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#DPI19: How Snowden Stories Revived Ethics on Public Interest Reporting

Kicking off the second day of the IAPP Data Protection Intensive 2019 conference in London, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger, reflected on the paper's coverage of the whistle-blowing events involving WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

He called it the “story that defined The Guardian when I was editing it,” and while the case with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was one to be determined, Rusbridger did say that what Assange did “was new then” and it was rare that a lone player could have such an enormous impact. “You may think of him as a problematic figure, Assange does raise troubling questions about gatekeepers,” he said.

Rusbridger's talk, delivered in front of a room of privacy professionals, was particularly interesting considering The Guardian’s coverage of major data leak stories, as well as it's determining of what is in the public interest. He cited the cases of Andy Coulson and Jonathan Aitken as being justified considering their positions in the past, when charged and what influence they could have in the future.

In the case of Edward Snowden, Rusbridger said that people find it “harder to deal with that issue” and the public interest, and five years later there was “no question in my mind” that this was a public service issue. He added that some people who were players in this world “have quietly acknowledged to me that there were issues which had to be raised” and at the time that was not how some people saw it.

This can cause some debate on the legitimacy of featuring whistle-blowers, and Rusbridger highlighted Daniel Ellsberg, who was responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. That led to President Nixon criticizing him and going after him, and this raises the fundamental point of who decides what is in the public interest - the media or the government?

“Nobody would say that Ellsberg is wrong, but it will be interesting to see how history judges that man, who I think of as very similar in his motivations, and the issues that he was trying to get airborne,” he said.

In the case of Snowden, Rusbridger said that “we are struggling with these issues” and while interrogation of the person is fine, when it comes to the state it was different until Snowden came along. The states were “very comfortable that this was a subject that they did not have to widely discuss or go out and seek meaningful democratic legitimacy for.”

The core message of Rusbridger's talk was around the trust element of the press now, considering how many members of the public have lost trust because of ‘fake news’ and how a President can have 60 million Twitter followers, whereas only a million people will buy a newspaper. He said: “Journalism will only survive if is it better than the internet and one of the tasks for journalists is to not only be better than the internet but to justify its existence in terms of the interest that it serves.”

He further highlighted headlines around the Brexit leave campaign, and how that has served the public interest and whether journalists can recover their position of authority is “one of the most critical issues of the age.”

Rusbridger concluded by stating that the media needs to reflect the new world in which they operate, and highlighted the case of Glenn Greenwald, who broke and wrote the Edward Snowden story, and followed leads to continue the story. “Sometimes, by breaking the rules, you begin to tap into these new aspects of control and negotiating how this new world works while being focused on the old one.”

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