Alan Rusbridger on post-Snowden: “Real things have started to happen”

On Monday 20th October, I went to the 20th anniversary of the University of Sheffield’s Journalism Studies course. I didn’t study there, nor do I have much interest in this milestone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for the University, but I went along because the celebration came in the form of talk with Alan Rusbridger (which completely outshines my 20th birthday celebrations of a poorly attended student houseparty where I vaguely remember someone’s falling in the bath being a highpoint).

Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian and the Observer, came to Sheffield to talk about the pre-Snowden age of journalism.

Arriving half-an-hour before anyone else and sitting on the front row and in front of the lectern is, under normal circumstances, beyond my levels of enthusiasm. But it was totally worth it because I think we had eye contact. 

In person, Rusbridger couldn’t look or talk more like a journalist. Perhaps that’s a rather obvious observation, but despite his hefty job title, he was still a person first. He didn’t come across as a formidable Big Boss Man.

In fact, if the Guardian had legs and wore a suit, it would be him. Rusbridger spoke with clarity, understated conviction and with waves of passion that surfaced when he spoke of the Guardian, and the job of journalism in society. No bad jokes, no alienating language, no ego.

It was only during the Q&A at the end, when he would pause to consider his answers, that my brain had a second to think how much of a privilege it was to be there. I’m aware it wasn't the first time Rusbridger spoke about these things – and of course, much of what he said is already known – but to be told about it in person, and with such humility, was a privilege. So happy bloody birthday, Journalism Studies, and may you have many more.

Rusbriudger began with Orwell, who he pinned as the man who lured him into journalism. He said Orwell’s books and essays made an amazing impression on him when he read them as a teenager.

And then he dived right in to the Snowden revelations. “I got a call to say someone had surfaced from the NSA. He was in Hong Kong and wanted to meet. He had the most secret documents anyone could handle.”

He explained how Snowden handpicked people he thought could do justice to his material, “He didn’t want to give them to those who weren’t willing to take a risk”, Rusbridger said.

It was notable, he said, that Snowden didn’t go to the New York Times (because in a similar case in 2005, it sat on the story for a year).

He explained how Snowden’s decision to hand out the files, rather than publish them himself, was a remarkable choice. He wanted journalists to have the files, make their own judgements and give the context that would help people understand.

“He went to the one independent source, the fourth estate,” Rusbridger said. “Journalism is there to stand aside from all other areas of power. He wanted to bring the facts through old fashioned reporting.”

Rusbridger then spoke about the questions the Guardian asked itself when it took in the files from Snowden:

  •        Should we look at these documents in the first place?
  •        What rules do we construct about what we look at?
  •        Do we use it, and if so, what do we use?
  •        Do we talk to the state in advance? 
Rusbridger said he had to decide what to look at and what not to look at, and said “we only published a tiny proportion of what we were given”.

Some journalists had said the documents shouldn’t be used, that it would be harmful, and that they defer to the state. “I find this an untenable defence for journalists,” he said.

The British government eventually told the Guardian it'd had its fun and it now needed to stop. It was instructed to destroy all the material. “I don’t think the government was thinking very clearly at this point,” Rusbridger said.

He explained that the next generation of leakers would self-publish if the Guardian had built a reputation of not publishing the data, which would send out “a terrible picture of Britain’s view of the press.” Rusbridger told the police this would have no effect on the Guardian’s reporting, as they would do it out of New York, where the state couldn’t intervene. 

He said it would be terrible to simplify the lessons we learnt from the revelations to just freedom versus security. He said the experience has taught us a lot, mainly regarding: 


Does the state have the right to right to scoop up all the information we put out there? Twitter, Facebook, and so many other companies all have relationships with the state.


Metadata tells everything in order to build up a complete picture of someone’s life. A lot of thought needs to go into security and location.

The Guardian

Rusbridger said “the police would have stopped us through legal means if they could. The state didn’t like it. I was summoned to Parliament and asked if I loved my country. I was left immensely reassured, and so happy to work for a paper with such robustness. People couldn’t get at it.”

The necessity of reporting

"The institutional power of a newspaper to do what it did, and under pressure, told me a lot about the necessity of reporting. Our Pulitzer Prize was for public service and that’s exactly what it is. Society needs unpolluted, verifiable reporting to survive, and we must protect the independence of what is it that we do," Rusbridger said. 

In an interview with Snowden last year, he said that the worst outcome would be that nothing would change. But Rusbridger listed the changes already taking place. Congress has acted on them and tech companies have changed things, including Apple. “We know the information was important. Real things have started to happen. That’s the public interest.”

During the Q&A, I resisted the urge to put up my hand and ask Rusbridger for a job, because I didn’t want to be that idiot. But it did make me think about my feelings towards the Guardian.

Rusbridger began his talk by recommending Orwell to those who want to think and write more clearly. That’s exactly what years of reading the Guardian has done to me. It’s built me up from a clueless journalism graduate to the more informed, opinionated and ambitious person I am today. The Guardian has done an immense amount for the public, but it’s done a lot for the individual, too.

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