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Ed Snowden: hero or villain? And the implications for media and democracy


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These are slides for a talk to a LSE student society on Ed Snowden and his significance for media and democracy. These are a first attempt to get some thoughts in order so should be seen as exploratory notes rather than some kind of definitive statement - feedback very welcome!
It follows up on my 2012 book on WikiLeaks which looked at the history of WikiLeaks but also put it into a wider context of what it means for politics and journalism.

Published in: News & Politics, Education
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Ed Snowden: hero or villain? And the implications for media and democracy

  1. 1. Snowden: hero or traitor? Lessons for media and democracy Charlie Beckett @charliebeckett E:
  2. 2. Precedent
  3. 3. No more heroes? • • • • • • Personalisation of protest Power of individual in mass media age Vulnerability of networked authority Risks of Big Data Ethical questions for journalists: public interest? Political questions for democracy: who decides?
  4. 4. What Ed did • • • • • 2005 Spy for NSA – ‘IT security’ expert Computer specialist & Ron Paul supporter 2012 working in NSA for Dell $200k pa 2012: contacts Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald May 2013 Flees US to Hong Kong (now at Moscow airport) • June 2013 Guardian begins publication of leaks • ‘Neither traitor nor hero, I’m an American”
  5. 5. What Ed’s leaks told us • Unknown NSA surveillance programmes such as PRISM • Collection of meta-data about phone conversations and social network use • US surveillance of non-Americans including German Chancellor Merkel • Strategies for more extensive data-gathering in the future
  6. 6. “There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement — where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion — and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever. These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.” Ed Snowden, December 2013
  7. 7. The effect of Ed • • • • • • Pressure on Guardian editor – hard drive smashed Arrest of Greenwald partner under terrorism law Public debate in US – but also in UK & elsewhere Shift in public opinion – esp in Germany Limited reforms announced by POTUS Acceptance by Obama of need for more controls over NSA • Glenn Greenwald now working with Pierre Omydear on new investigative journalism org • Snowden stuck in Moscow
  8. 8. The Ed debate “What I want to know is when the people who are experts in this, dealing with it all the time, serving the country and trying to protect us all, say that this is stuff that should not be in the public domain, how can you argue that you and the colleagues at The Guardian that you consulted are better able to make a judgment on that?” Ian Austin MP, December 2013
  9. 9. The Ed Debate • Has he put national security at risk? • Has he helped enemies of democracy? • What right does Snowden/Greenwald/Rusbridger have to decide to publish secrets? • Does it make legitimate work of govt harder? • What kind of accountability do we want? • What kind of transparency do we want? • Can we trust Security/Politicians/Corporations/Journalists?
  10. 10. What’s new about Snowden? • Nothing new about leaking • Nothing new about ‘advocacy’ journalism • Arguably nothing new about security services monitoring/using new media technologies • Balance of power unaffected? • Majority of UK & US mainstream media hostile to the leaks
  11. 11. What does it tell us about journalism today? • Mainstream media still reluctant to critique security services and the State • The Internet & digital technology makes it easier to create a large leak and to publish it widely • Mainstream media as well as individuals that ‘transgress’ face strong reaction from the authorities
  12. 12. “Things have happened in this country that would be inconceivable in parts of Europe or in America. They include prior restraint. They include a senior Whitehall official going to see an editor to say, “There has been enough debate now”. They include asking for the destruction of our discs. They include MPs calling for the police to prosecute an editor. There are things that are inconceivable in America under the First Amendment.” Alan Rusbridger, December 2013
  13. 13. What does it tell us about democracy today? • Knowledge is still power but it is differently distributed • The security services come out of this operationally challenged but with their power intact • There is now an agenda for better oversight but little political enthusiasm • The traditional role of MSM as Fourth Estate questioned – do we have a Fifth Estate?
  14. 14. Why we need a watchdog The conventional model is that journalism informs and provides a forum for debate. It is the library and theatre for democracy. It also has a role to hold power to account even if that means breaking rules or the law – in the public interest. When you lose that then the first two functions become valueless.
  15. 15. Snowden: hero or traitor? Lessons for media and democracy Charlie Beckett @charliebeckett E: