This week the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, gave testimony to Britain's home affairs select committee aboutthe publication of information leaked by Edward Snowden over the summer. Bob talks with Rusbridger about why he was summoned before Parliment, and how the threat of prior restraint makes journalists in the UK function differently than their US counterparts.
William Tyler - Country of Illusion
BOB GARFIELD: On Wednesday, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the English newspaper The Guardian, gave testimony to the Home Affairs Select Committee, members of Parliament charged with oversight of government programs. At issue, the Snowden leaks. In a reporting by former columnist Glenn Greenwald last summer, The Guardian was the main conduit of secrets revealed by former US security contractor Edward Snowden about NSA spying activity. Rusbridger was questioned about why he breached such secrets, what harm might come, what files the paper still possesses and, just for the record, Rusbridger’s level of patriotism. Alan, welcome back to the show.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I’m pleased to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So was this hearing an inquiry into national security? Was it an exploration of the press’s role in a democracy? Was it political theater to deflect critical eyes from the government onto the media? What was it?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, it’s a good question. The Committee is supposed to be looking at counterterrorism, but it turned into an inquisition of The Guardian and The Guardian’s right to report. And, at least on the conservative side of the argument, all the questions were designed at trying to get information that could be used in a prosecution against The Guardian, it seemed to me.
BOB GARFIELD: What level of intimidation have you had to undergo since you broke these stories?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, the police are now investigating The Guardian under, I believe, they said they’re investigating. They won’t say who, using terror laws and secrecy laws. We’ve had the government in, demanding that we destroy our computers because we’re holding secret material on them. We’ve had MPs urging our prosecution and we’ve had Parliament holding some kind of interrogation. So I think you put all that together, and this is a pattern of behavior that is intended to intimidate. It won’t intimidate us, but I think that the intent is perfectly clear.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to Wednesday's hearing. I’m going to play an exchange, a question from Keith Vaz, who is a Labor MP, and your response. It has echoes of “do you now or have you ever been.” Let’s listen.
KEITH VAZ: I love this country. Do you love this country?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: [LAUGHS] We live in a democracy. Most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country. I’m, I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question, but yes, we, we are patriots…
BOB GARFIELD: Was he really questioning your loyalty or bowling you a soft kookaburra, so you could answer as you did?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, [LAUGHS] I, I haven’t spoken to him, so I don’t know whether he meant that question in a kind way or not. It sounded to many people slightly sinister. It had the overtones of McCarthyism, as though you couldn’t write about national security and still be a friend to your country.
And, you know, I tried to answer with what I feel, that patriotism is not just about national security, it’s also about living in a country that believes in free speech and a free press. And you have to ask what kind of democracy is it that you’re protecting if you have to sacrifice those.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, are you saying that your patriotism isn't a function of the size of your Union Jack lapel pin?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: [LAUGHS] Well, I think what MP’s rules are struggling with is the notion of global media. You know, just as these secrets were leaked by a 29-year-old living in Hawaii who could see directly into the heart of British intelligence, that was an example of global digital information. So I think the MPs, some of them couldn’t quite understand that The Guardian is now a global media player. We’ve reported just as much on the NSA as we have about GCHQ. And so, these questions around the narrow patriotism I think just didn’t really grasp the way that information moves around the world in the 21st century.
BOB GARFIELD: The UK is a democracy in many ways mirroring our own, but with one major exception. And that is that you have no core guarantee of press freedom. Has the Snowden leak put journalists at risk of actual repression, or is the opposite taking place? Do you think Parliament has somehow been sensitized, the Parliament and the public, to the need for an independent and unbridled press?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, obviously, I hope so, but one couldn’t have taken much encouragement from the line of questioning this week in Parliament. You’re right to say we have no First Amendment. And the other thing we haven’t had is a kind of Pentagon papers style debate in the Supreme Court level, so American journalists knew that it is virtually impossible for the state to censor newspapers in advance.
The position we had in the UK was very different. I had the Cabinet secretary come to me to demand that we smash up our computers because, in his words, we’d had enough debate. One of the learning experiences of working with the New York Times is they’ve been able to have a much more open conversation with our agencies and government than is possible in the UK, when there is always a threat that the police or lawyers might arrive to try and shut you down. And what I hope MPs can be convinced about is that if you take away the threat of prior restraint, actually, it makes a more mature conversation possible.
BOB GARFIELD: Alan, thank you.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Alan Rusbridger is editor of The Guardian.