Guardian's Alan Rusbridger: you can't say that the government always knows best

Rusbridger, the editor of the publication that broke Edward Snowden's leaks, speaks with The NewsHouse about encryption and duties for a free press.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, oversaw the reporting of Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA surveillance last year.  Because of his willingness to publish classified information that sparked an international political debate and eventually led to policy changes, Rusbridger received this year's Tully Center Award for Free Speech.  He accepted the award in the Herg, where he also talked about the Snowden leaks, on Wednesday.

 During his visit, Rusbridger spoke with The NewsHouse.  In this exclusive interview, he emphasizes the press's duty to maintain independence from government and offers advice for journalists to fulfill this mission.   

With the mass collection of data in this digital age, do you think it could become impossible for my generation to protect anonymous sources?

Rusbridger:  I think the situation is really getting quite worrying – in three different ways, I think. One is that the technology is clearly there. It’s clearly incredibly intrusive and able really to locate anyone. So, that’s a big problem. Second, is that journalists, I think, are completely complacent about this, they haven’t really worked up to it at all. So, you’ve got this sort of fatal complacency in journalists and a formidable technology. And the third thing is that there’s a lot of evidence now that governments are beginning to use these techniques. Just in the last month in the U.K., there have been three or four examples where it’s come to light that the police have just gone in to find somebody’s source.

What sort of advice do you have to give students to protect their sources?

Learn encryption. And encryption at the moment is a bit clumsy. And it’s a bit long-winded. It’s a bit slow. And it’s problematic because the likelihood is that your sources are not going to be experts in encryption. I think the more people in your generation can work on building seamless systems of communications so that sources can safely get in touch with journalists – that would be a great thing for the future.

With encryption, do you have any specific examples you could give in which this helped your news organization protect anonymous sources?

Throughout the Snowden thing, we did use encryption. It wasn’t so much a question of protecting sources, but it was a question of being free to publish. Since then, we’ve installed a kind of strong box system, so that if sources want to submit information to us, they can do it. More and more of our reporters have learned how to encrypt their communications. But we’re still learning, and we have a long way to go.

In many of my classes here, including journalistic ethics, surprisingly many students say that they’d rather keep confidential information pertaining to national security secret, rather than reporting it. It’s almost as though they trust the government more than they trust journalists reporting responsibly. What’s your response to that?

Well, I think it’s very fundamental that if you want to be a journalist to remember that journalism is a separate estate. We’re not the government. We’re not commerce. We’re not the law. We’re not politics. We’re something that stands apart from all of that. If you think that government always knows best, then you probably shouldn’t be a journalist.

Having worked as a journalist, it seems to me that they just have to be separate, so you can’t say that the government always knows best or has to have preeminence over journalism. If you think that, then that leads you automatically into the position where the government has the right to censor material, and that’s not my understanding of a free country. So, I think it’s a very fundamental point. If you believe that the government knows best, go into government.

One of their main arguments is that if we reveal this information about national security, then we’re going to jeopardize our safety, but do you think that, in fact, it does the opposite?

That’s what they say. That’s what they always say. We did a couple of pages in The Guardian about a year ago about how they always say that this is going to cause harm. So again, if as journalists, the moment a government official says this is going to cause harm, you put away your notebook, then that’s an easy win for any government official.

I met some spooks the other day and they were going on about the harm. And then they talked about WikiLeaks, and they say, ‘Oh, WikiLeaks that’s nothing really.’ Well, that’s not what they said at the time. They said at the time, ‘The sky is falling in. This is terrible. This is going to cost us hundreds of millions.’ What they say and what is the truth is hard to establish. And no one has shown what harm is being caused.

Some journalists worry that their First Amendment rights could be jeopardized, especially given the murky language of the Espionage Act, which if you look at a certain clause, it could be interpreted that journalists taking this information and sharing it with the public actually violates it. It’s been taken out of context. To what extent do you think these kinds of intimidation efforts would work to silence journalists?

I think the Espionage Act is problematic. It’s a bit like the British Official Secrets Act. Any act that doesn’t allow a public interest defense is clearly problematic. I think blurring terrorism with journalism is clearly problematic. And I think the Obama administration has been very heavy-handed in dealing with whistleblowers. On the other hand, I have to say, I find America a liberating place compared with the U.K., all these things are relative, and they are because of the words inscribed around this university – the First Amendment. There are great protections working here, which don’t exist elsewhere, including the U.K.


(This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.)

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