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The One-Stop Whistleblower Shop

How did The Guardian become the leaker's outlet of choice?

Wikimedia Commons

In the furor following the leak last week of top secret National Security Agency documents, tough questions about national security and personal privacy often got drowned out by the cacophony of messenger-shooting. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old Booz Allen employee who handed over the data was a hero, martyr, villain, traitor or perhaps a paranoid child of techno-libertarianism. His main interlocutor, the former Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, was a vainglorious exaggerator, or one of the bravest journalists since Woodward and Bernstein.

One messenger, however, seems to have escaped the rash of character assassination and hero worship: The relatively small British-based news organisation that has now provoked two of the biggest data dumps on U.S. intelligence in a generation.

Though the Washington Post published one scoop based on Snowden’s leak, it is the Guardian, through its new digital only U.S. website, that has provided a structured timeline of exposés and promises more. This is getting to be something of a habit. Three years ago, along with the New York Times, the Guardian was also the main news agency to systematically publish (and redact) excerpts from over 250,000 classified State Department cables. Though Julian Assange’s Wikileaks had been trickling out stories from February 2010, the real impact of the disclosures came with the publication of edited and contextualised material in the mainstream press. In its 2011 annual report, Amnesty International specifically cited the paper’s coverage as a catalyst for a series of risings against repressive regimes, with revelations about the corruption of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, leading to his overthrow. Foreign Policy magazine concluded that the ‘Wikileaks Revolution’ was a catalyst for the Arab Spring.

How did the Guardian—a formerly Manchester-based, 192-year-old left-of-center paper with a print readership of less than 200,000 a day—manage to insert itself into 2013’s biggest news story? In many ways, it’s a classic example of a news organization wringing new scoops out of readers who were impressed by previous ones—in this case on both ideological and operational grounds. According to Snowden, his choice of publisher was determined by the Guardian’s track record in handling both vulnerable intelligence and whistleblowers. “Harming people isn't my goal,” he told the Guardian. "Transparency is."

The Wikileaks publication worked similarly. For transparency’s sake, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t Assange who orchestrated the release of the cables, but rather an American-born freelance investigative journalist, Heather Brooke, who acquired encrypted data and passwords from another activist and took them to the Guardian. Why the Guardian? “They had a track record in dealing with stories concerned with national security and power,” she told me: “And a proper understanding of how to protect sources.”

Often overlooked in the discussion of personal privacy and national security is the impact that digital surveillance has on journalist source protection. Even if only a tiny fraction of social networking and email accounts are examined by government intelligence agencies (around 19,000 out of 1.1 billion Facebook users according to James Ledbetter at Reuters), that’s still an untenable risk for a would-be whistleblower contacting a journalist. “The flip side of the digital revolution is that this technology is so easily hijacked by state surveillance,” says Brooke, who has since written up her experiences in her book The Revolution Will Be Digitised. “It was a steep learning curve for me three years ago,” she says. Brooke would “go dark” before important meetings, ditching her smart phone which could be hijacked as a tracking device, electronic bug or remote camera. She was told most email and online messaging services were insecure, and she relied on encryption keys and secret chat rooms. Three years before it had been acquired by Microsoft, other journalists would communicate with Assange using Skype. She wouldn’t trust it now (nor Assange apparently, who she claims tried to destroy the credibility of the Guardian when it wouldn’t do his bidding).

Source protection was one of the reasons the paper and the Wikileaks fell out, as he initially disagreed over the redaction of intelligence sources. “Well, they're informants,” he is reported to have said. “So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it.”

Ultimately then, the Guardian brought Brooke something more than technological know-how: Moral support and political back-up. She joined David Leigh and Nick Davies, who between them have over 50 years of experience: The former is an investigative journalist who has covered miscarriages of justice going back to the Soviet spy scandals of the seventies, and the latter broke the phone hacking scandal in 2011 that had been covered up for years by Murdoch’s London subsidiary, News International. “They had a depth of experience and were unafraid of tough investigations into state power,” Brooke says, adding: “Most newspapers have gotten rid of those kind of reporters.” The website combines this expertise with some nifty interactive visualisation of data, which seems to combine traditional reporting with the latest geekery.

Famed for its feral tabloid press, Britain’s Fleet Street often seems grimy and sleaze-obsessed compared to its U.S. counterparts who—from across the Atlantic—still seem to glow with the kudos of Watergate-era investigative journalism and Pentagon Paper–style whistleblowing. But Brooke, who cut her teeth as a crime reporter in the U.S., thinks the American press has since become a victim of “regulatory capture.” “Whistleblowers are vanishingly rare, and every newspaper needs government briefings and insider information just to survive,” she says. But since the Beltway is not the preoccupation of a U.K.-based news service, the Guardian could afford not to play ball.

It’s an odd side effect of the borderless exchange of information—a kind of regulatory arbitrage. While Apple, Amazon, Google and other corporations can use global communications to escape national taxes, the Guardian seems to have a found a niche where it can play to U.S. readers while avoiding the worst consequences from the authorities—exclusion from briefings, refusal to confirm or deny stories, or provide interviews from senior politicians and staff. For the British newspaper group, which is run by a trust, and whose print edition has been hemorrhaging millions for several years now, the online brand recognition is also vital for survival. With print circulations shrinking and—much more importantly—advertising revenues sucked up by online advertisers, the commercial advantages of a distinct digital news identity easily trump any loss of political access.  

In the next few months the Guardian plans to move all its digital properties, including its digital-only U.S. and Australian editions, into a new global domain Though the change of a few letters (from may seem tiny—and though its U.S. staff remains a scant 29 journalists—the change is a recognition that the localised atoms of inky morning print will soon surrender completely to the unfettered electrons of nonstop news and international comment. And while individuals leave their digital residues everywhere, to be easily be scooped up by intelligence agencies, the perennial question—“quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—won’t go away. Who guards the guardians? Well, for now, and for the U.S., the guardian dot com is one answer. 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that The Guardian's new global domain will be It will be