Guardian Editor: 'British More Complacent' about Surveillance

The Guardian was recently visited by British authorities and asked to destroy hard drives containing sensitive information from Edward Snowden. Zoom
REUTERS

The Guardian was recently visited by British authorities and asked to destroy hard drives containing sensitive information from Edward Snowden.

The Guardian has been on the front lines of exposing vast surveillance undertaken by the US and the UK -- and has been targeted by the authorities as a result. In an interview, Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger talks about his confrontation with the government and why the scandal isn't making waves in Britain.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What was your first reaction after being asked by Whitehall officials to hand over or destroy the hard drives containing information from whistleblower Edward Snowden?

Rusbridger: We had been having a perfectly cordial conversation with government officials before that. I don't know why they suddenly changed their mind and decided to take legal action. I obviously anticipated that they might do this, which is why we had already made arrangements in the US. So I tried to persuade the officials that this is a pointless thing to do. They wouldn't be persuaded, however. So I thought it was better to just move the reporting out of London I was happy to destroy the material in London.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Both GCHQ and the government had to anticipate that you would go public with this.

Rusbridger: Yes, it would have been naive to think that we would not tell our readers at some point.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So why did you decide to write about it only now?

Rusbridger: There were one or two little operational reasons why I didn't write about it immediately. Secondly, we were in a slightly bizarre thing where the conversation had begun without any threats. It had begun as a discussion and we had agreed to keep this private. I thought it was useful to both ends to have a channel of communication so that you didn't have to start sending in police or go to law. There was an element of the constellations that were protected by an off the record-agreement, which is why when I wrote about it I didn't name the officials. So having not written about it on the same day, it would have looked a little bit odd to break the whole news story three days later on.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think motivated GCHQ and Whitehall to intervene?

Rusbridger: I can only speculate. My assumption is that there were different factions in Whitehall and the government. There were people who favored a very confrontational approach and sending in police. And there were others who were arguing that that would be counterproductive and that it would be better to have a conversation. At some point the hardliners won.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There were plans to send police to the Guardian offices?

Rusbridger: I understand that there were, yes. In a different context the police have been inside News International (during the phone hacking scandal), but I think most people can see that those are different things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your case, there was obviously the fear that hackers or spies could gain access to the material in your possession.

Rusbridger: They (government officials) said that they had that fear. That may or may not be genuine, I don't know. There are other things about the urgency and how they behaved that make me doubt whether that was really the reason. One minute it was very, very urgent and at other times they've moved quite slowly. I don't think they've been consistent.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you satisfied with the impact of your reporting on the British public?

Rusbridger: I think the debate has been much better in the United States and in parts of Europe than in the UK. I am not sure I can totally explain it, but for some reason, the British appear to be a little bit more complacent about these things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Guardian seems to be rather alone when it comes to reporting on this issue.

Rusbridger: Just as we were with the phone-hacking scandal. Maybe another explanation is that you have to be quite digital to really understand the nature of the threat here. The pride of an Englishman is his castle, most Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail readers believe that. They can't imagine the police coming through the front door into their homes, and they don't quite see that the police may already be inside their homes. They don't even need to go through the front door. I don't think that's being explained to the people well enough and this is what it's all about.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It's not just journalists, though. The opposition has likewise been reluctant to focus on the surveillance scandal.

Rusbridger: Thus far, there has been virtually no debate in Westminster and barely a single MP has raised their voice. The Liberal Democrats are compromised by the fact that they are in government and Labour has a patchy record of defending our civil liberties. I think the penny is dropping on the Conservatives. There was a piece in the Telegraph by Conservative MP Domimik Raab. Tory MP David Davis is gearing up on it as well. And there was an online piece with a comparison to the arrest of Tory MP Damien Green in 2008. It may be that Conservative back benchers will get going on this before Labour does.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it helps that Glenn Greenwald appears to be starting something of a personal vendetta?

Rusbridger: I'm sure this is not what he thinks. Glenn has been effective and actually quite careful in what he has written so far. I think in the coming weeks, more will emerge about the relationship between government, intelligence agencies and tech companies.

Interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann

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1. We're not more complacent
bencawley31 08/22/2013
We have a history of terrorist attacks and threats on our own soil. We expect our intelligence sevices to be carrying out these sorts of operations. Whether Germans realise it or not, the UK is an incredibly prominent country in the world, due to its history in the world and we're a prime target. We simply have a different attitude toward this kind of thing and have yet to be convinced its anything to be truly concerned about
2. Cultural Conundrum?
Jim in MD 08/22/2013
It is funny that SPIEGEL and the leftist editor of the Guardian use a cultural stereotype to explain British comfort with this spying versus the phone-hacking scandal. The British have had CCTV on every corner now for over 30 years, a full generation. Perhaps, they don't have as much to fear from their federal government as Germans and, presumably, Americans. It would be interesting to know why Germans are so scared of the BND and NSA. Siemens has lost more business to China than the US, so your hypothesis about industrial spying seems weak.
3. adult
spon-facebook-10000139396 08/22/2013
It is not that the Brits are "complacent" about spying; the Brits are simply more adult about the realities of the world. The Brits expect to be spied upon and regard anybody who does not take precautions against this as foolish in the extreme. During the Industrial Revolution both France and the Deutsche Reich indulged in a great deal of industrial/military espionage in Britain (and of course still do). The Brits certainly expect that spies should spy in the interests of Britain and its allies and a failure to do so would be regarded as a failure of their duty of care. Modern democracies are a complex matrix of conflicting interests which are designed to try and address the question "Quis custodiet ipsos custodies." Who shall guard the guardians. To answer this question the USA has its constitution; the Brits have a Constitutional Monarchy where the armed forces swear fealty to the monarch not to the state. Any sort of rogue totalitarian political movement could be dissolved by the monarch, who of course has the military on side. Neither is perfect but they are the best we have come up with taking into consideration the culture, history and internal strains of the two states.
4. NSA spying abuse: Corruption and crime!
Manish Gupte, PhD 08/22/2013
People are bullying and doing all sorts of crime. My computer is intruded. Investigate. People from once reputed places.
5. The Guardian
MaxWolfe 08/22/2013
The Guardian was the only London newspaper to break the Snowden story or let anyone know what was going on. The rest of the London media & the London TV News media completely avoided the whole situation leaving the UK population in ignorance of the whole Moscow/Bolivian jet fiasco. International & human rights laws were broken but unreported. It is very sad to see this kind of illegal manipulation by the UK. Democracy & freedom of speech are both now a thing of the past. The work of the London news media is particularly appalling. This week the BBC started to "discuss" Snowden having realised that the cat was out of the bag. I think the Miranda episode at Heathrow has soured the corporate media into action at last. We are witnessing the corporation of the UK population by vulture economics. Where the local populations become the enemy if they oppose corrupt authority. We will soon be facing mini police drones with cameras & a Corrupt state using taxpayers money to repress dissent. We are the terrorists.
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About Alan Rusbridger
  • DPA
    Alan Rusbridger, is the editor-in-chief of the influential British daily Guardian. Born in 1953 in present-day Zambia, Rusbridger began his journalistic career with the Cambridge Evening News. He joined the Guardian as a reporter in 1979 before moving on to work for other British newspapers. He is the author of three children's books and is the co-writer of the BBC drama "Fields of God". In 2012, he published the book "Play It Again: Why Amateurs Should Attempt the Impossible". Rusbridger is a passionate piano player.
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