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.

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