Journalism at its best is, I think, not only of benefit to humanity but essential to it.
Acceptance speech – Alan Rusbridger
Thank you for this honour. It is one thing to be recognized by juries of journalists giving prizes for journalism. It’s nice to win those, too. But this award is on a different plane.
Over the years the Right Livelihood Award has gone to extraordinary men and women who have done remarkable things – as it says – “for the planet and its people” – scientists, educationalists, doctors, economists, lawyers, faith leaders and engineers among them.
Some people may raise an eyebrow at the thought of journalism keeping such company. If so, that’s largely our fault as journalists.
Because, of course, journalists do many things that aren’t terribly admirable. We can, and do, get things wrong. We can be shallow, vindictive, trivialising, fickle and heartless. Some journalists abuse their power, break the law and enjoy the view from their bully pulpit. That’s journalism at its worst.
But journalism, at its best is, I think, not only of benefit to humanity but essential to it.
If you doubt that, look around at societies where journalists are not free to do their work. Societies where those with power don’t have to worry about anyone examining how they use that power. Where there are no independent voices or organizations able honestly to report, scrutinize, evaluate and criticize. We know what those societies look like.
And then consider this: how many people are prepared to die for their job? The Committee for the Protection of Journalists keeps the figures: 42 dead journalists this year, some 1,600 since the CPJ started logging the statistics in 1992.
Every day of every year colleagues around the world risk their lives because they know the world needs journalism. They feel a drive, a mission, a duty to bear witness. There’s no doubt they think of journalism as a public service, almost a calling.
I’m here today because of one family and one individual, both of whom knew this truth about journalism at its best.
The family is the Scott family. The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 in response to a massacre of innocent people by the state – the so-called Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The founding editor – who was there on the spot and who reported on the killings – started the Guardian because he knew how important it was that there was a widely circulated, truthful account of what happened.
The Scott Family did a remarkable thing with the Manchester Guardian, as it then was, in 1936. They gave the paper away. They didn’t float it, cash out or go in search of an oligarch or hedge fund.
They put the Guardian into a trust, making not a penny from it. The only purpose of the Trust was to preserve it – with its liberal traditions and its belief that a newspaper is not simply a business, but a form of public service … to preserve that in perpetuity.
So, as editor of the Guardian, I am conscious every day of the debt I owe to the Scott family and to its remarkable editor for 57 years, CP Scott – who wrote on the paper’s centenary that he would never have wanted to be involved with the Guardian if it had put profit above its ability to “play on the minds and consciences of men.”
The second person I want to acknowledge is my fellow award recipient Edward Snowden.
Snowden saw things that he found profoundly troubling while working as a young analyst at the US’s National Security Agency. Even people who disapprove of his behaviour generally concede that he has provoked, and helped inform, a long-overdue debate about the extent, legality and ethics of forms of mass surveillance that were barely imaginable even 20 years ago.
Edward Snowden could easily have published his material himself. In 2014 anyone can be a publisher. There was nothing to stop him editing and disseminating the material himself.
He chose instead to go to journalists he trusted and asked them responsibly to publish the material they found most significant. He believed in journalism.
He did this in the certain knowledge that this act would have severe consequences for his own life as well as his friends and family. And in the certain knowledge that the people, institutions and governments he was forcing into daylight would fight back, demand darkness once more – and extract a price.
One of the challenges Snowden poses for us is the recognition that there is no thing as the public interest. No such thing as one single, monolithic interest that overrides all others.
Living our lives securely without being murdered by terrorists: that is certainly a very important public interest, and one we may feel acutely at the moment. Freedom of expression – enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – is another. Privacy is held sacred by millions of us, and is written down in the US Fourth Amendment and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Since the Magna Carta we have resisted the power of the state to exercise arbitrary power over our lives, to enter our houses or seize our papers. But what if seizing the modern equivalent of every single individuals’ private papers might save a life?
States and businesses love encryption if it helps evade the glare of tyrants or keep state or financial secrets safe from hackers. But states and law enforcement agencies hate encryption for other reasons – and will do their best to undermine it.
So there are many – often conflicting – public interests, not one. This fact was forgotten in the white heat of Snowden by some journalists who said: “if the state says it is not in the public interest to publish something, who am I to contradict them.”
There is an easy answer to that: you are a journalist. You are not part of the state or the government. Your job is responsible disclosure, not secrecy. You stand aside from power in order to scrutinize it. Your job is to be fully sensitive to all those public interests – and to publish what you judge to be significant as carefully as you know how. Only then is informed debate possible. You have as much right to balance those public interests as a politician or a policeman or a judge.
And when they come for you – and tell you to stop… And then tell you they will force you to stop… and then come into your office and oversee the destruction of your computers, your job is to carry on publishing. To carry on making those fine judgments in the full awareness of conflicting public interests.
You do it, not because you hate you country, but because you love your country. Because at school they made you read John Milton and George Orwell. Because at university you studied John Stuart Mill. Because, as a British journalist, you unearthed your own heroes who had gone before, including John Wilkes, William Cobbett, CP Scott, Emily Hobhouse or Harold Evans. All of them at times derided, denounced, pursued, sued, jailed or exiled.
They made us smash up our hard discs. But we didn’t stop publishing. To some, the image of a gouged-out Guardian computer circuit board is a sinister one. The Mayor of Leipzig, when he visited my office, found it a chilling one, for reasons that are still within living memory of millions of Germans.
But, just as there is no single public interest, there can be no single view of what happened during the Snowden affair. Over time I began to find the image of destroyed computers both chilling and an icon of optimism – precisely because we went on publishing.
The internet is the thing they fear. The thing they want to master. The space in which we may all find darkness as well as light. But the very reasons the State wants to tame, penetrate and control the digital universe are the same reasons which make it an instrument of liberty. What was unpublishable in Britain was publishable elsewhere. Infuriating to the British state, no doubt. But, we would all agree, wonderful if the information in question was trying to escape the control of China, or Turkey or Russia or Syria.
So Snowden opened our eyes to multiple, sometimes competing and clashing public interests – including those represented by corporations, civil libertarians, intelligence agencies, lawyers, journalists and politicians.
How well governments have responded to the challenges Edward Snowden has sent us is for another occasion. But it is certain that, if politicians have no appetite to address the issues raised by Snowden, they forfeit the right to criticise the press for doing the thing they shy away from.
As for me, I felt very privileged. Privileged because – when the attack came – the Guardian had the institutional strength and resilience to withstand it and defend its journalism. And immensely proud of my colleagues.
I’ve always thought of reporters like bees – essential to the sustainability of any ecosystem of information about ourselves. During the year of Snowden my already enormous respect for journalists and lawyers grew even more: the reporters and editors who so skillfully found what it was that had so troubled our source; and the lawyers who defended us in its publication. I was strengthened in my faith that journalism can, indeed, perform a public service. And that journalism must always, always stand proudly independent of all forms of power.
And I felt so privileged because the editor of the Guardian is – almost uniquely – privileged. 193 years ago a Manchester citizen witnessed an outrage by the state … and founded a newspaper in response. Nearly 80 years ago his family established a trust to protect that paper. And, when push came to shove – when there came another moment to shine a light on the immense and troubling powers of the state – the Trust, in turn, protected the editor and the journalism. There was no-one to nobble.
So thank you for this award.
There is a new word in the age of Twitter and Facebook – “humblebrag” – appearing to be modest while simultaneously boasting of your success.
I feel the ultimate humblebrag today. Genuinely modest to be receiving this award alongside such distinguished laureates today – Edward, Asma, Bill and Basil. Humble to be a recipient of this rather remarkable award which has gone to so many extraordinary people.
But, boy, is it something to brag about.
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