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When It Comes to a Free Press, Greed Is Good

Oli Scarff/Getty

Perhaps the thing that inhibits people from understanding Alan Rusbridger is that the editor of the Guardian, the English-speaking world’s foremost left-wing newspaper, is constantly forced to think like a capitalist. At a truly shameful interrogation before a U.K. Parliament committee yesterday—at one point, Rusbridger’s patriotism was questioned; at another, an M.P. credited the British with creating the Enigma code (it was Britain who cracked Enigma, a Nazi code)—Rusbridger had to defend his paper. The Guardian has published several top-secret practices of British intelligence, including its benefiting from the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which can access the private data, including emails, of millions of citizens. The former employer of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian has reaped the fruits of many of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks.

Rusbridger defended his newspaper in high-minded terms. “I can't think of a story in recent times that has ricocheted around the world like this has and which has been more broadly debated in parliaments, in courts and amongst NGOs,” he said. He described the unprecedented steps—matched by other news organizations—to protect the raw material as well as the restraint exercised by his journalists (for example, not publishing the names of undercover agents whose exposure could jeopardize their lives). He described the official intimidation, the prior restraint, the orders to destroy hard drives that the Guardian and its staff have endured. He asked, in his paper’s words, “why Parliament had not demanded to know how 850,000 people had been given access to the GCHQ top-secret files taken by Snowden, who was a private security contractor.” (I’ve long felt the proper takeaway from the Snowden Saga is that a megalomaniacal 29-year-old private-sector programmer was in a position to leak such supposedly crucial state secrets.)

But the Guardian’s longtime steward has more jejune concerns as well. As Ken Auletta detailed earlier this fall in a fantastic New Yorker article, Rusbridger, faced with declining revenues (most of all in print) and a trust that exists “to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity” as an “independent” and “liberal” newspaper, has made a concerted economic decision, in Auletta’s words, “to transform it into a global digital newspaper, aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers and available entirely for free.”

Yet these concerns, though seemingly base—and undoubtedly ironic for a left-wing newspaper—ought not embarrass Rusbridger or the Guardian. Capitalist self-interest is precisely the engine that drives a robust free press, and always has been. The desire to break scoops and embarrass governments has historically been related to a desire to sell copies (and, now, digital banner ads). Zenger probably just wanted to make an honest living. Though all the U.S. Founding Fathers’ writings insisted upon the importance of a free press, the Constitution doesn’t require one—it doesn’t, say, require Congress to fund an independent ombudsman. Rather, the First Amendment merely guarantees that any press that does exist will be free. This indirect mechanism—when you think about it, a rather roundabout way to creating a free press—has worked because there have always been businessmen and journalists who, armed with that protection, have seen a way to make a career and a business out of it. The press isn’t a neutral medium of information; it is a political actor in its own right (hence its common designation as a separate “Fourth Estate”) driven by its own selfish concerns. So it goes today, and so it goes with the Guardian.

I take comfort in knowing that a continually tenacious Guardian—and press—will be virtually ensured because of self-interest. In a self-defense he published last month in the New York Review of Books, Rusbridger wrote:

There is quite a lot of trust involved in the world on which Edward Snowden has pulled back the curtain. Anyone using [an unnamed West Coast tech “megacorporation]’s services has to trust a nameless man (not the CEO) to have a relationship of integrity with his government (which may not be the customer’s own government). Other documents we have seen say that some telecom companies go “well beyond” what they’re legally required to do. And in the UK we have to trust a government committee whose members are themselves not trusted to know about the most significant surveillance programs of all.

In one of the most subtly significant scoops, The Washington Post reported in August that the so-called FISA Court, charged with overseeing NSA spying activities, relies for accounts of those activities on … the NSA. That’s an awful lot of trust to place in the spy agency being policed.

I’d feel better even about Snowden if I knew of a motivation he had to leak besides, as he has stated, his own conscience and beliefs; and I do feel better about the Guardian knowing that it has an economic imperative to produce juicy and journalistically excellent stories uncovering government malfeasance. “In God We Trust,” one writer has put it. “All Others Pay Cash.”