The Guardian in the Dock

Grilling Rusbridger

A few things have happened since the Guardian decided to storm the Bastille of surveillance with its cultivation of such journalists as Glenn Greenwald and the recruitment of Spencer Ackerman. (We might also place Julian Assange in that heady mix, though that relationship has proven prickly.) The Guardian had found a way of moving outside the humdrum of an often dull leftist sentiment, giving its readers a stronger brew with the assistance of such individuals as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. It has, in journalistic lingo, found a scoop of rich proportion.

It seems therefore remarkable that editor Alan Rusbridger should be in the dock before the British Parliament’s myopic sentinels as a rogue specialist, the chief editor of a supposedly radical operation harmful to state interests. Before the Home Affairs Select Committee, Rusbridger explained how material from Snowden was sent by the Guardian to the US via Fed Ex without redacting the names of intelligence officers. That act did not, in the opinion of the editor, compromise security. Fittingly, networks such as Sky News tend to howl about that failure to redact, only to note Rusbridger’s account in a sentence acknowledging that those names were in encrypted files.

Committee member and Conservative MP Michael Ellis put it to Rusbridger that, in communicating the Snowden files containing the names of intelligence officers, he fell foul of the criminal law. Rusbridger’s response: “You may be a lawyer, Mr Ellis, I’m not, so I will leave that with you.” Committee Chairman Keith Vaz asked the asinine question as to whether Rusbridger loved his country, the default position of everyone who doesn’t. The editor responded by arguing that Britain was not a country were the security services dictated what the press could write. He may well have to reassess the nature of that remark in due course.

What Rusbridger demonstrates is, in fact, the usual censorship undertaken by standard papers. No finer example of censorship ever existed than the print newspaper, with its labyrinthine regulations and choking regime of tyrannical editors and sub-editors. The editorial board remains the politburo of print. Internal guidelines, written or unwritten, are enforced with a Stalinist zeal. Meanings can be altered, suggestions clipped. The editor’s judgment is often designed to strangle the revelation rather than illuminate it. The sin lies in not doing enough, rather than doing too little, in getting the information out.

It is for such reasons that relationships of the global publishing concerns like the Guardian maintain cool, sometimes even stiff relations with the likes of WikiLeaks, often part friend and foe in the quest for disclosing information. The latter seeks to procure a broader range of documentation through what has been labelled scientific journalism.

There have been accusations, in the main inaccurate, that WikiLeaks maintains a policy of total openness regarding their release of material, that the outfit remains coldly indifferent to consequences. This technique is a classic one: target the small organisation for exposing an abuse by the bone crunchingly powerful, and Goliath shall go about his dirty business in peace. The truth is that any outlet that proffers information will, at points, dabble in censorship, control and redaction.

The Guardian, for all its seemingly Jacobin enthusiasm, remains rather conservative in its selectiveness. Rusbridger attests to this himself, claiming that only a minute portion of Snowden’s stash has been released, maybe as little as one percent.

What is almost never discussed is that the fundamental paradox of the challenges of disclosure that Snowden and WikiLeaks, with its broader publishing model, provide the secrecy mongers. Intelligence gatherers and their political masters can’t be seen to give too much credit to the value of the leaked information; that would prove them to be dangerously weak.

But in so doing, the question then becomes what the fuss is all about. How does one aid terrorists with information everyone knew about? The disclosure of gossip, the often dull material that diplomats and security officials digest, is hardly the basis of much more than to show how unimportant most information tends to be. The mere fact that information has gotten out of the hermetic seal, is what is damaging. Secrecy, not value, counts. As a Cabinet Office Spokesman explained, “The Guardian’s publication and non-secure storage of secret documents has had damaging effect on our national security capabilities.

The relevant question in the information battles must surely be what is vital to the issue of accountability, what reveals the contours of power, how it is exercised and in some cases, patently abused. Much of what is needed is never found. The Guardian might think it has found the pulse of the argument, but it has someway to go. It remains, at its core, a conventional paper.

The battle over disclosing secrets is not the value of what they reveal so much as the violation of some fictitious trust the state compels its citizens to abide by. It is a fictional social, even asocial contract, and that is the agreement that must be challenged.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.