Alan Rusbridger

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We should always err on the side of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden because they’ve traditionally served an important function in our democracy, but that doesn’t mean the former NSA employee has changed America for the better–or much at all.

In the wake of 9/11, most in the country wanted to feel safe and were A-OK with the government taking liberties (figuratively and literally). Big Brother became the favorite sibling. The White House position and policy has shifted somewhat since Snowden went rogue, but I believe from here on in we’re locked in a cat-and-mouse game among government, corporations and citizens, with surveillance and leaks a permanent part of the landscape. The technology we have–and the even more powerful tools we’ll have in the future–almost demands such an arrangement. We’re all increasingly inside a machine now, one that moves much faster than legislation. That’s the new abnormal.

The Financial Times set up an interview with Snowden conducted by Alan Rusbridger, former EIC of the Guardian, the publication that broke the story. The subject is unsurprisingly much more hopeful about the impact of his actions than I am. An excerpt:

Alan Rusbridger:

It’s now, what, three years since the revelations?

Edward Snowden:

It’s been more than three years. June 2013.

Alan Rusbridger:

Tell me first how the world has changed since then. What’s changed as a result of what you did, from your perspective? Not from your personal life, but the story you revealed.

Edward Snowden:

The main thing is that our culture has changed, right? There are many different ways of approaching this. One is we look at the structural changes, we look at the policy changes, we look at the fact that the day the Guardian published the story, for example, the entire establishment leaped out of their chairs and basically said ‘This is untrue, it’s not right, there’s nothing to see here’. You know, ‘Nobody’s listening to your phone calls’, as the president said very early on. Do you remember? I think he sort of spoke with the voice of the establishment in all of these different countries here, saying, ‘I think we’ve drawn the right balance’.

Then you move on to later in the same year when the very first court verdicts began to come forward and they found that these programmes were ‘unlawful, likely unconstitutional’ — that’s a direct quote — and ‘Orwellian in their scope’ — again a quote. And this trend continued in many different courts. The government realising that these programmes could not be legally sustained and would have to be amended if they were to keep any of these powers at all. And to avoid a precedent that they would consider damaging, which is that the Supreme Court basically locks the power of mass surveillance away from them forever, they need a pretty substantial pivot, whereby January of 2014 the president of the US said that, well, of course you could never condone what I did. He believes that this has made us stronger as a nation and that he was going to be recommending changes to a law of Congress, which then later, again this is Congress, they don’t do anything quickly, they actually did amend the law.

Now, they would not likely have made these changes to law on their own without the involvement of the Courts. But these are all three branches of government in the US completely changing their position. In March of 2013, the Supreme Court flushed the case, right, saying that this is a state secret, we can’t talk about it and you can’t prove that you were spied on. Then suddenly when everyone can prove that they had been spied on, we see that the law changed. So that’s sort of the policy side of looking at that. And people can look at the substance there and say, ‘This is significant’. Even though it didn’t solve the problem, it’s a start and, more importantly, it empowers people, it empowers the public; it shows that, for the first time in four years, we can actually start to impose more oversight on intelligence agencies, on spies, rather than giving them a free pass to do whatever, simply because we’re scared, which is understandable but clearly not ethical.

As online threats race up national security agendas and governments look at ways of protecting their national infrastructures a cyber arms race is causing concern to the developed world. Then there’s the other way of looking at it, which is in terms of public awareness.•

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The upside to the financial crisis of a medium, say like magazines with their economic model tossed into the crapper by technological progress, is that publications are forced to reinvent themselves, get innovative and try offbeat things. In that spirit, the resuscitated Newsweek assigned Wikileaks editor (not “self-styled editor”) Julian Assange to review Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

And what a gleefully obnoxious pan he delivers, making some salient points along the way, even if it’s not exactly unexpected that he would be bilious toward traditional media in favor of alterna-journalists like himself. Additionally: Assange proves he is a very funny writer. You know, just like Bill Cosby.

An excerpt:

In recent years, we have seen The Guardian consult itself into cinematic history—in the Jason Bourne films and others—as a hip, ultra-modern, intensely British newspaper with a progressive edge, a charmingly befuddled giant of investigative journalism with a cast-iron spine.

The Snowden Files positions The Guardian as central to the Edward Snowden affair, elbowing out more significant players like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for Guardian stablemates, often with remarkably bad grace.

“Disputatious gay” Glenn Greenwald’s distress at the U.K.’s detention of his husband, David Miranda, is described as “emotional” and “over-the-top.” My WikiLeaks colleague Sarah Harrison—who helped rescue Snowden from Hong Kongis dismissed as a “would-be journalist.”

I am referred to as the “self-styled editor of WikiLeaks.” In other words, the editor of WikiLeaks. This is about as subtle as Harding’s withering asides get. You could use this kind of thing on anyone.

Flatulent Tributes

The book is full of flatulent tributes to The Guardian and its would-be journalists. “[Guardian journalist Ewen] MacAskill had climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau. His calmness now stood him in good stead.” Self-styled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is introduced and reintroduced in nearly every chapter, each time quoting the same hagiographic New Yorker profile as testimony to his “steely” composure and “radiant calm.”

That this is Hollywood bait could not be more blatant.•

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I check the U.S. version of the Guardian site several times a day, something I can say about few other three-year-old publications–or ones of any vintage. It’s smart and brisk and the Edward Snowden story placed it at the center of global media landscape, even if the scoop didn’t actually produce revenue, something that was pointed out by Michael Wolff, when he briefly took a break from his busy schedule of farting into the open mouths of sleeping babies. Although the publication can rely on its considerable trust for the next several years, it will eventually have to divine a way to turn quality journalism into profit. It has plenty of company in trying to piece together that puzzle.

Joe Pompeo, the excellent media reporter for Capital New York, has an interview with Guardian veteran Katherine Viner, who’s taking over the expanding American operation. An excerpt:

“Where does Guardian U.S. go from here? ‘Onwards and upwards and much bigger,’ Viner told me in her first interview of the new gig. It’s a tall order, and one that will place her under the microscope of skeptics questioning whether a big play for U.S. scale is worth the costs associated with such an effort—never mind that The Guardian has the luxury of being owned by a trust created expressly to ensure its survival while preserving editorial independence. (Look no further than Guardian Media Group’s whopping $1 billion sale this past January of its stake in Trader Media Group.)

In a June feature for British GQ, media critic Michael Wolff made a case that The Guardian’s sustained investment in the Snowden story for much of 2013 and 2014 stilted the New York newsroom’s broader mission without a real business benefit. ‘The success of the Snowden story, at the expense of the New York operation, has many people in the Guardian U.S. constellation … wondering about the future of New York,’ wrote Wolff, whose account was published a few months after his column for Guardian U.S. came to an end.

Viner offered a different take on the current moment and what The Guardian’s Snowden coverage has achieved in the U.S. ‘It means the site’s got this massive profile now,’ said the optimistic editor, ‘and I can build on that success, expand our coverage into lots of areas and deepen our relationships with American readers.’

She wouldn’t get into the nuts and bolts, telling me she didn’t want to publicize them in an article before having discussions with staff. She did however say that Guardian U.S. is ‘in a period of ambitious growth, and we are working on a number of serious plans.’Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger was ever so slightly more specific when I pressed him for details. Speaking by phone one night while on vacation in Tuscany, fireworks whizzing overhead, the 60-year-old said there are two U.S. expansion plans that Viner will be working on pending final board approval in mid-November. ‘It will get bigger,’ he said. ‘We’re just not ready to say in what ways.'”

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In his latest compulsively readable GQ article, “What Does the Future Hold for the Guardian?” Michael Wolff analyzes the British publication’s attempt to globalize itself and win the United States, to less-than-mixed financial results. The Snowden story, as important as it may have been, could not be monetized, and the company continues to hemorrhage cash. Wolff finds the the Guardian’s singular editor, Alan Rusbridger, “unpleasant” in his lack of transparency, whereas Wolff is unpleasant for the opposite reason. An excerpt about Rusbridger, who, by virtue of the publication’s unusual financial arrangement, is a throwback to an earlier era:

“While the Guardian has a business staff with a CEO, and is overseen by trustees with ultimate responsibility, it has one real power centre, strategic thinker and moral compass: its editor, Alan Rusbridger. (A kind of preternatural consensus surrounds Rusbridger, but underneath him the Guardian is a fraught political cauldron, with underlings struggling to align with him, stay in his favour and undercut everyone else who is trying: ‘a nest of vipers,’ in the description of an outside consultant brought in to work on one of the paper’s big redesign projects.)

The 60-year-old Rusbridger is, surely, among the most talented newspaper editors of his generation (the other, at the opposite end of the news and philosophical spectrum, is Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail) and, as well, the most opaque, sending cryptic messages in a cipher which no one person can completely decode.

An hour with him is both unpleasant in the exertions required to penetrate his lack of transparency and fill the conversational void and, yet, at the same time, uplifting and restorative. The vacuum that surrounds him somehow seems to represent moral superiority and it draws you in. Six different people of high rank at the paper have said to me, on different occasions, the following words: ‘I would do anything for Alan.’ These are not words you usually hear in a modern company; they are not even credible. But they suggest the Guardian’s sense of purpose and the potency of its Kool-Aid. (I once sat next to Rusbridger’s wife at a Guardian dinner; she kept referencing what seemed like a wholly different person, a normal, fallible, workaday chap named ‘Al.’ Weird.)

His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don’t. You are in or you are out. You are family or you are not. Emily Bell, once a potential Rusbridger successor, who was at the Guardian for the better part of two decades (coming in through the Guardian’s acquisition of the Observer- ever an unresolved relationship), told me, after she left several years ago to take a teaching position in the US, “I never really was an insider.”

Rusbridger has run the place since 1995 and, in some less-than-rational way, its future exists wholly in his head or at his whim. Not only is there enormous deference to him and dependence on him, but a sense of the abyss at any suggestion that he might leave (he is often suggested for eminent positions at places like the Royal Opera House).

Rusbridger has maintained two dominant ideas about the Guardian’s future: going digital and going to the US.”

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In a New York Time Magazine interview conducted by Amy Chozick, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains how contemporary technologies have democratized expression whereas some older ones inhibited it, making non-experts passive:


You’ve played piano since you were a child, and you’ve written about parallels between this pursuit and digital news. Can you explain that?

Alan Rusbridger:

Amateur music-making used to be very commonplace and was valued in its own right. When recorded sound came along, most people became the passive receivers of other people’s music. I do think that mirrors something that’s going on in journalism at the moment, which is that anybody can blog, anybody can tweet, anybody can write and publish.


You’ve said you want to make The Guardian a platform as well as a publisher. Is this an effort to tap into that?

Alan Rusbridger:

Absolutely. For years, news organizations had a quasi monopoly on information simply because we had the means of distribution. I think if as a journalist you are not intensely curious about what has been created by people who are not journalists, then you’re missing out on a lot.”

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The opening of a spot-on open letter from Carl Bernstein to Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger as the latter was preparing to be questioned at parliamentary hearings:

“Dear Alan,

There is plenty of time – and there are abundant venues – to debate relevant questions about Mr Snowden’s historical role, his legal fate, the morality of his actions, and the meaning of the information he has chosen to disclose.

But your appearance before the Commons today strikes me as something quite different in purpose and dangerously pernicious: an attempt by the highest UK authorities to shift the issue from government policies and excessive government secrecy in the United States and Great Britain to the conduct of the press – which has been quite admirable and responsible in the case of the Guardian, particularly, and the way it has handled information initially provided by Mr Snowden.

Indeed, generally speaking, the record of journalists, in Britain and the United States in handling genuine national security information since World War II, without causing harm to our democracies or giving up genuine secrets to real enemies, is far more responsible than the over-classification, disingenuousness, and (sometimes) outright lying by a series of governments, prime ministers and presidents when it comes to information that rightly ought to be known and debated in a free society. Especially in recent years.”•


Bernstein + Woodward + Buckley in 1974:

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There might not always be Broadway, but they’ll always be theater. Likewise they’ll always be journalism despite the traditional economic print model being flattened before our eyes. But how will news be delivered and supported? Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger doesn’t have the answers, but he identifies all the right questions in an interview at the Browser. The opening:

Talking about the future of news, some people might question what the fuss is about. In a couple of clicks they can find all the news they need, and what’s more it’s free. What’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The main if not the only problem is the business model. Otherwise, everything’s wonderful. There’s never been an era with more and better information, and greater ease of creating, consuming and sharing it. It’s a golden age. But at the moment, the economics of it all have yet to settle down and be worked out. There’s going to be a giant shakedown, because too much is happening to be sustained along the lines of the past. So it’s a golden age in terms of what is being created, but it’s not yet a golden age in terms of how it is all going to be paid for. Some things are going to stop, some things are going to begin, and some things we can’t yet imagine will happen. Everything is in transition.

It’s a true cliché that a crisis is also an opportunity, for us to rearrange the lego blocks. You’ve quoted CP Scott, who in 1921, with the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, said: ‘Physical boundaries are disappearing… What a change for the world! What a chance for the newspaper!’ What chances are there for the newspaper today?

It’s of an order that Scott was talking about. That was a fantastic thing – a man in his eighties who could see that these new technological advances meant that the Manchester Guardian would have access to, and would be able to distribute, news at a speed and with a range that was unimaginable when he started being editor. The same thing was true with me. When I became editor [in 1995], it was essentially a print product. But now [with the website] we’ve been catapulted into global reach and influence.”