BBC Newsnight makes Greenwald’s case for him

Wondering why Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark has been seen in a neck brace lately? Wark is far from the first TV journalist whose head has been left spinning by Glenn Greenwald, yet they never seem to learn.

It’s the routine-like nature of Greenwald’s encounters that’s most engrossing; they never get boring not only despite their predictable patterns but largely because the formula itself is evidence of one of his favorite and most important points: What hope accountability when journalists are more interested in and passionate about policing dissent than pursing it?

Here’s how it goes.

Wark’s worst question – “how can you be sure your actions haven’t helped terrorists to understand they should change their tactics?” – was, in fairness, at least miles better that NBC’s parodic David Gregory’s ‘best‘: “Why shouldn’t you, Mr Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” (I’m paraphrasing Wark’s but, I promise you, not Gregory’s. Min: 1:10.)

Since Edward Snowdon’s revelations about industrial-scale, unauthorized, unaccountable (FISA? Wise up), and indefensible Government spying on its own citizens and millions more from around the world, including – despite initial denials – accessing message content, Greenwald is regularly interviewed on rampantly unaccountable government power (including his own role in revealing it).

For once, the style adopted by most of his interviewers represents an almost equally substantive and instructive part of the story.

Many of Greenwald’s journalistic colleagues clearly despise the guy. Their questions are much more of the “do you know what you have done; what damage you’ve caused?!” variety than attempts to discuss what he’s helped reveal: terrifying, rapidly growing, and increasingly ruthless state behavior that makes a mockery of a host of US Constitutional rights and, as we should thank Brazilian Prime Minsiter Dilma for reminding us, various international treaties.

By scolding Greenwald as though he gatecrashed the party without reading the rules, and right at the moment when his own investigative reporting represents journalism at its very best, his disgruntled colleagues only help prove his broader point: unaccountable state power is only partly explained by the designs of obscure state employees; a full understanding of how we arrived here must also include the failure of the Fourth Estate; specifically the cozy, lazy, and insufferably credulous and deferential approach adopted by too many journalists.

Greenwald’s own journalistic blind spot, in my view (and I’ve enjoyed reading him for years, since his days at Slate), is his intolerance and near-incomprehension of any journalism that’s not stridently confrontational. Although a far from equivalent offence to the courtier-style he regularly dismantles, for anyone taking his template as an ideal for journalists, this is one drawback in his overall approach worth highlighting.

The constant attempts by “gottcha” journalists, especially in the UK, to “catch out” elected officials working to build something too often breeds less an informed public as an apathetic and cynical one. Sure, the petty, small-minded vindictiveness Alasdair Campbell has riled against deserves no place in the stable of civic minded cynicism advocated by Greenwald as a precondition for any journalism worth the name. Nonetheless, to be cynical not simply about the reality of power in the world, but also about the very nature and potential of power, is a recipe for undermining public service per se and treating the actions of all senior officials as inherently suspicious, regardless of context.

That said, though there are other choices on the spectrum, who wouldn’t prefer Greenwald’s ideal of a consistently hostile and suspicious press to the current alternative, a lamely compliant press office for the powerful (and against their critics). If you consider the characterization less than reasonable, don’t take his word for it, just listen to Ms. Wark.

Taxi for Kirsty.

  • Brian Walker

    You have to remember Kirsty was putting the contrary questions in what was manly a single interview, on a subject which splits opinion without a middle ground – traitor or hero? I respect Greenwald’s skills and accept his sincerity. I believe Alan Rusbridger the editor of the Guardian has taken care to protect identities and not wilfully to breach national security which I think is important. Rusbridger is probably as good a judge of that as any other lay person. What he can’t judge is what is unwittingly revealed and David Omand said that was very serious. I respect Omand too. American abuses like the intrusion into a Brazilian agency do not cancel out real security breaches. However it seems likely that the breaches were more embarrassing that threatening lives, though naturally neither you nor I can’t be sure. Some commentators don’t give a damn for UK or US security. I’m not one of them

    Greenwald was very practiced, very aggressive and contemptuous of his critics in the security establishments. He was for my money unattractively arrogant and a man under pressure. That could be his downfall. He exposed Pauline Neville Jones’ ignorance of meta data (an ignorance I share but I have never been a spook). All the same it’s hard to believe that the Russians and maybe the Chinese haven’t cracked the encryptions if they’ve got to Snowdon’s lap-tops.

    But isn’t the whole traitor or hero argument ultimately redundant? If Snowdon and Wikileaks can access this stuff and the unfortunate Bradley Manning had legitimate access to it there is no such thing as security. If they want security they should print out an edited selection, destroy the servers and lock the hard copy up in a cupboard. Smiley handled these things better.

  • sherdy

    Brian, – Spoken like a real BBC man.

  • Ruarai

    Brian,

    you say: “Some commentators don’t give a damn for UK or US security. I’m not one of them”

    Don’t you realize that Greenwald’s work is exposing threats to the security of UK and US citizens – threats coming from their own states’ agencies?

    It’s not simply a choice between security and accountability, it’s about realizing that for being secure to mean anything it must include the a security to have a private life.

    The people who don’t give a damn about that security include among their number the very people with “security” in their job titles.

  • Harry Flashman

    Like Emmanuel Goldstein the terrorists are everywhere, all powerful and only Big Brother can keep us safe.

    So how has Big Brother done so far in the US? Well the Boston bombers flew back and forth to Dagestan with impunity even though the KGB told the Americans about them. For all the surveillance they were only identified when pictures of them were put on tv and members of the public told the super sleuths who they were.

    The panty bomber got aboard a plane through all that hi tech equipment with a bomb. He was on a no fly list and his own father had warned the authorities!

    Major Hassan had soldier of allah on his business card, dressed as a waziristani warrior and suggested killing veterans but the first time the US govt realised he was a jihadi was wheh he stood on table yelling Allah Ackbar as he gunned down his comrades.

    Thank God for Big Brother eh?

  • Brian Walker

    The security agencies’ case is that they have to the capacity to access pretty much everything in order to be able to find the real threats. That’s one hell of a claim but I just about accept it. It sounds plausible. It doesn’t mean they read everything – which is impossible anyway – any more than they could tap all phones in the pre-digital age. Phone taps had to be politically authorised, we’re told, but today’s technology makes that completely unviable case by case. Genre authorisation by which broad fields of activity are excluded from intrusion is a different matter.

    I accept the agencies’ need to try to maintain technological mastery in cyber wars which are far more extensive than detecting terrorists Do I trust them? A hell of a lot more than the other lot. On the other hand, the Guardian and others has exposed intrusions which are hard to explain. The sometimes excessive zeal of the military mind is another problem.The debate has become unhealthily polarised partly because of shock at the sheer scale of the agencies’ activity and the excessive punishment of Bradley Manning.

    There is a clear case for new protocols to restrict agency intrusion if these can be made to work. But put me up against a wall and ask me, where do you think the biggest threat is coming from the agencies or cyber terrorists worldwide I’ve no doubt it’s the latter. But this provides no excuse for Orwellian spying against nuisance dissenters and political radicals or exaggerating the domestic terrorist threat. (Complaints about the latter have been the other way, you’ll have noticed). . More limited authorisation and stronger scrutiny seems essential , drawing on a wider pool of scrutineers than MPs and retired judges.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Agreeing with Harry Flash for the third time in about a week. I want out.

    To the point. Technological mastery is, in fact, not possible in the way that some contributors think it is.

    It is a trivial matter to encrypt communications so that, provided you are careful, it is impossible for anyone including a state to decrypt it. This technology is commodity and it is used every time you check your bank balance or log into a corporate website. If you see “https” in the URL, then the communication is being encrypted and cannot be broken (with present technology).

    It’s possible that within the next couple of decades the technology will become available to decrypt these messages. But that requires archiving every message somewhere and then returning later once the technology exists. It is economics that limit this, as you’d have to pay an army of people to go through everything.

    You may have noted the leaked NSA documentation showing how to use their internal systems to sniff Facebook messages, Google searches and email exchanges. These were disturbing of course (since it shows that the NSA have the capacity and the means to effectively archive a significant proportion of all the traffic on the internet which they must be tapping somewhere) but cannot be used for HTTPS exchanges.

    Since encrypted exchanges cannot be broken the next option is to lean on one of the parties at either end of the communication and make them reveal what the message was. There are encryption technologies to counter the threat of someone pointing a gun at your head and ordering you to reveal the message. Messages can be encrypted with other messages (perhaps containing less-critical information that you are prepared to reveal) which can be used to persuade your assailant that you have complied with his request.

    That requires that both parties agree to this procedure, and that is where the weak point lies. It is human factors which cause information to be revealed. There was a story recently about a small ISP in the USA who was apparently ordered by the FBI to hand over his HTTPS encryption certificates but not reveal that this had happened. The ISP shut down rather than comply with this order as it would have essentially meant he was spying on his clients for the FBI. It would be unwise for anyone with security concerns to assume that other organizations, such as google, facebook, the local banks etc. will act with the same level of integrity.

    Those who are serious about committing acts of terrorism etc. will have their own security procedures to protect against such issues. Osama Bin Laden dealt with all this by simply not having an internet connection. In the end, none of the NSA’s sniffing technology would have been able to catch him.

  • ThomasPaine

    “By scolding Greenwald as though he gatecrashed the party without reading the rules, and right at the moment when his own investigative reporting represents journalism at its very best, his disgruntled colleagues only help prove his broader point: unaccountable state power is only partly explained by the designs of obscure state employees; a full understanding of how we arrived here must also include the failure of the Fourth Estate; specifically the cozy, lazy, and insufferably credulous and deferential approach adopted by too many journalists.”

    That is a masterful paragraph and sums up exactly what I feel about journalism.

    I have completed my degree and NCTJ Diploma and could easily work in the industry, but three main things have repulsed me to the point I have decided against it.

    First of all, modern society’s propensity to just not care……or not care enough. The ordinary person on the street does not care if they are being taken advantage of. It doesn’t matter if their politicians are taking their hard earned money to pay for their daughter, who has no relevant qualifications and currently at uni full time, working for them as a researcher, or if the same group of politicians are designating their primary home as a secondary home in order to avoid having to pay capital gains tax.

    The only thing the majority of people care about is the love life or some Z list celebrity, or if so and so really did have a boob job, or how bad some actor/singer looks without make up on. As a result, most journos are tabloid based and, not to put too fine a point on it, scum. It’s that culture which leads to phone hacking etc. And it sickens me.

    Secondly, journalism institutions themselves are afraid. They are afraid to report and investigate properly – if they do, they won’t make a profit. They are also scared stiff to go after any business or sector that is in some way tied to how they do make a profit – like their advertisers. They are therefore not informing the public like they should. Then again the majority of the public, as discussed above, do not deserve to be informed properly. It’s often said the public always gets the government they deserve. I think it can be said the public always gets the press it deserves too.

    And lastly, papers/programs do not have to declare their bias. Some are genuinely objective, or at least try to be. But we are all a victim of our environment which shape our personal views. This means that it is likely every report ever produced has at some stage, be it in the choosing of the subject itself, the research, the slant, or even down to the use of individual words, been shaped by the journalists bias. Yes, most know the Belfast Telegraph is an establishment UUP supporting paper. And a lot of us are aware the Mirror is a liberal Labour supporting title. But make them say it. It’s even worse in the US. Fox – fair and unbiased anyone?

    Just a few words on Greenwald, Snowden etc.

    These people may well be enemies of their governments, but given what they have revealed, they are heroes to the peoples, not just in their own countries but in many others too. The public may not know that, nor acknowledge it, but I simply cannot see how there is any argument against this.

    Greenwald may be an immodest man, but he has a lot to be immodest about. A journalist to look up to, in the mould of Woodward and Bernstein.

    And one final point which has already been made – Wark had a job to do for this interview and she done it. If you actually think she does not support Greenwald in entirety, you are badly mistaken.

  • tuatha

    No matter the country, the alphabet soup security agencies have one thing in common, their dedication to the efficacy of woofle dust – they cost an unknown amount to spread it around to protect the common citizen from blood freezing dragons. When it is pointed out the said dragons are generally non existent or thin on the ground, the answer is that it proves what a great job they are doing, and could do better given more funds and greater secrecy and freedom from come-uppance.