Quality paper basks in glory while red top is in dock
The Guardian editor may be a crusader for transparency, but he is not a role model
Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30
Last week Andy Coulson, ex-editor of the News of the World (NotW) and one-time communications supremo in No 10 Downing Street, was in the Old Bailey being cross-examined about charges of conspiracy to intercept mobile phone messages illegally and commit misconduct in public office.
Yet Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, which has printed reams of information stolen from the US National Security Agency (NSA) by contractor Edward Snowden, was basking in congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize awarded to his paper for helping "through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy". It wasn't an unexpected accolade from what is a liberal redoubt.
Both men defend their actions as in the public interest, but take a dim view of the behaviour of the other. Rusbridger was proud that his paper brought about Coulson's ultimate downfall with its revelations about the tapping of the phone of a missing teenager, Milly Dowler. Yet it was what proved to be a wholly inaccurate though frequently repeated Guardian allegation – that NotW journalists had deleted some of her texts and thus given her family false hope that she was alive – that triggered widespread public revulsion and led Rupert Murdoch to take the desperate step of closing a successful newspaper.
The Guardian didn't agonise about that: grudgingly it admitted under pressure that the claim should have been qualified with the words: "Reliable sources claim that".
In Rusbridger's mind, he and his paper are always on the high moral ground looking down pityingly on the unenlightened. Yet although he is a crusader for transparency and accountability, he is not always a role model. Last month his paper reported on the collapse of the case against Hyde Park bombing suspect John Downey without mentioning that bail had been put up by its media commentator, Roy Greenslade, who told the Irish Post that they were friends and he was a "long-time supporter of Sinn Fein".
Back in court – in the middle of questions about what he knew or didn't know about methods used to break stories about such old scandals as Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett's affair with Kimberly Fortier, publisher of the Spectator – Coulson was asked about law-breaking in the public interest. He replied that he would have turned down the Edward Snowden material as it had "a potential for lives to be put at risk".
The Guardian and the Washington Post (which also won a Pulitzer) contend that they have performed a great public service by revealing that security agencies collect mass data on their citizens and on friendly countries as well as on their enemies. It's an "enormous story" says Rusbridger, which is causing the US administration to change laws and "richochets around the capital cities of the world".
But were there other whistleblowing routes for Snowden to take? And why did the press have to publish so much detail?
Rusbridger's contention that he and his journalists have ensured that no potentially dangerous material is published has been challenged by security experts who wonder how they could possibly know enough to make such judgments.
One-time Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox MP has said in a speech in Washington that the Guardian handling of classified material was "pathetically amateur".
Charles Farr, head of the UK Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, has said that suspected terror cells have gone off the intelligence radar since the publication of Snowden leaks about how NSA and the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) tracked and identified them.
Other commentators believe he's endangered Western intelligence officers and damaged the trust between their intelligence services.
Liam Fox thinks Snowden is a traitor and "a self-publicising narcissist" and speaks of speculation that because of the closing down of "potentially compromised signal intelligence", NSA's ability to predict Russia's seizure of the Crimea has been undermined. What is certainly true is that in choosing to give his material to Glenn Greenwald, a Brazil-based American journalist, Snowden gave enormous power to a bitter critic of the United States. And in fleeing to Russia, Snowden has become a propaganda weapon for Putin. Edward Lucas, who has written a book about Snowden, keeps asking the key question: "I still haven't heard an answer as to why it is in anybody's public interest to reveal how democracies spy on dictatorships."
Because of the public-interest argument, the Daily Telegraph got away with paying for and publishing stolen information on parliamentarians' expenses. So far, there are few calls to prosecute anyone connected with publishing Snowden's material.