3 October 2013
The Guardian by the New Yorker
Twitter discussion on Jacob Applebaum
accusing The Guardian of withholding Snowden material:
The New Yorker
Annals of Communications
Freedom of Information
A British newspaper wants to take its aggressive investigations global, but
money is running out.
by Ken Auletta October 7, 2013
At eight-thirty on the morning of June 21st, Alan Rusbridger, the unflappable
editor of the Guardian, Britains liberal daily, was in his office,
absorbing a lecture from Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary to Prime Minister
David Cameron. Accompanying Heywood was Craig Oliver, Camerons director
of communications. The deputy editor, Paul Johnson, joined them in
Rusbridgers office, overlooking the Regents Canal, which runs
behind Kings Cross station, in North London. According to Rusbridger,
Heywood told him, in a steely voice, The Prime Minister, the Deputy
Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Attorney General, and others in
government are extremely concerned about what youre doing.
Since June 5th, the Guardian had been publishing top-secret digital files
provided by Edward Snowden, a former contract employee of the National Security
Agency. In a series of articles, the paper revealed that the N.S.A., in the
name of combatting terrorism, had monitored millions of phone calls and e-mails
as well as the private deliberations of allied governments. It also revealed,
again relying on Snowdens documents, that, four years earlier, the
Government Communications Headquarters (G.C.H.Q.), Britains counterpart
to the N.S.A., had eavesdropped on the communications of other nations attending
the G20 summit, in London.
Such articles have become a trademark of the Guardian. In 2009, it published
the first in a torrent of stories revealing how Rupert Murdochs British
tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities,
politicians, and the Royal Family. In 2010, the Guardian 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; in August, Bradley (now Chelsea)
Manning, a private in the U.S. Army, was sentenced to up to thirty-five years
in prison for his role in the leak.
Now Rusbridger was poised to publish a story about how the G.C.H.Q. not only
collected vast quantities of e-mails, Facebook posts, phone calls, and Internet
histories but shared these with the N.S.A. Heywood had learned about the
most recent revelation when Guardian reporters called British authorities
for comment; he warned Rusbridger that the Guardian was in possession of
stolen government documents. We want them back, he said. 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. By publishing this, youre
jeopardizing not only national security but our ability to catch pedophiles,
drug dealers, child sex rings, Heywood said. Youre an editor,
but you have a responsibility as a citizen as well. (Camerons
office did not respond to requests for comment.)
Rusbridger replied that the files contained information that citizens in
a democracy deserved to know, and he assured Heywood that he had scrubbed
the documents so that no undercover officials were identified or put at risk.
He had also taken steps to insure the storys publication. Days earlier,
Rusbridger had sent a Federal Express package containing a thumbnail drive
of selected Snowden documents to an intermediary in the U.S. The person was
to pass on the package to Paul Steiger, the former editor of the Wall Street
Journal and the founding editor of the online, nonprofit news site ProPublica;
if the Guardian was muzzled, Steiger would publish the documents on ProPublica.
Besides, Rusbridger reminded Heywood, the governments reach was limited:
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian blogger and columnist with whom Snowden had
shared the documents, lived in Brazil, and was edited by Janine Gibson, a
Guardian editor in New York.
It was a little like watching two Queens Counsel barristers in
a head-to-head struggle, two very polished performers engaging each other,
Johnson, the deputy editor, said. The Guardian has a reputation as a leftish
publication that enjoys poking the establishment; its critics object that
it allows commentary to occasionally slip into its headlines and news stories.
Rusbridger, who is fifty-nine, has been its editor for eighteen years. He
wears square, black-framed glasses and has a mop of dark hair that sprawls
across his head and over his ears. He could pass for a librarian. His
physical appearance doesnt tell you how tough he is, Nick Davies,
the investigative reporter whose byline dominated the Murdoch and WikiLeaks
After an hour, Rusbridger ushered Heywood and Oliver out with a thank-you.
He had taken what he considered a cautious approach to publishing the Snowden
revelations. He consulted Guardian lawyers. He called Davies back from vacation
and summoned the longtime investigations editor, David Leigh, out of retirement
for advice and to help analyze the documents. He sought the opinion of two
associates: the centrist Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins and the liberal
Observer columnist Henry Porter. He doesnt buckle, Porter,
who is a close friend, said. Hes extremely calm. He could easily
head up any of the three intelligence agencies here.
At 5:23 P.M., roughly eight hours after the encounter in his office, Rusbridger
ordered the Guardian to post the G.C.H.Q. story on its Web site and then
in its print edition. Although the British government had taken no further
action, the mood in the Guardians offices was anxious. As the stories
based on Snowdens revelations were taking shape, Rusbridger had hired
additional security for the building and established a secure office two
floors above the newsroom, just down the corridor from the advertising
department, to house the documents. When he flew to New York to work with
his team there on the stories, he couldnt talk on the phone,
his wife, Lindsay Mackie, said. He couldnt say what was going
It has been the Guardians biggest story so far. With eighty-four million
monthly visitors, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Guardian
Web site is now the third most popular English-language newspaper Web site
in the world, behind Londons Daily Mail, with its celebrity gossip
and abundant cleavage, and the New York Times. But its print circulation,
of a hundred and ninety thousand, is half what it was in 2002. The Guardian,
which is supported by the Scott Trust, established nearly eighty years ago
to subsidize an independent and liberal newspaper,
has lost money for nine straight years. In the most recent fiscal year, the
paper lost thirty-one million pounds (about fifty million dollars), an
improvement over the forty-four million pounds it lost the year before.
Last year, Andrew Miller, the director of the trust and the C.E.O. of the
Guardian Media Group, warned that the trusts money would be exhausted
in three to five years if the losses were not dramatically reduced. To save
the Guardian, Rusbridger has pushed to transform it into a global digital
newspaper, aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers and available entirely
for free. In 2011, Guardian U.S., a digital-only edition, was expanded, followed
this year by the launch of an Australian online edition. Its a grand
experiment, he concedes: just how free can a free press be?
Rusbridger and Mackie live in a nineteenth-century house in Kentish Town,
a gentrifying neighborhood in northwest London that was once home to Karl
Marx and George Orwell. A pug named Angus and a cat named Retro roam the
main floor, which features a long sitting room, a fireplace, and a magnificent
Fazioli grand piano that Rusbridger practices on most mornings. This September,
in the U.S., he published Play It Again: An Amateur Against the
Impossible, a professional memoir that, amid his recounting of the
Guardians coverage of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Murdochs
News of the World, describes an eighteen-month-long effort he made to master
a difficult Chopin piece, Ballade in G Minor. Hes forensic,
Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, says. Hes got
a very penetrating mind. Its very revealing that he learned to play
the Chopin piece. Its the same thing: I am quite prepared to
spend hours and hours to learn Chopin. Im prepared to spend hours and
hours to get the story.
Rusbridger was born in 1953 in Lusaka, in what is now Zambia. He was the
younger of two sons of H. G. Rusbridger, an Oxford-educated former missionary
who was the Deputy Director of Education for the British colonial administration.
His mother travelled to Africa as a nurse and later became an amateur artist.
His father was very even-tempered, maybe placid, Rusbridger said.
Is placid pejorative? I mean placid in a
non-pejorative way. He was very straightforward, very solid. Mackie
describes her husband similarly: He never comes home and kicks the
cat. Emily Bell, a former Web editor at the Guardian, described Rusbridger
as inscrutable and gnomic. David Leigh, who retired
this year as the Guardians investigations editor, and who is
Rusbridgers brother-in-law, said, His style is to be blank. He
speaks very quietly. Hes like a duck: he appears to glide along the
water, but the legs are paddling furiously.
The family moved to London when Rusbridger was five. At fifteen, he read
the four volumes of Orwells collected writing, and he credits Orwell
for his decision to pursue journalism. He attended a boys boarding
school in Surrey and was accepted to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where
he studied English literature. In the summer of his first and second years,
he worked as an intern at the Cambridge Evening News. In 1976, after graduation,
he was offered a full-time reporting job there. He stayed for three years,
until 1979, when the Guardian hired him as a general reporter, based in London.
Mackie, who is a few years older than Rusbridger, was also a reporter at
the Guardian. Her sister was married to David Leigh, then an investigative
reporter for the paper. Rusbridger approached Leigh and asked if Mackie was
in a relationship.
No, Leigh told him. Good luck.
This is a measure of Alans careful approach to things,
Leigh told me. He was reconnoitring before making his move. Mackie
left the Guardian in 1981 to freelance for the paper; they married the following
Rusbridgers work impressed editors, and he was asked to write a daily
diary column, in which he sometimes ridiculed the powerful; in 1985, he became
a feature writer. In 1986, the Sunday Observer offered him the job of television
critic. Nine months later, a new opportunity appeared. Robert Maxwell, the
owner of the Daily Mirror and other newspaper and publishing ventures, decided
to start the London Daily News; Rusbridger accepted a job as its Washington
bureau chief, and he and his familythe couple now had two young
daughtersmoved to the U.S. It opened my eyes to American
journalism, he said. I had never read the New York Times or the
Washington Post. They had ethical debates, which we didnt have in the
U.K. I liked the seriousness of the U.S. press. He credits his stint
in Washington for his decision, some years later, to appoint an ombudsman
and start a corrections page at the Guardian.
When the mercurial Maxwell closed the Daily News, six months later, Rusbridger
welcomed an offer from the Guardian to return to London as a feature writer.
In 1992, the editor, Peter Preston, offered him the editorship of a weekend
supplement. Rusbridger introduced a mixture of life-style and other topics,
including a narrative of a visit to a nudist colony. Rusbridger was dismissed
by some as a middlebrow, but weekend circulation jumped. Preston then appointed
Rusbridger to edit a new daily feature section, the G2. When Kurt Cobain
died, the section ran an extensive account of his life and death. All
the graybeards came and said, Why are we doing this? he
recalls. I said, Our daughters are crying. Thats why
were doing this.
The Guardian was founded in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, a weekly owned
by local merchants. In 1872, C. P. Scott became the editor and, eventually,
the owner. During a fifty-seven-year reign, Scott steered the paper to the
left. In 1936, his son set aside money and established the Scott Trust, to
secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity:
as a quality national newspaper without party affiliation; remaining faithful
to liberal tradition. In 1959, the newspaper dropped
Manchester from the masthead; five years later, it moved to London.
By 1993, the Guardian was a thriving six-day-a-week paper, and the trust
decided to buy the Sunday Observer. The following year, Preston made Rusbridger
the deputy editor. The board of the Scott Trust has final say in choosing
the editor, but the tradition is for candidates to nominate themselves by
writing a manifesto describing their vision for the paper, and to allow a
staff vote. There were four candidates. The ballot results ratified the
preference of Preston and the trust. In 1995, when Preston stepped down,
Rusbridger became the editor.
In his manifesto, Rusbridger expressed his desire to change the image of
the Guardian as a left-wing newspaper. 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.
I saw opportunity and space in the middle left, Rusbridger said.
The shift fit his own outlook. His friend Henry Porter says, His basic
stance is skepticism. David Leigh thinks of his brother-in-law as
genuinely moderate. From an American point of view, he is very left.
From a British point of view, he is not.
Rusbridger was intent on modernizing the Guardianhiring younger reporters,
adding color to its black-and-white pages. Eventually, he decided to switch
to new presses and publish the paper in the Berliner format, which is narrower
and shorter than a broadsheet yet taller and wider than a tabloid; it is
used by several other European papers, including Le Monde. Rusbridger believed
that the new format would look fresh to readers; most of the U.K.s
twelve daily national newspapers were tabloids. The decision met with opposition
within the paper and created an impression among some that Rusbridger was
imperious. He delegates operationally to his journalists more than
any editor Ive seen, Ian Katz, a former deputy news editor, said.
But when it comes to big decisions he has a tendency to grip the reins
tighter. The mood of most people was that we should go tabloid. We thought
wed do a better job than anyone else. There was this extraordinary
moment when Alan said, This conversation is over. Were not going
to go tabloid.
The new presses cost eighty million pounds, and the expenditure was a costly
mistake, Tony Gallagher, the editor of the Telegraph, told me. At best,
the press is busy one and a half to two hours a day. Its silent because
no one else prints in the Berliner format. Theres no way thats
a good investment. Rusbridger said, The option was to build presses
or rent them. We had to go full color. I dont think there was any
difference in costs.
Meanwhile, Rusbridger was thinking about the Guardians digital future.
In 1994, a year before he became editor, he visited Silicon Valley. I
came back and wrote a memo to Peter saying the Internet was the future,
Rusbridger recalls. I told Peter this would change everything and we
had to explore it. Emily Bell, the Observers business editor
at the time, remembers having dinner with Rusbridger and others during the
Edinburgh TV festival in August, 1999, and telling him that changes hed
made to the papers Web site were inadequate. She prodded him to move
more aggressively into the online world, with more breaking news and analysis;
in 2001, he placed her in charge of turning the Web site into a vibrant online
Bell, who left the paper in 2010 to become the director of the Tow Center
for Digital Journalism, at the Columbia Journalism School, says that she
and Rusbridger agreed that they would not erect a pay wall for their online
content. If the core purpose of the Scott Trust is to keep the Guardian
going in perpetuity, there is no choice, Bell says. The Guardian has
only sixty thousand subscribers, far fewer than the Times, the Wall Street
Journal, or the Financial Times. It was competing with the BBC, which has
the largest free Web site in the world. And its newspaper sales in the United
Kingdom were falling. The Guardian really didnt stand a chance
if it didnt do something with the digital future, Bell says.
Most important, Rusbridger wanted the newspaper to be known for investigative
reporting. Under its previous editor, the Guardian had launched a few prominent
investigations, including its coverage of Jonathan Aitken, a Tory Cabinet
minister; the paper reported that Aitken had procured prostitutes and made
business deals with wealthy Saudis and arms dealers, who showered him with
gifts. Aitken denounced the allegations, sued the paper for publishing
deliberate lies, and declared that he would cut out the
cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword
After Rusbridger took over, and in the final stages of a libel trial, a Guardian
reporter unearthed hotel bills that proved Aitken had concocted an elaborate
series of fabrications; he had perjured himself, and was sent to jail.
Jonathan Aitken seems to have impaled himself on the simple sword of
truth, Rusbridger said at a press conference. Rusbridger had proved
that he was in fact made of steel, Leigh said; the newsroom staff
presented him with a stainless-steel sword.
Nick Davies works for the Guardian under a freelance contract and operates
out of his home, just outside Brighton; he is sixty, with short-cropped white
hair and a blunt manner. After graduating from Oxford, in 1974, Davies worked
as a stable boy and a railway guard before joining the Guardian, in July
of 1979. In 1984, he left for the Observer, and then to write books and to
try other papers, before returning to the Guardian in 1989. The Guardian
appealed to him because it is owned by a trust that is not driven by profits
and it has a moral agenda, Davies says. Over and over again,
the Guardian has been on what I would call the right side of the moral barricades
in key moments. Davies cited the papers exposure, in 2009, of
corporations evading their tax liability. He insists that this liberal bias
is reflected in the subjects we cover, not in the reporting.
A moral agenda is not an excuse for distorting information to score
In June of 2009, over lunch with Rusbridger, Davies recounted a story that
had not received much press coverage. In 2006, a private investigator and
a reporter at Murdochs News of the World were arrested, and both later
pleaded guilty to hacking into the phones of staff of the Royal Family. News
International, under which Murdochs four London newspapers operated,
calmed a potential controversy by assuring Parliament that a full rigorous
internal inquiry had determined that these were isolated acts. Davies
told Rusbridger that he had learned this claim was untrue; the illegal activity
was widespread. But digging deeper would entail taking on Murdoch, who dominated
more than a third of national newspaper circulation in Britain, and who owned
a controlling interest in BSkyB, a powerful satellite-broadcasting enterprise.
Rusbridger told Davies to pursue the story. He has a really useful
piece of equipment that most editors dont have, which is a spinal
column, Davies says of Rusbridger.
Starting in July of 2009, Davies had filed a series of front-page stories
exposing scandalous and criminal activity in and around the Murdoch empire:
hush money to hacking victims; payoffs to police officials; and evidence
that top editors had condoned the hacking. The stories initially attracted
little attention. But Davies and the Guardian pursued the investigation;
Scotland Yard was eventually compelled to reopen its case, and public outrage
ensued. Senior Murdoch editors and executives resigned and others were arrested.
Advertisers yanked ads from the News of the World, and Murdoch shut down
the paper. Its now a billion dollars thats been wiped off
News Corp shares, Rusbridger wrote in his memoir, describing the night
he learned of the papers closure. Emails until about 1:30 waiting
for the adrenalin to subside. Realise it wont. Not for days. Or
weeks. Murdoch offered a public apology, which Davies calls deeply
Davies believes that some of the most significant stories in a newspaper
are buried in brief news items. In 2010, he reminded Rusbridger of a small
story in the Guardian about the arrest of Bradley Manning for leaking thousands
of government documents to WikiLeaks. Thats an amazing story,
Davies told Rusbridger. Im going to persuade them to give me
all the cables. Davies convinced WikiLeaks that it should share the
documents with the Guardian, arguing that its publication of them would attract
more notice than if they were published on the WikiLeaks Web site. On
Daviess advice, Rusbridger took the unprecedented step of bringing
in the New York Times as a partner. A British newspaper might be blocked
from publishing, but an American outlet would have First Amendment protection.
WikiLeaks handed over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. A Guardian
team spent the summer digesting, scrubbing, and redacting them. Rusbridger
was satisfied that the paper had eliminated any danger to the lives of U.S.
intelligence officials or local people who coöperated with them. He
was still concerned that the release of government cables could undermine
essential governance. Diplomacy relies on secrecy, he said.
Nonetheless, after talking it through with colleagues, he decided to go ahead.
The Guardians accounts included transcripts of U.S. officials condoning
the use of torture by their Iraqi allies, and diplomats making public statements
that contradicted cables they were sending to their governments. Rusbridger
and the Guardian were criticized for the stories. Roger Alton, the executive
editor of the London Times, told me that he would not have published the
WikiLeaks documents in that form. I thought it was taking material
and throwing it at the market without looking at what damage it caused. It
came from an anti-American, Julian Assange. An editor of a London paper
praised the Guardian for publishing the documents but said that it stayed
a little too close to Assange. In his memoir, Rusbridger describes
tense negotiations with Assange, an anarchist who could be paranoid
one moment and lucidly strategic the next. Hes both
a collaborator and a source, Rusbridger writes, and his challenge as
an editor was to persuade the deeply suspicious Assange to keep
coöperating. But in 2010, when Sweden began investigating allegations
that Assange had raped and sexually assaulted two women, Davies and the Guardian
were the first to reveal the details of the charges against him.
The Guardians third major scoop owed nearly as much to Glenn Greenwald
as to Edward Snowden. Greenwald, who is forty-six, graduated from N.Y.U.
law school in 1994 and was recruited by a top corporate law firm, Wachtell,
Lipton, Rosen & Katz. After eighteen months, Greenwald left. Im
not an institutional person, he told me. I was not looking to
represent Goldman Sachs and big corporations. He recently told BuzzFeed,
the news site, If I had to do that one more day, I was going to jump
out the window. I knew that I didnt want to be representing rich people.
I wanted to be suing them.
He set up a private practice and took on pro-bono civil-liberties cases.
In 2004, looking to make a change, he rented an apartment in Rio de Janeiro.
On his second day, at the beach, he met David Miranda, a nineteen-year-old
Brazilian. They became a couple and remained in Rio. In late 2005, Greenwald
started blogging, focussing on the N.S.A. and the Bush Administrations
surveillance policies, which he abhorred. He has written four books, on civil
liberties and Washington politics, and in 2007 was hired as a columnist for
the online publication Salon. In August of 2012, the Guardian invited him
to be a part-time blogger and columnist. Greenwald readily describes himself
as an activist and an analyst. In his blog posts, he has encouraged readers
to participate in an anti-surveillance rally in Washington, D.C., and has
denounced the rampant, Strangelove-like megalomania in the National
In January of 2013, Snowden, who was working as a computer specialist for
Booz Allen Hamilton, an N.S.A. contractor, made contact with the filmmaker
Laura Poitras, who was working on a documentary about surveillance. She had
already made two documentaries exploring the consequences of the American
invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. Snowden reportedly was a fan of her
work, and he sent her a series of anonymous e-mails that contained explicit
information about what he said was police-state-style spying by the N.S.A.
Poitras consulted, among others, Barton Gellman, a former national-security
reporter for the Washington Post, whom she had met in 2010, when they were
fellows at N.Y.U.s Center on Law and Security. Poitras knew that Gellman,
now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, had written extensively about
government surveillance programs. Snowden asked her to contact Greenwald,
with whom she had earlier developed a friendship. Both men told Poitras that
the e-mails shed received from this unnamed source seemed legitimate.
Greenwald told me that Snowden initially sent him a small number of encrypted
documents through Poitras. In May, Snowden offered to share extensive government
documentation of what the N.S.A. was doing. That month, with the Guardians
approval, Greenwald and Poitras met with Snowden in Hong Kong. For reasons
he will not discuss, Gellman, who also obtained documents from Snowden, chose
not to go. Nevertheless, as Gellman later wrote in the Post, Snowden offered
to share with Gellman the full text of a PowerPoint presentation describing
PRISM, a top-secret surveillance program that gathered intelligence
from Silicon Valley companies. Snowden asked that the Post publish the
full text of the PowerPoint presentation within seventy-two hours.
I told him we would not make any guarantee about what we published
or when, Gellman told me.
Gellman and the Post produced some impressive N.S.A. exclusives, including
the first account of PRISM, on which Poitras shared the byline. But Greenwald
and the Guardian dominated coverage of the leaks. 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. The Guardian 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 cant
keep up with what youre publishing.
Gellman, a fifty-two-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and former Rhodes Scholar,
took a more deliberate approach. Its hard to overstate the complexity
of the journalistic, national security, and legal considerations in this
story, he told me in an e-mail. I never saw anything like it
in a couple of decades of covering defense, intelligence, and foreign policy.
On first reading, I understood maybe half of any given memo or slide deck
in the materials I got from Snowden. These are internal documents, dense
with jargon and acronyms and references to things that are common knowledge
at Fort Meade, the headquarters of the N.S.A. Additional research and
reporting was essential, Gellman wrote. The material also raised
legitimate and quite serious national security concerns. Neither I
nor the Post would be prepared to write a story without hearing out U.S.
government experts on those concerns.
Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the New York Times and now a columnist
for the paper, described the Guardian coverage as a terrific story,
adding, I wish the Times had had it. But he differed with the
Guardians decision to attach the co-byline of an opinion columnist
to what are supposed to be news stories. If one of our columnists had
come up with a story of that magnitudesomething that could not be contained
in a columnwe would have turned it over to the newsroom reporting
staff, Keller said. And we would say in the story, Nick
Kristof obtained these documents. But we would not have Nick Kristof
write the story for the front page of the New York Times. Jill Abramson,
the current editor, offered a hedged response: Greenwald hasnt
had a byline in the Times, and I make it a practice of not making decisions
based on situations I havent yet confronted.
Greenwald bristled when he heard Kellers remarks. That to me
is a really good reason why people like Edward Snowden dont want to
go to the New York Times, he said. This idea that if you ever
express an opinion in your life about the news topic on which youre
reporting, that somehow that makes you not a real journalistthat you
wouldnt be able to write the story. The test for good journalism,
he said, should be not whether you have opinions but if your reporting
Greenwalds praise for Snowden has at times been unrestrained. In a
July 8th column in the Guardian, he seemed to compare Snowden to the
greatest whistleblowing hero of the prior generation, Daniel Ellsberg,
the American military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Times
and other outlets. But unlike Ellsberg, who stayed in the U.S. and took his
case to court, Snowden sought refuge in China and Russia, autocratic countries
where dissidents and journalists are often imprisoned. U.S. officials have
expressed concern that those governments may have copied Snowdens hard
drives. The Obama Administration has called Snowden a traitor, and is intent
on apprehending and trying him for treason. Keller questioned the
lionizing tone of the Guardians coverage. When Snowden
then threw himself into the arms of the Chinese, and then the Russians, and
reportedly reached out to Ecuadorall these countries that are not exactly
pillars of freedomit compromised the Guardian a little bit, Keller
Greenwald believes there was no way that Snowden could have stayed in the
U.S. and taken his case to the public, as Ellsberg did. These days, he says,
whistle-blowers are immediately incarcerated: They have no opportunity
to be heard from. Greenwald doesnt believe that the Russians
or the Chinese have the documents. He has spoken to Snowden nearly every
day for the last four months, he said, with the exception of two weeks
that Snowden spent in a Moscow airport. They communicate through highly
encrypted chat technology. Greenwald, who is now writing a book on
the subject, says that, even if Russian or Chinese authorities tried to
confiscate Snowdens electronic equipment, not even the N.S.A.
can break it if they tried for five years, because Snowden had so
skillfully encrypted it.
The disclosures have ignited a public debate over the trade-offs between
the governments need to insure security and its mandate to protect
civil liberties. In July, a national poll taken by Quinnipiac University
found that a majority of Americans think Snowden is a whistle-blower, not
a traitor, and, while half the public thinks the N.S.A.s surveillance
policies keep Americans safe, half also believes that the N.S.A.
intrudes on personal privacy. In July, by a narrow vote, the
House of Representatives defeated an amendment to restrict the N.S.A.s
Rusbridger referred to the room where the Guardian kept Snowdens documents
as the bunker. The door was kept locked, and a guard was stationed
outside twenty-four hours a day. Before entering, the handful of people allowed
admittance were required to put their smartphones and any other personal
electronic devices on a nearby table, in case British or American intelligence
agencies were to remotely transform them into recording devices. White blinds
covered floor-to-ceiling windows. There were whiteboards, and on five white
Formica tables sat five new laptops, unconnected to the Internet or to any
other network. The trove of documents from Snowden were kept on these computers,
in encrypted file containers. Accessing each container required three passwords,
and no individual knew more than one.
In early July, Rusbridger held a meeting in the bunker with Paul Johnson,
the deputy editor, and Julian Borger, the diplomatic editor, to discuss the
next steps in their coverage of the N.S.A. They knew that the Post and others
were pursuing the story, too. The British government, concerned that the
Guardians documents might be stolen, was again pressuring Rusbridger
to turn them over. That afternoon, Borger was set to fly to New York to meet
with the staff at ProPublica, to discuss what they might publish jointly
or, if the Guardian were censored, what ProPublica might publish alone.
Rusbridger took notes in a lined black Moleskine notebook, of which he now
has two hundred, each dated, and which he carries to most meetings to retain
The next day, Rusbridger and Johnson met in the bunker with James Ball, a
data editor whose byline has appeared on numerous N.S.A. stories. Ball, who
is twenty-seven, previously worked for WikiLeaks and is prized at the Guardian
for his deep understanding of computers. That afternoon, he would be flying
to New York, and then on to Brazil. His decision to leave WikiLeaks for the
Guardian had displeased some of his friends, he said. My colleagues
thought I sold out.
On July 12th, Rusbridger was visited again by Cabinet Secretary Heywood.
According to Rusbridger, Heywood warned him, No newspaper is equipped
to keep this secret. We want the documents back. Rusbridger patiently
explained that there was more than a single set of documents. And even if
the British and the American governments were able to muzzle the press, he
said, there were bloggers like Glenn Greenwald who were beyond their reach.
Heywood suggested that the government would seek a court injunction to block
the Guardian from publishing more Snowden documents. As a precaution, Rusbridger
spoke with Jill Abramson, at the Times; the two had worked on the WikiLeaks
story when she was the Timess managing editor.
Alan was not comfortable just talking on the phone, Abramson
says, so she and the managing editor, Dean Baquet, flew to London, where
they agreed that the papers would work together again. They would share the
documents, agree on the subject matter of each story, but investigate separately.
Either they would publish accounts of the documents on the same day or, if
the Guardian were censored, the Times and ProPublica would publish.
On July 15th, Rusbridger received a call from Craig Oliver, Camerons
communications director, again insisting that the documents be returned.
Rusbridger responded that the Guardian would continue to publish the material.
Even if the Guardian was censored, he was confident that the Times would
be free to publish. Abramson was less certain. I did worry about
that, she told me. She felt that the Obama Administration was trying
aggressively to criminalize leaks. In early August, the Times was working
on a story about an intercepted terror threat when James R. Clapper, the
Administrations director of intelligence, asked the papers Washington
bureau to withhold certain details. Clapper warned that, if the full version
were made public, the Times would have blood on our hands, Abramson
recalls. The paper complied with the request. But, to emphasize that the
government could not expect the Times to withhold information that is in
the public interest, she travelled to Washington to meet with Clapper. During
the meeting, he urged her not to publish the Snowden material. The
First Amendment is first for a reason, she told him. (A spokesman for
Clapper disputed this account.)
On July 18th, Rusbridger received a call from Oliver Robbins, the U.K.s
deputy national-security adviser, alerting him that agents would be coming
to the Guardians offices to seize the hard drives containing the Snowden
files. Rusbridger again explained that the files were also on encrypted computers
outside England, but his reasoning did not sway Robbins. Rusbridger asked
if, instead, his staff members could destroy the files themselves, and Robbins
consented. That Saturday, Rusbridger told associates to take the five laptops
from the bunker to the basement and to smash the hard drives and circuit
boards in front of two agents from the G.C.H.Q.
On August 18th, David Miranda, Greenwalds 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 Englands 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.
On September 5th, another major front-page story, co-bylined by James Ball,
Julian Borger, and Greenwald, and again based on Snowdens documents,
was published. It disclosed that the N.S.A. and the G.C.H.Q. have
successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds
of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online
transmissions and emails. If so, the guarantees that Internet companies
have given to consumers were compromised. Relying on the Guardians
Snowden documents, the Times and ProPublica simultaneously published a
collaboratively written account. Publicly, Rusbridger has expressed alarm
that, by leaving open a back door to monitor Internet communications, the
U.S. and the U.K. may prompt less open governments, such as China and Iran,
to move to a walled, state-operated Internet; the result would undermine
the ideal of a worldwide, open communications system.
Greenwald told me that the Snowden material was far from exhausted. The
majority of what is extremely newsworthy has yet to be published, he
said. Theres thousands and thousands of unbelievably revealing
and fascinating documents. Its going to take a long time for everything
to be reported that should be reported.
The Guardians coverage of Murdoch, WikiLeaks, and Snowdens files
has brought acclaim and an international audience. Its online readership
has tripled since 2009, and two-thirds of its readers are now located outside
the U.K. That expansion is essential to the publications financial
strategy. We need to be global, Andrew Miller, the Guardian Media
Groups C.E.O., told me. At the moment, I believe we could not
survive in the U.K. with the oversupply of newspapers and the omnipresence
of the BBC. That awareness has led the Scott Trust to embrace Rusbridgers
strategy of pouring resources into a digital Guardian. We can either
cut our way out, Rusbridger says he told the trust, or we can
think, What is our future? There is no disagreement that print will
shrink. By 2011, the trust had decided to invest more heavily in its
online presence, starting with its U.S. effort.
The offices of Guardian U.S. occupy an entire floor of a loft in SoHo. There
are nearly sixty staff members, half of whom are journalists. They report
to Janine Gibson, the editor-in-chief, who presided over most of the team
producing the papers N.S.A. stories and has worked most closely with
Greenwald. Gibson arrived in New York in July of 2011, after thirteen years
at the paper; nine Guardian reporters were already in the U.S. The site has
thrived. Today, a third of the Guardians worldwide audience is American;
after one N.S.A. story this summer, readership reached seven million daily
visitors, and in June the U.S. site attracted more unique
visitorstwenty-seven millionthan its British counterpart.
Rusbridger visited the New York office in late June. The atmosphere earlier
in the month, when the Guardian broke several N.S.A. stories, was
amazing, he said. A few days later, Rusbridger was seated at a conference
table in his London office with Tony Danker, the international director,
discussing the Guardians expansion in Australia and beyond. His desk
was heaped with papers, books, and folders. Rusbridger told Danker that staff
members were still adjusting to their broadened mandate. Employees think
of the Guardian like a family newspaper, he said. There
have been only ten editors of the Guardian since 1821. Its taken time
for us to think of ourselves as a global newspaper.
Danker, who previously worked for the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
and for the government of the Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told me,
I think we do things differently than others do. The Guardian,
he added, is a newspaper of protest, an outsider brand
with a liberal view of the world. My job now is to think,
Whats next internationally? He mentioned five or six places
where were actively looking, including India, which has a weak
Internet infrastructure but a vast English-speaking population. Rusbridger
was encouraged by the start of the Australian online edition, which went
live in May with a staff of fewer than twenty. In just five days, Rusbridger
said, its traffic eclipsed that of Murdochs national newspaper, the
Australian. Were being a digital disrupter, he said, smiling.
Were doing to that market what the Huffington Post is trying
to do to us.
But the paper remains dependent on the Scott Trust. One day, I accompanied
Rusbridger as he visited with Andrew Miller, who supervises the business
side of the newspapers as well as the companys other holdings, which
include a profitable online car-selling company, Auto Trader. Their conversation
centered on the soon-to-be-released financial results for fiscal year 2012-13,
which ended on March 31st. Miller said he was encouraged by the numbers:
digital-ad revenues rose twenty-nine per cent, to fifty-six million pounds,
an increase exceeding the decline in print revenue. The company was on track
to reduce costs by twenty-five million pounds by March, 2016, including voluntary
staff reductions. In fiscal 2012, Rusbridger volunteered to take a pay
cuthis secondreducing his salary from four hundred and thirty-eight
thousand pounds to three hundred and ninety-five thousand pounds this year;
Miller also voluntarily cut his pay.
Rusbridger called the numbers from the recent fiscal year a huge
improvement. Still, the Guardian lost more money this past year than
it did in fiscal 2007-08. To run its print and online operations, the Guardian
employs sixteen hundred people worldwide, including five hundred and eighty-three
journalists and a hundred and fifty digital developers, designers, and engineers.
The toughest critique of Alan is that he has not faced up to the
Guardians costs, a longtime executive at the paper said. The
newsroom is too big for a digital newspaper. Miller admits that
he does not foresee the newspaper earning a profit anytime soon. Rusbridger
said, The aim is to have sustainable losses. Miller defines that
as getting our losses down to the low teens in three to five years.
But at some point, if the Guardian does not begin to make money, the
trusts liquid assets, currently two hundred and fifty-four million
pounds, would be depleted.
Jeff Jarvis, an Internet evangelist who teaches journalism at the City University
of New York and who advises Rusbridger, says that eventually the Guardian
will have to generate more revenue from its digital edition, abandon its
print newspaper, or reduce the number of days it publishes. Every day
they wait is dollars gone, he said. As for printing only on certain
days, he says, Die Zeit, in Germany, is a good model. One day a week
in print and the rest digital.
Rusbridger can envisage a paperless Guardian in five to ten years. He also
can imagine, he says, printing on only certain days. For the
moment, with digital dollars composing only a quarter of the companys
revenues, if you want to support the kind of journalism we do, you
cant kiss goodbye seventy-five per cent of your revenues, he
said. But all that will change.
Eventually, Rusbridger predicts, between the Guardians worldwide reach
and a more aggressive effort to reach its younger, liberal, well-educated
audience, ad dollars will pour in. It will work for us because of scale
and innovation, Rusbridger told me. With a rigid pay wall, you
end up with a small, élite audience, with restricted access for everyone
else. We want a large audience and international influence, and not just
with élites. That appears to be an attractive mission for
advertisers. The Guardian doesnt need to be profitable, so long
as its losses are reduced and the trust can continue to subsidize them with
its other businesses.
In his memoir, Rusbridger describes how the Guardians coverage of Assange
and WikiLeaks helped him realize the extent to which his industry had changed:
now anyone could become a publisher. Its the amateurising of
journalismwith all thats good and bad about that, he writes.
The path forward lies in what he calls open journalism, meaning
a newspaper that not only is free for anyone to read but invites readers
to participate in the journalistic venture. The bet is that greater reader
involvement will attract a bigger audience, and more advertising dollars.
The editors regularly mine the reader comments for story ideas and potential
contributors. Last summer, during the Olympics, a British-born coach for
the Chinese swim team wrote an anonymous comment describing the pleasure
of working for a country that invests lavishly in its athletes; Guardian
editors invited him to write a blog post about it. Rusbridger has said
theres no reason that the Guardian couldnt include theatre reviews
from audience members in addition to those written by Michael Billington,
who has been the papers drama critic since 1971, and whom Rusbridger
Exactly how a newspaper should filter the good responses from the
bad isnt clear, he concedes, but editors are supposed to be curators.
I asked whether his notion of an open newspaper extended to
investigative reporting and other news. Emphatically yes, he said. No
other institution would have hired Glenn Greenwald. In 2009, the Guardian
posted a link asking readers for help in analyzing complicated expense documents
filed by various Members of Parliament. Twenty-three thousand readers sent
in their analyses; the Guardian staff reviewed them and found that many of
the readers had discovered fraudulent charges.
A newspaper becomes a platform as well as a publisher, Rusbridger
told me. But he knows that time is limited, and concedes that a pay wall
is not out of the question. The Guardian charges for its iPad and iPhone
apps, Rusbridgers notes. We are not the Taliban of free, he said.
We are not free fundamentalists. He went on, Is there an
economic model for the kind of journalism were doing? Were all
trying our different routes to get there. No one can honestly say theyve
got the answer.
As one of twelve board members of the Scott Trust, Rusbridger probably has
more say in the matter than most editors do, and more immunity from the
consequences: the trusts founding document states that an editor can
be dismissed only in extreme circumstances. If the editor lays
out an objective and the board disagrees, Liz Forgan, a former Guardian
journalist and the chair of the trust, says, he gets his way: Alan
is the editor and he has the last word.
When Rusbridger was young, his mother pushed him to practice piano and clarinet
three hours a day. Later, for several years, he served as the chair of the
National Youth Orchestra of England; he also wrote a play about Beethoven.
In his memoir, which is dedicated to his late mother, he describes missing
those passionate challenges; music and the arts must be squeezed in amid
his other obligations. He felt a mundane need to have moments off the
hamster wheel of editing, he writes, an instinct to wall off
a small part of my life for creative expression, for culture.
To tackle the Chopin piece, which he ultimately performed at the 1901
Arts Club, in central London, before an audience of friends and family, he
hired music teachers, consulted acclaimed pianists, and practiced for
hoursand kept a diary. The kind of journalism I like always explains
things, he writes. I started keeping notes and thought, this
is what musicians do.
Rusbridger doesnt know what hell do when he leaves the Guardian.
Weve been talking about that, Lindsay Mackie says. It
might be something to do with music and young people. Access to music, I
think. But for now retirement isnt up for discussion. I
have an agreement with Alan that we will give each other a years
notice, Forgan said. He has not done that. Rusbridger says,
Each six months, it becomes a radically different job. He adds
that he could see staying for a whilewhatever a while
is. Im enjoying it. The paper is on fire.