast number of serious academics and journalists who write for smaller periodicals) is shut out.

Greenwald explained to Farhi why he moved to the Guardian.

“For at least a couple of years before I went there, I found myself citing Guardian articles quite frequently in the work I was doing,” Greenwald said in an exchange of e-mails from Rio de Janeiro, where he resides with his Brazilian husband. “They were extensively covering vital stories that most U.S. media outlets were either ignoring or downplaying in areas of U.S. foreign policy, civil liberties, secrecy, whistleblowing and the like.”

In Greenwald’s view, American media outlets “tend to be far more reverent of and accommodating to political power than British media outlets, including the Guardian.”

It is easy to see why Snowden, looking for a news outlet that would not censor him in order to placate the US government, chose to go to Greenwald and the Guardian. That alone should give other major media pause to reflect on what it says about them. But they won’t. In fact, the Post editorial board responded to the leaks by writing an editorial that was indistinguishable from something that could have been dictated by the White House. (Apparently the initial headline was “How to Keep Edward Snowden From Leaking More NSA Secrets” but that was later changed to “Plugging the leaks in the Edward Snowden case”, presumably because the first one looked too obviously like a White House press release.)

[T]he first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations.

The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation. It’s hard to believe that the results would leave the 30-year-old contractor worse off than living in permanent exile in an unfree country. Sadly, the supposed friends of this naive hacker are likely advising him otherwise.

Apart from their cluelessness (Snowden is not a ‘hacker’, naïve or otherwise, since he didn’t break into any systems but was an authorized user) it is incredible that they would think that Snowden would be well served by giving himself up to a ruthless and vindictive government. Have they no idea how Bradley Manning has been treated? As John Cassidy says in the New Yorker,

I can’t condemn him for seeking refuge in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. If he’d stayed here, he would almost certainly be in custody, with every prospect of staying in a cell until 2043 or later. The Obama Administration doesn’t want him to come home and contribute to the national-security-versus-liberty debate that the President says is necessary. It wants to lock him up for a long time.

This Post editorial drew scathing responses from incredulity to ridicule, that it reveals itself to be jealous that the Guardian is cleaning its clock, with its monthly global readership being 23.2 million compared to the Post‘s 17.2 million. As Mike Masnick says, it is a little unseemly for a major newspaper to show its jealousy so openly.

We should all be glad that Snowden has no illusions about major US media and has such contempt for them.


  1. Chiroptera says

    The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities…

    Well, half of that is correct.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    Why is a London-based news organization revealing so many secrets about the American government?”

    Surely the answer’s obvious: we’re planning to move in and end your state of treasonous rebellion against Her Majesty, and this is the preliminary morale-sapping phase.

  3. Chiroptera says

    …followed by a plea negotiation.


    Surrender first, then try to negotiate?

    Jesus, even the apologists for authoritarianism must have done a spit-take on that one!

  4. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Quiptics are bonus cryptic crosswords only available online. The standard cryptic and prize crosswords also appear in the printed paper. The Guardian encourages eccentricity and individuality in their compilers. The best-known, Araucaria, alias the Rev. Graham Lord, alas, announced that he was dying of cancer in a crossword.

  5. Chiroptera says

    Why is a London-based news organization revealing so many secrets about the American government?”

    I guess if you think the main duty of the media is to distract the masses with sports scores and celebrity gossip, that question is rather puzzling.

  6. Corvus illustris says

    In fact, the Post editorial board responded to the leaks by writing an editorial that was indistinguishable from something that could have been dictated by the White House.

    This pretty much answers the question that titles the essay. Shorter version: In fact, the Post editorial board responded to the leaks by writing an editorial that was indistinguishable from something that could have been dictated by the White House.

  7. jaxkayaker says

    Who would have published the Watergate scandal story today? Not the WaPo, that’s certain. Sad. It’s dereliction of their duties as journalists. No need for freedom of the press anymore, the U.S. press isn’t using it anyway.

  8. Mano Singham says

    You do realize, don’t you, that you are encouraging me in new ways to waste my time?

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Is time spent in an intellectually stimulating and enjoyable activity “wasted”?

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’ve done lots things I consider wasteful of time, but it never occurred to me to include crosswords in that category. In recent years, I’ve done them while riding on public transit.

  11. markdowd says

    What i want to know is, why are our news organizations such ass kissers? What do they get out of it? There’s huge popular support for Snowden right now, which possibly implies that an American news organization that sided with him would get some of that support. What are they throwing that all away for?

    Sycophantic suck-ups usually aren’t doing it for fun; they’re looking to get something. What is our media so desperate for?

  12. Mano Singham says

    Not really. I was just being facetious. We all need ways to relax and unwind and doing such puzzles is as harmless as you are likely to get.

  13. CaitieCat says

    Given the current tone of “arrest the journalists who help the leakers” being put about by the government, I’m going to go with “terror at becoming one of the government’s designated enemies of the people”, along with the usual sycophantic sucking-up to power. I believe the administration views the dual nature of this approach as “win-win”.

  14. Mano Singham says

    This is a complex question that requires a complex answer and many media analysts like Robert McChesney, Robert Jensen, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman have gone into it in depth.

    But a simple one to start with is that our media has (due to various factors) become dependent on access to powerful people who give reporters morsels of information which are the things now considered to be ‘news’. Those reporters are then hooked on the sources, kind of like drug addicts, and they cannot afford to alienate them by reporting things that would annoy them.

  15. says

    Editorial independence undoubtedly helps to explain, in part, why The Guardian outperforms its class.

    But don’t forget that The Guardian was an early player in online news, and has deliberately expanded its American readership over the past decade and a half by building on its already very strong international news coverage. The website, like the print newspaper, has also led the field in layout and design, making an attractive venue with helpful navigation.

    Full disclosure: I worked for the Guardian as a software freelancer in at the turn of the century, and have been a vocal supporter of the paper since the late 1970s. Nancy Banks-Smith is the funniest writer in print.


  16. Mano Singham says

    The Guardian website is indeed one of the best. My local paper the Plain Dealer has got to be one of the worst. I absolutely hate going there. I get the print edition and sometimes want to refer to old articles that appeared there and it takes me forever to find them. And the layout is terrible too. It makes you want to leave as quickly as possible.

  17. Frank says

    Agreed about the PD. When the paper changed their online format last year, there was a thread of comments that were mostly negative toward the redesign. At one point, one of the moderators (John Kroll, I think) wrote to the effect that no one seemed to like the old format, so why all the hate for the new one?

    I tried to express that we didn’t like the old format, which was bad, but that this was even worse. I gave examples of better formats (nytimes, WaPo, post-gazzette, etc.). I didn’t get a response.

    I really don’t understand the motives of Advance Publications (owner of the PD, who appears to have forced the changes). It seems like they are actively trying to hasten the demise of the newspaper and associated website (also recently firing support staff; journalists can’t be far behind). How is this a good business model?

  18. Mano Singham says

    I too told Kroll once at a meeting that the site was awful but nothing happened. I think the PD is doomed that way it is going.

  19. emilybritt says

    Keep on the lookout for excellent columnist Nafeez Ahmed, who just started writing for The Guardian. I am reading one of his books, “A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization,” in which he cogently, convincingly, and with much documentation outlines the problems of climate change, food insecurity, peak oil (and other natural resources we use for fuel), terrorism, and militarization of the state around the world. Great work all around!

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