Dec 13, 2013
Truthdiggers of the Week: Editors and Reporters of The Guardian
Posted on Oct 13, 2013
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Since 2009, investigations by The Guardian have sent shock waves through the halls of power across the world. Like others devoted to the principles of their profession, I suspect its editors and reporters would demur at the suggestion that they’re engaged in anything more than journalism. In a strictly technical sense, they’d be right. But no action is deliberately taken without some expectation of consequence, and the thoughtful efforts of Guardian staff, operating in Britain, the United States and now Australia, have had history-determining effects that are decidedly not apolitical.
Three of the paper’s major investigations were profiled by media critic Ken Auletta in the Oct. 7 issue of The New Yorker. The first, from 2009, consisted of a “torrent of stories revealing how Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians, and the Royal Family.” The second came in 2010, when the paper “published a trove of WikiLeaks documents that disclosed confidential conversations among diplomats of the United States, Britain and other governments, and exposed atrocities that were committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The third, some of which was co-authored with The Washington Post, was journalism’s blockbuster event of the summer, beginning with the publication of “top-secret digital files provided by Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security Agency.” The files demonstrated unequivocally, for the first time, that “the N.S.A., in the name of combatting terrorism, had monitored millions of phone calls and emails as well as the private deliberations of allied governments.” Subsequent reports showed the intrusion into people’s private lives extended to nearly every kind of online activity and involved the cooperation of major technology companies, that the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, engaged in similar spying, and that the two organizations shared data.
The impact of the NSA revelations so far has been to force governments and businesses into a stilted conversation with journalists, scholars and civil society about the proper limits on their power to monitor people. The U.S. government’s response was predictable: Surveillance is an essential tool, abuses are limited or prevented by adequate oversight, and the release of Snowden’s documents jeopardized national security and the lives of officials and service members. In short: Trust us. This stuff is complicated. We’re the only ones who understand what we’re doing, and it’s in the public’s best interest to keep it that way. All unauthorized parties in possession of the files were ordered to return them immediately. The British government responded similarly.
Many who value liberty and democracy disagreed. As Auletta reports, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who has led the paper since 1995, told British officials who attempted to dissuade him from publishing the reports “that the files contained information that citizens in a democracy deserved to know, and he assured [Cabinet Secretary Jeremy] Heywood that he has scrubbed the documents so that no undercover officials were identified or put at risk.” The possibility that the paper would be prevented from publishing the investigations was real. “Unlike the U.S., Britain has no First Amendment to guard the press against government censorship. Rusbridger worried that the government would get a court injunction to block the Guardian from publishing not only the G.C.H.Q. story, but also future national security stories.”
Nor, hardly, could Rusbridger’s basic sense of why the conversation is important. “I think what we are saying is that there has to be a wider debate because it’s not just about national security,” he told “Democracy Now!” in September. “There are other interests in society; privacy, civil liberties, of reporting which had to be weighed against security.” The British government didn’t see it that way. Intelligence officials eventually ordered Rusbridger and his colleagues to destroy, in front of a couple of their own spooks, the laptops they used for their stories. The editor called the event “the most bizarre thing that I think has happened in my journalistic career.” He carries part of one of the destroyed circuit boards with him as a “memento … a rather sinister reminder of the intersection of states and journalism.”
The Guardian owes its values and form more to Rusbridger than perhaps anyone else. As the paper has no owner, no publisher appointed him chief editor. He joined the group as a general reporter in 1979, a few years after college, and was promoted up the ladder over the next two and a half decades. In the mid-’90s his peers voted him chief after reading manifestos all applicants were required to submit, in which they stated their vision for the paper’s future. Rusbridger’s, Auletta writes, “expressed his desire to change the image of the Guardian as a left-wing newsaper. ‘I tried to make sure the reporting was straight,’ he told me, while weeding out the ‘mix of reporting and opinion,’ and the habit of ‘telling people what to think.’ The editorial page would no longer automatically support the Labour party.” Auletta quotes Rusbridger’s friend Henry Porter, who writes a column for The Observer, a Sunday edition of The Guardian, as saying, “His basic stance is skepticism.” His brother-in-law, David Leigh, the paper’s former executive investigations editor, describes him as “genuinely moderate. From an American point of view, he is very left. From a British point of view, he is not.” Rusbridger also changed the paper’s physical format, and began an ongoing push for a strong, responsive online presence after a trip to the Silicon Valley in 1994. He describes the paper’s future as “open journalism,” in which free access is provided to readers who are also invited to participate as part of a community of newsmakers. Under this model, a newspaper becomes “a platform as well as a publisher,” Rusbridger told Auletta. All some readers will need to know about Rusbridger is that he credits his decision to become a journalist to the experience of reading all four volumes of George Orwell’s collected writings at age 15.
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