The future of the media

When the history of the Snowden revelations are written, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras will of course figure prominently. But we have to give The Guardian newspaper and its editor Alan Rusbridger a lot of credit for being willing to publish the original revelations. There is no question that having a mainstream media outlet with a wide readership take the lead had a huge effect on the impact the story had. It is not surprising that the British government plans to retaliate against them, over and above ordering the extraordinary destruction of its computers. Rusbridger himself says that the scope of the NSA surveillance goes beyond George Orwell’s imagination.
Greenwald, usually a harsh critic of the major media, gives the paper high praise, especially for its willingness to share its scoops with others in order to get them out quickly

I’ve been continuously amazed by how intrepid, fearless and committed the Guardian’s editors have been in reporting these NSA stories as effectively and aggressively as possible. They have never flinched in reporting these stories, have spared no expense in pursuing them, have refused to allow vague and baseless government assertions to suppress any of the newsworthy revelations, have devoted extraordinary resources to ensure accuracy and potency, and have generally been animated by exactly the kind of adversarial journalistic ethos that has been all too lacking over the last decade or so (see this Atlantic article from yesterday highlighting the role played by the Guardian US’s editor-in-chief, Janine Gibson).

I don’t need to say any of this, but do so only because it’s so true and impressive: they deserve a lot of credit for the impact these stories have had. To underscore that: because we’re currently working on so many articles involving NSA domestic spying, it would have been weeks, at least, before we would have been able to publish this story about indiscriminate NSA surveillance of Brazilians. Rather than sit on such a newsworthy story – especially at a time when Latin America, for several reasons, is so focused on these revelations – they were enthused about my partnering with O Globo, where it could produce the most impact. In other words, they sacrificed short-term competitive advantage for the sake of the story by encouraging me to write this story with O Globo. I don’t think many media outlets would have made that choice, but that’s the kind of journalistic virtue that has driven the paper’s editors from the start of this story.

It is not at all guaranteed that other news outlets would have behaved as honorably if handed such a scoop. In fact, Chris Blackhurst, the former editor of The Independent, has a completely different and appalling view of the media’s role vis a vis the government. In a quite extraordinary confession, he says:

In which case, guys, uncurl your lips and explain what it is, exactly, that the NSA and GCHQ, are doing that is so profoundly terrible?

If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?

In August, this paper also received information from the Snowden files. We did not publish much of the information we were given because the Government, in the shape of a Defence Advisory Notice or “DA” notice, asked us to desist, in the interests of national security. Several times in my career, I’ve been served with a DA notice. On each occasion, I confess, I’ve not published. Does that make me a coward and an establishment lackey? Or responsible and sensible?

Oooh, ooh, I know, let me answer! It is ‘coward and lackey’.

I also found it interesting that when the New York Times was later included among the news organization that had some access to the Snowden document, the UK government approached them to hand them over. This is surely because that paper has acquired the dubious reputation of being deferential to the government and being willing to suppress information if the government asks it to. But thanks to the excellent strategy of Edward Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras of retaining full access to all the documents and parceling them out to various outlets, the NYT can no longer do that without losing out on the big stories. So the editor said no. I have no doubt that if they had exclusive rights to the Snowden files, they would have cleared things with the US and UK governments before publishing anything

But all major media outlets are to some extent dependent on the indulgence of the governments in the countries in which they operate and if that government is ruthless enough and there are no safeguards for press freedom, as is the case in the UK, then there will be limits to how far they are willing to challenge that power. We see that the British Conservative prime minister David Cameron has launched a new effort to intimidate The Guardian aided by some in the Labour party because the national security state makes sure that it has allies across the mainstream political spectrum.

This is why the new journalistic venture started by Greenwald, that has already apparently signed up superb people like Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, is such a hopeful sign. The details of it are not yet available but if it can be kept light and nimble and most importantly transnational, then it may be able to escape governmental pressure. If big corporations can use their transnational nature to evade taxes, why shouldn’t journalistic operations use it in the service of much more worthwhile goals?

I suspect that it will adopt many of the features of the ProPublica model of being an independent journalistic entity that partners with major news outlets to get maximum exposure for its stories. Those outlets will be pressured to publish them because otherwise the stories will be shopped elsewhere.

I can’t wait to see it in operation.


  1. machintelligence says

    If real privacy is impossible, then the best alternative is: If WE can’t have secrets, then THEY cant have secrets.
    It seems fair to me.

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