Friday, 30 August 2013

Real journalism on Snowden

There has been an almost total collapse of good journalism around all issues related to Snowden. At this point the majority of outlets are willing to swallow whatever nonsense Glenn Greenwald puts out there, without any fact checking or attempt to reign in his relentless hyperbole. Sadly, Greenwald is a liar and when not lying pushes some amazing exaggerations.

The inimitable Joshua Foust continues to try, valiantly, to push back against some of the nonsense and has produced some excellent accounts of what is actually going on, fact checking things which most mainstream outlets have been publishing verbatim and without criticism. Most notably the idea that Greenwald is anything other than a liar:
What makes any tiff with Greenwald so exhausting is not just the needlessly personal nature of his attacks, but rather his outright lies. That’s correct: Glenn Greenwald is a serial liar. He is pathological about it. And he pretends like people are too dumb to notice. He did this in 2010. On the morning of November 30, 2010, he tweeted this about me:Greenwald2
Notice the familiar slander, that I had undisclosed contracts? It wasn’t true at the time — I even wrote in the New York Times that I worked at a defense contractor! — he “discovered” my “undisclosed” ties by looking at… my LinkedIn profile. But, almost casually, he lied about it just a few hours later.
The problem is that for many Greenwald can do no wrong. Any attempt to criticise him is to represent The Man, and thus become a bad guy. This problem is worsened by the fact that The Guardian, which has done some incredible work over the years doing real journalism and bringing to light some truly awful things, has decided to let Greenwald have absolutely free reign, providing him with a level of legitimacy which isn't really fair.

Bob Cesca has also done some great work attempting to bring a bit of rationality to the debate and push back against the Greenwald line. For example, the ongoing furore around David Miranda's arrest. The fantasy was:
"...the U.K. was attempting to intimidate Greenwald by harassing his innocent spouse who was only detained because of his relationship with Greenwald — a tactic that not even the Mafia uses, Greenwald wrote. They even denied Miranda the use of a lawyer, Greenwald and The Guardian reported, but, like most things orbiting this story, the lawyer thing turned out to be untrue."
It's important to understand that I believe certain powers were misused to arrest Miranda, and most likely he shouldn't have been arrested in the first place, but there was no attempt to report that story. The Guardian went ahead and reported the story they thought would create the biggest splash and most other outlets picked it up.

This was coupled with the rather bizarre claim by The Guardian that they were forced to destroy computers containing sensitive information, with Editor Alan Rusbridger writing:
The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more." 
During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil? 
The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.
The language alone is laughable, my favourite being "shadowy Whitehall figures". Strip away the fluff and ultimately a more fair assessment of events is:
On July 20, 2013, without any photographs or video to document any of it (inside a newsroom no less) three employees under the direction of Rusbridger voluntarily destroyed the computer(s).
Rusbridger took the decision that if the government was determined to stop UK-based reporting on the Snowden files, the best option was destroy the London copy and to continue to edit and report from America and Brazil.
The destruction was overseen by two agents allegedly from the GCHQ, the U.K.’s counterpart to NSA. Three staffers destroyed the computers using “angle grinders and drills.” No, the GCHQ guys didn’t raid The Guardian‘s office. They didn’t force anyone to destroy anything.
Viewed from either side, this was a purely symbolic move since the files could’ve been stashed on any one of dozens of Apple computers seen in a photograph of The Guardian‘s newsroom, not to mention the use of offsite storage. By the way, I’ll overlook the fact that The Guardian article said there was just one copy in England. Clearly, they had multiple copies on various computers.
Even Rusbridger admits in his piece that "destroying" the data is a meaningless term, since it was contained on computers overseas and frankly, could have been put on a memory stick somewhere else in The Guardian's office. The story came even further unstuck later, and I highly recommend reading the full text of Bob Cesca's piece.

The problem for The Guardian is that they need to publish the most exciting story. Unfortunately, too often that story has been unpicked by sharp eyes, damaging their credibility in the eyes of people who matter. Every misleading headline means less time is spent focusing on the real debate, which to my mind is, what right do we have to privacy in the 21st century and how does the intelligence community factor into this?

To allow activists like Greenwald to control the narrative ensures that the narrative will forever be polluted by his personal objectives. That's not to say that Foust and Cesca and others are paragons of virtue, they have their flaws too, as do I, but at least in the cases of Foust and Cesca there is real journalism to be had. The art of taking information received, testing it for credibility, and reporting that which best reflects an objective reality is key to the Snowden story.

We all benefit from good journalism, it inspires a strong debate, based on reality. Long term, we may be able to build a better, more free, more inclusive society where our privacy in most areas most of the time is assured. Poor journalism will drive most people (who are not, sadly for Greenwald, idiots) away from the debate, turning it into a fringe argument which Governments can turn away from, assured that it is not an issue people will be voting on.

Thanks to Snowden we know we have far less privacy than we might have assumed, we have far less control over our personal information, and if the trend continues it is hard to see that in time we would have any privacy, particularly online. Lets focus on that, and decide what impact it has on our lives, and let self aggrandizing publications and individuals fall by the wayside.


Thursday, 29 August 2013

Leadership vs Management

This post represents what I hope to be a return from my recent hiatus. Life has been a little challenging over the last 3-5 months and thanks to various people who have checked in. As always, I keep my Twitter relatively active when I’m able.

Leadership is a concept which has long fascinated me, since it’s a highly desired quality which seems to be in very limited supply. Definitions of leadership are many and varied, but one I like is this from Kevin Kruse, writing in Forbes:
Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
He breaks this definition into the following elements:

  1. Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  2. Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  3. No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths, to effective leadership
  4. It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome

He also includes the “force multiplier” effect of a good leader in the sense that they maximise the effort (output) of employees, generating what he calls “discretionary effort”, a critical quality in a leader.

So why the scarcity of leadership?

My contention would be that the distinction between leadership and management has broken down (if it ever truly existed) and the emphasis has been on training those who should lead in how best to manage. That is not to denigrate management as a discipline, solid managers are an incredible force for good within an organisation, marshaling resources and ensuring that the process works and does so with the absolute minimum of friction. Managers dispel the fog of war in your day to day work with their knowledge of all facets of a project and how best to resolve issues.

Management however is not a force multiplier, nor does it tend to generate innovation in and of itself. Management functions best as a method for smoothing out and refining an existing process. Leadership fulfills the role of creating new approaches and blazing new trails for managers to further refine.

One reason I like military writers on these topics is that they tend to be able to draw a far clearer distinction between management and leadership. Soldiers, particularly those in high intensity environments like combat, do not expect to be managed, they expect to be led. As such military writers of all stripes are able to clearly distinguish between the two concepts without conflating them.

Tony Carr of John Q. Public has a rather excellent piece up on the topic of leadership which speaks to many of the core values necessary in a leader and is as relevant to a civilian audience as a military one. He offers the following as suggestions on how best to lead an organisation:

  1. Set a vision, unify your people around it, resource them to achieve it, and then do your best to sink into the scenery and let them take ownership.
  2. Identify, invest in, build up, and rely upon your key players. Let them lead the unit day-to-day, intervening less than might be your impulse but enough that your people feel your hand on the reins.
  3. Work hard to make your communications as impactful as possible. Don’t stand silent on things you know your people are talking about. Whatever you do, tell the truth, even if it means you differ from the corporate line — it’s quite alright to differ respectfully while telling everyone to keep rowing.
  4. Care, and make sure — without being too obvious or hackneyed — that your people know you care. Fight for them, even occasionally when you know you will lose … it engenders loyalty, and sometimes you need that to hold them together when the “big” reasons for all they’re giving just aren’t enough.
  5. When the situation calls for it, be tough. Tough as nails. This is part of taking care of your people, and the good ones will appreciate and admire you for it. They’ll fight hard to maintain the standards you set when they see you safeguarding the standards they care about.
  6. Perhaps most important, do your best to deflect the pressures directed at your people from higher, rather than magnifying them. This is a tough thing to do, but if you don’t effectively guard the gate of your organization, external actors will conspire to dominate the time and mission focus of your people.

Please read the whole piece, as a simple summary of these points reduces the granularity and detail Tony has put in.

The most noticeable thing for me is that Tony’s leadership qualities emphasize a light touch, with goal setting, the identification of quality people to carry out those goals and ensuring that those operating under you are protected and well resourced. Efforts are focused on creating a secure “space” within which people can operate freely and effectively.

Something I might add to this as its own distinct point would be the requirement that leaders create a safe space not just to do the right thing, but also one in which mistakes are permitted and where and punitive action is absolutely minimised. In the environment within which I work I think there are two rules:

  1. If the client doesn’t need to know about the mistake then it is something to be treated as a learning experience
  2. The first time something goes wrong it is not a problem, if the same process is leading to repeated failures however, there is a fundamental issue that needs resolving
There is no system which is 100% effective, and attempts to create utopic workplaces where no mistakes are made are doomed to failure and bitterness. Leaders can tell the difference between a meaningful and meaningless mistake, and figure out the best way to adapt and develop so that no mistake is made twice.

UPDATE: I was sent this article which has rather neatly summarized how a leader deals with failure:
Because if you know what you want, and can say “well, that happened, here’s what I need” without the step of “hey, buster, you screwed the pooch on this, right?” people will do almost anything for you. The gratitude a person feels when they do not have to admit wrongdoing is limitless. Embrace it! Having someone say “you were right, I was wrong” is lovely, but it’s fundamentally ego-driven and unnecessary. You’re not wrong to want it, but if you can free youself from demanding it, you can actually get more concrete things than you would if you forced someone over a barrel to say they fucked up. TRY IT. It’s a golden ticket.
We shouldn’t lose track of the fact that both leadership and management can be taught and that both are required. We should not denigrate one while artificially inflating the other. What we should recognise is that one is not the other, and adapt accordingly.