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Podcast #70: Alan Rusbridger on Whistleblowers and Wikileaks

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As then-editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger published NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden and made reporting on Wikileaks a cornerstone of the newspaper's coverage. He is also the author of three children's books and the recent Play it Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible.  On this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Alan Rusbridger discussing whistleblowers and Wikileaks.

Paul Holdengräber and Alan Rusbrudger
Paul Holdengräber and Alan Rusbridger

Prior to speaking with Paul Holdengraber at LIVE from the NYPL, Rusbridger looked through the Library's New York Times archives. Rusbridger compared the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers to the publication of documents leaked by Edward Snowden:

"It was just remarkable reading the correspondence around the very, very brave stance that the New York Times took in 1972 over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, because it mirrors so much the internal discussions and the challenges that we have had over the Snowden material, which I think is a comparable publishing event and now including the New York Times, and that was done in the face of, you know, real government menace and criminal menace and it was a very brave thing to do so it was moving to see these letters laid forth about the spirit of teamwork and the public importance of what the Times was doing then... At the most basic level it’s a vast spill of secrets, and the Snowden spill of secrets is bigger than the Pentagon Papers, I mean it’s a—and in a sense it’s about a matter of I think equally high public importance. Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, has said as much himself, because it’s about, to me it’s about very profound things about the nature of potentially putting entire populations under a form of surveillance, it’s about everybody in this room who believes they are secure in using the Internet for banking or their medical records or for e-mail and the degree to which that is a well-based trust, which takes you into very profound questions about the integrity of the Internet itself, and there are so many issues of balancing privacy and security that are engaged by this archive of material that it feels to me a very, very important matter, which is why the public debate in this country has been so welcome."

Although Rusbridger acted as editor-in-chief during Wikileaks, he credits reporter Nick Davies with spotting and conveying the importance of Wikileaks:

"Well, a very brilliant reporter on the Guardian Nick Davies who did the phone hacking story, which was a three-year, very lonely story and his theory is that the most important stories in a newspaper are never on the front page. I think this betrays a basic contempt for editors that’s probably well merited. He believes editors can’t spot interesting stories, and on page seven of the Guardian one day he spotted a story that he thought was, should have been the front-page splash. Which was it was a man on the run with an enormous leak which then was the biggest leak of material from inside the U.S. government/military and he couldn’t understand why nobody was interested in the fact that this man was out there with a backpack on his shoulders, so he tracked him down and persuaded him that he should give the material to the Guardian."

While clear on his position that prosecuting whistleblowers is antithetical to the United States' values, Rusbridger also praised American First Amendment protections, especially in comparison to those in other countries. The First Amendment was, in fact, one reason that Rusbridger wished to involve the New York Times in major document leak stories:

"There are extremely high protection for free speech in this country, you know, the First Amendment, in a written constitution, and I know that the journalists in the room deplore certain things that Obama has done about pursuing whistleblowers, and I deplore those, too, but nevertheless there are very great protections for free speech in this country. And what we did with Wikileaks was by insisting that the New York Times came in, because I thought we would be prevented from publishing it in the UK as we were with Edward Snowden. I wanted to get the New York Times involved in order to have, in order to root this material in the highest standards of free speech, and I do think that’s a really interesting model for the future. If you live in China, Iran, in Turkey at the moment, where journalists are having real problems, in Russia, and we know that we would welcome whistleblowers in these countries and that would be important and using the Guardian as a hinge to publish that material but with very high protection I think is a terribly important model for the future."

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