Fresh off the news that UK authorities detained the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald for nine hours yesterday, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has published an extraordinary report of government pressure and intimidation that should send chills down the spine of anyone who cares about a free press.
Rusbridger, who up until recently was based in the UK, recounts being approached by UK government officials multiple times and threatened with legal action unless he returned or destroyed the Edward Snowden documents the Guardian had in its possession. Officials from GCHQ, Britain’s NSA counterpart, eventually entered Guardian headquarters and destroyed the hard drives that contained copies of the Snowden documents.
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.
Read Rusbridger’s entire, riveting account here.
Thankfully, the Guardian has copies of these documents, and will now do its valuable reporting from its offices in New York City and elsewhere. "We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London,” Rusbridger stated. But the fact that the GCHQ knew their actions couldn't stop publication, but did it anyways reeks of the worst kind of government intimidation. Make no mistake: essentially forcing a newspaper’s editor into exile over a report it doesn’t like sounds like a story from the 18th century reign of King George III, not of a supposed 21st century democracy.
While this episode exposes despicable and ignorant actions taken by the UK government—again, actions that are normally reserved for the worst of authoritarian regimes—we should also take notice of journalistic bravery on the part of Rusbridger and his Guardian staff.
Rusbridger has had the courage to keep publishing in the face of government pressure, prior restraint, and possibly the financial stability of his newspaper. He is commendably putting his newspaper at risk to get the truth to the world’s citizens. We need more editors like him.
But perhaps we should take solace in the fact that by so clearly abusing its power, the UK government faces a stronger likelihood that the Guardian’s reporting will force change. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more," as one government official condescendingly told Rusbridger. The irony is there has barely been any debate in London over the scope of NSA/GCHQ spying, unlike the United States. But now — thanks to their ill-thought out detention of Greenwald’s partner and this deplorable assault on a journalism institution — they can be sure much more debate is coming.