The debate over the impact of Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks has been obscured by “muddle and fog”, particularly in the United Kingdom, according to Alan Rusbridger. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief said the lack of response from British politicians, journalists and the public following the revelations was “very frustrating”.
Politicians in the UK have found the subject “toxic”, complex and difficult to discuss, but the issues are too important to be ignored, Rusbridger said.
“The penny has dropped recently that, love or hate Edward Snowden, he has laid out a huge canvas of issues that concern us all,” he said.
In a lecture, 21st Century Surveillance State: Implications of the Snowden Revelations, at the University of Oxford this week, Rusbridger told his audience it was time to move the debate into an academic arena, where its complex issues could be analysed in greater depth.
The Guardian first published stories based on intelligence documents leaked to the newspaper by Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, in 2013. However few other mainstream UK news outlets covered the story despite the revelations about mass surveillance by a British intelligence agency, the GCHQ.
Rusbridger said he regretted that much of the reaction to the leaks focussed on the Guardian’s role in publishing them, rather than on their content.
“In the UK there was nothing, no reaction, no reports. Only one meeting [… at Westminster Hall] at which the Guardian was mentioned 21 times, privacy seven times and civil liberties three times,” he said.
It took nearly two years before the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) reported on the implications.
Published last week, the ISC’s report: Privacy and Security, a modern and transparent legal framework, found that UK laws governing intelligence agencies and mass surveillance need to be updated, to make them more transparent and comprehensible.
The ISC also found that the UK’s intelligence agencies had not been acting illegally, and that the bulk collection of data by the government does not amount to mass surveillance or a threat to individual privacy.
The response to the Snowden coverage was very different in the United States. There the Guardianshared a Pulitzer prize, the highest award for journalism in the US, with the Washington Post. The Pulitzer committee praised the Guardian for its “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, helping … to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy”. At least two major reports into intelligence and surveillance issues highlighted by the leaks have also been published in the US.
Rusbridger, who is leaving the Guardian this summer to take up a role as Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, described how, out of frustration, he had recently drawn a “very bad diagram” on a scrap of paper, to identify multiple public interest issues raised by Snowden’s revelations. The diagram had revealed at least 150 “meaty issues”, including those surrounding the treatment of whistleblowers, censorship, national security, civil liberties and international relations.
Rusbridger also listed consent, open press, security, privacy, the digital economy and Silicon Valley among many others.
A key issue in the UK, according to Rusbridger, is oversight. He questioned the effectiveness of the ISC and said current legislation is unmanageable. Many politicians, including those on the ISC, do not adequately understand it. “The subject is too huge for most MPs,” he said.
Rusbridger was challenged on a number of points by the audience, which included a former head of the GCHQ. When questioned whether his newspaper was right to publish secret NSA documents, Rusbridger said the information had been handled sensitively and only about 1% had been reported. He acknowledged a claim by UK security services that communication channels had become harder to access since the leaks, therefore making it more difficult to monitor potential security threats.
Answering a question about the balance between security and privacy in the UK, and why the British public appeared to accept a level of surveillance, Rusbridger said: “I often wonder why the debate has been so muted here – is it because we like our spies? We have James Bond and Enigma. Has that made us complacent about the future? We didn’t have the Stasi but we did have George Orwell.”
Only a few months before he leaves the Guardian, Rusbridger indicated his future priorities: “A few weeks ago Philip Hammond (the British Foreign Secretary) said it was time to draw a line under the debate about Snowden, but for me the debate is just beginning.”
This post is part of our Great Charter Convention series, hosted in collaboration with Open Democracy, IPPR and the University of Southampton.
This post originally appeared on the website of the European Journalism Observatory.