The future of British newspapers could be abroad, according to the editor of the Guardian. Speaking at a talk at the New York Public Library on Wednesday, Alan Rusbridger said there was "nothing at all" to stop UK newspapers from moving their operations to the US where they would be awarded more freedom under the first amendment, adding that it was "far better to be a journalist in the US that just about anywhere else in the world".
On both the Wikileaks story and the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, the Guardian strategically partnered with the New York Times to "shelter" under the freedoms granted by the US constitution, a move that looked increasingly astute following intimidation from the UK government in which the hard drives of Guardian journalists were destroyed in the basement of its London headquarters by agents of the state.
On the NSA revelations, the 56-year-old called it a "Golden Age for surveillance" yet highlighted that it was the very digital systems that enabled "global supervision" that also allowed for the dissemination of information about the PRISM programme.
He said: "It seems to me virtually impossible to stop the [surveillance] story in the way that certain people in intelligence, the military or the government would like to as it [the story] is in Germany, it’s in Rio, it’s in New York… and in America there are laws against prior restraint. So, the governments with more repressive media laws are going to be outwitted by people doing what we [the Guardian] did, which is to come somewhere with greater protection."
Rusbridger holds up a damaged hard drive destroyed by the UK government
Rusbridger added: "I thought we’d be prevented from publishing [the Snowden revelations] in the UK, so I brought in the New York Times so that we could root this material in the highest standards of free speech, which is a really interesting model if you live in China, in Iran or in Turkey, where journalists are having real problems. We would welcome whistle blowers from these countries, using the Guardian as a hinge for publication but with this very high protection – it is a terribly important model for the future."
When brokering a deal with the New York Times over Wikileaks, Rusbridger said he opened the dialogue with "we’ve got the flash drive you’ve got the First Amendment."
On the "surreal experience" of watching the UK government smashing MacBooks in the basement of the building, Rusbridger said: "Since 1971 [publication of the Pentagon papers] it has been inconceivable that the US government would try and use prior restraint to stop something from coming out. In Britain, the government came to see me and said ‘that’s enough – you’ve had your debate’, and I just don’t think it’s for the state to say when a debate is over... that's why I’m here, that's why we’re reporting from New York."
Speaking about the Guardian’s US success (a third of its readership now comes from the States), Rusbridger said it was down to the realisation that lives were "unintelligible" in purely national terms. "You can’t understand a story about the environment or security or economics without putting it in an international context… and there are not many news organisations in America that still do that," he said.