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Alan Rusbridger The Guardian Advertising Week

"Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this": The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger takes to the stage at Ad Week NY

By Patrick Baglee

September 24, 2013 | 6 min read

Reporting for The Drum from Advertising Week New York, Patrick Baglee attends one of the most anticipated sessions of the week - Mission Impossible III: Inside Snowden. On stage, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and MSNBC's Alex Wagner discuss the most important news story to hit headlines this year.

In one of the first day’s more newsworthy sessions, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief at The Guardian chatted with MSNBC’s Alex Wagner about the world post-Snowden. As well as being a transatlantic partner with Advertising Week (in 2011 the magazine described Rusbridger as the ‘Ben Bradlee of Phone Hacking’), The Guardian is now also in a journalistic partnership with the New York Times. This partnership gives the US paper access to some of the cache of documents leaked to The Guardian by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Guardian has been reporting on the story from their US office because journalists in America are protected by the first amendment, guaranteeing them free speech. Snowden had chosen not to make the New York Times a home for the documents he had but is aware of the connection the two newspapers have made. Rusbridger regards the New York Times as an extremely good newspaper. "When it became apparent to me that it was going to become difficult to continue reporting from London, these were natural people to go to. And no, they weren’t the first choice of Snowden, and that’s good. I’m very happy that he came to The Guardian, and I hope we’ve proved more than adequate to the task," he said. When the story came to the paper in the first place, the discussions about how to manage it took place among a very small group. The decision to publish was unanimous. "Nobody was against doing it," said Rusbridger. Now, three and a half months on, and as new chapters of the story unfold, there have been accusations that the stories are being released in dribs-and-drabs. Rusbridger defends this approach because it is – in practical terms – how the journalists are working through the material: "There is a lot of material. It’s very complex material. These are not stories that just sit up and beg to be told. These are complex documents, some of them in code." So, they have to crack the codes. It’s a slow patient business and clearly not an onrush to get the headline. "We’re not dumping it, we’re doing it rather patiently," he says. As regards the nature of the material they have in their possession, does Rusbridger have any concerns for personal safety? "There are at least three copies of this material around the world, so running me over with a car on 42nd Street isn’t going to achieve anything," he said. Wagner asked Rusbridger about the nature of this particular whistleblower, and whether Snowden was a ‘hacktivist’ or a throwback to Daniel Ellsberg (back in 1971 Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of government decision-making during the Vietnam War). Speaking to colleagues who had met Snowden, Rusbridger says that they didn’t believe him to be grandstanding, indeed they said he was rather shy; he just wanted someone to take the material and he chose the Fourth Estate in order to get the material out and discussed. Snowden insisted on some of the stories coming out in the week before he revealed his identity because he wanted to create a context in which the stories were published, but beyond that, Rusbridger regarded Snowden as being "remarkable by his absence".Speaking about the counter-argument, that the surveillance and vigilance and networks of this sort are all there for a reason, "that is one side of the argument," said Rusbridger, "But its not the only thing. The question is who argues the other side, who argues about privacy or civil liberties, or the right to a free press? The right to dissent or protest? Those are things that have to be weighed in balance."In his view, this is "the golden age of surveillance, because there is so much out there, more than was imaginable ten years ago." The story has certainly impacted on Rusbridger’s own faith in the system. "Orwell could never have imagined anything as complete as this" he said, recalling his first reading of 1984 as a teenager. "This concept of scooping up everything all the time. This is something potentially astonishing about how life could be lived and the limitations on human freedom," he said. Peering into this world is, for him, to see something that is certainly potentially Orwellian. "Everyone who has looked at these documents," he said, "comes away changed in a way." This being Advertising Week, there was a question about whether there is a difference between the data referred to in Snowden’s revelations and the data collected to make advertising more effective. Ultimately, Rusbridger feels it’s an issue about transparency of operations and the commitments made by law from company to customer. The use of cookies is one thing, but as Rusbridger points out, "this is substantively different to things about which you have no idea."As the session drew to a close, Rusbridger answered questions from the floor. He does not know whether Snowden has material that hasn’t been released to The Guardian. Of the material Snowden has shared, the paper has published a "small portion" and they’re working their way through it. And what happens to all this information in the end? Rusbridger takes a piece of MacBook hard drive from his jacket pocket. It has three or four holes along its length, drilled, apparently, to the satisfaction of GCHQ operatives. "It’s a big philosophical question," he says, with this somewhat battered memento in his hand. "Should we just take our drill to it, and destroy it to British Government standards and by drilling our way through the hard disc and destroying it forever, because of that, the curtain will close on this archive of stuff that’s never been seen before and probably will never be seen again? That would be one way of going at it," he said. "Or another would be to try and find some way of discussing with the administration a holding place for it so that as this discussion takes place, it’s still there in some way." Until that point, it is clear that The Guardian has more to share, and will remain undeterred from doing so. Throughout this week Patrick Baglee is reporting from Advertising Week New York. Read his coverage of 'The Art of Online Brand Building' session involving Aol's David Shing, Google's Aman Govil, and Unilever exec Babs Rangaiah.
Alan Rusbridger The Guardian Advertising Week

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