undreds of Sheffield students and staff attended a spellbinding guest lecture by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to celebrate the Department of Journalism Studies' 20th anniversary.


As part of the department's #jus20 programme – marking two decades of excellent teaching and research since its inception in 1994 – Rusbridger spoke for an hour at the University's Octagon Centre to a full house of around 600.


Offering congratulations on the 20-year milestone, he also credited the department both for producing Guardian journalists and for plotting a course through recent seismic changes in the profession.


The University of Sheffield, said Rusbridger, has "helped journalists see their route map through what is by any accounts the most extraordinary revolution in communication, and… we've had a lot to thank Sheffield for in terms of the people you've sent us so  happy birthday."


The lecture is now available to watch in full on YouTube or on iTunes U where you can also access an exclusive Q&A podcast recorded after the lecture.


We also wanted to pull out some of the key highlights from the lecture into this feature for those who would prefer to read about journalism 'After Snowden' complete with links to additional sources and reading materials.


Alan Rusbridger began his 'After Snowden' lecture talking about an important event that actually took place nearly 200 years before the NSA revelations would hit the headlines.


The Guardian editor-in-chief started by looking back to events in Peterloo on 16th August 1819 - events that would lead to the creation of the newspaper he now edits and circumstances that would raise one vital question for journalism through the ages..





"It was a time when Britain was going through an uneasy period - you might use the word austerity - there were a lot of jobless, it had just been through a period of war, there was a feeling that the elites were out of touch with the people, that Parliament was not representative of the people and there was a lot of unrest and fear for the people and of violence.





"Peterloo Massacre" by Richard Carlile (1790–1843) - Manchester Library Services. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

"This meant there was a true version of what happened and by some accounts that was the first really important act of public reporting in British public life - the first example of the crucial importance of a verified, accurate account of events before the Government propaganda kicked in.


"Things didn't go so well for James Wroe, he was arrested for sedition because telling the truth was a bad thing or a crime and so he was locked up for a year and within two years his paper had been put out of business by the state. In the last editorial he wrote he said "Please now read a new paper in Manchester started by John Edward Taylor, the other person in the crowd, the Manchester Guardian."



As Rusbridger scrolled forward to talk about the Snowden case itself he made some interesting points about the manner in which Snowden decided to leak the information and also the decisions he made about the media organisations he wanted to work with.


Speaking about the initial contact between Snowden and The Guardian he said:


"It was May 2013 when I got the phone call from Janine Gibson, The Guardian's editor in the US, that somebody has surfaced from inside the NSA. The NSA had never really sprung a leak before, in fact, NSA stood for No Such Agency - it was so secret.


"He was in Hong Kong and he wanted to meet and he had supposedly in his control many of the most secret documents that any journalist could ever have handled about how the agencies of western intelligence were keeping a vast number of people, in the end it turned out to be entire populations, under some form of surveillance.


"What Edward Snowden had seen worried him deeply - he thought that there were very few good and plenty of terrible precedents for states and ruling elites awarding themselves this ability to monitor the communications, movements, associations and relationships of their citizens and I think we can all see the potential for evil that exists in that technology."


"He thought that Congress was being lied to about what was going on inside the NSA and it turns out that he was right about that too and he believed that we were sleepwalking into a situation were the technology and the people who had to access to it would end up potentially in a position of overpowering control and I think he was probably right to be fearful of that too.


"What he was revealing was the unprecedented ability to pry into the lives and thoughts and behaviour and relationships of individuals not just by the state but by an extraordinary coalition of players - governmental, corporate and technological.


Rusbridger went onto discuss the importance of how Edward Snowden decided to leak the information and the decisions he made when it came to who he felt he could trust.


"He did this rather extraordinary thing which was to go to Hong Kong and then hand pick people to disperse these documents to so that eventually the material was held in four different countries and on three different continents. As part of this, he also picked different types of players so some of them were very new media players, some of them were old media if you like - mainstream media - and some were individuals.


"When I went to see him in Moscow in late July / early August I asked him if that was deliberate thing that he had done and he said that it certainly was, and he said that he had handpicked people he thought could do justice to this material. He had spread it across international geographies and jurisdictions in order to make it more difficult to suppress and across different types of players that made it very hard for anybody to do what the state had attempted to do in 1819 which was to just lock people up and suppress information.


"It's also notable what he didn't do - it's almost a constitutional thing in America that if you're going to leak documents you take them to the New York Times or to the Washington Post - but he didn't do what Daniel Ellsberg had done with the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and he didn't go to the New York Times.





"It's also notable that he didn't take it to an organisation like Wikileaks and he didn't publish it himself - there would have been no reason not to publish and no reason why he couldn't. He has the technological expertise, in fact almost anybody would have the technological expertise in 2014 to publish this material themselves. He didn't do that because he wanted journalists to have the files. He wanted them to make their own independent judgments. He wanted them to make sense of what was immensely complex material and to try and give it context and to help people understand what it meant.


"It's quite a remarkable and deliberate set of choices that he made about what journalism itself could do and he felt that these issues were so large that he wanted to turn to the one truly independent force in society - the estate.


"We call journalism an estate - the fourth estate - I think everyone's forgotten what the other three estates are but journalism is the fourth estate and it's really important to remember that.


"Journalism is there to stand aside from all the other forms of power in order to question them, to interrogate them, to report on them, to hold them to account and to bring into the public gaze in a responsible and accurate way the facts as had happened in Peterloo in 1819 - just that act of reporting and saying 'this is what happened."

As the story developed Rusbridger began to explore the journalistic questions he faced while dealing with Snowden.


The series of questions he said The Guardian had to consider were:


  1. Should you look at the leaked material in the first place?
  2. If you do, what rules do you construct for what you are going to look at?
  3. Do you publish the materials? If so, What do you publish?


He said:


"It was probably the most highly-classified material that any British reporter has seen, and there are one or two journalists including Economist writer called Edward Lucas who said we shouldn't have looked at it. He said if Edward Snowden had gone to see him, he would have marched him straight down to the police station - so that's what some journalists think about that.


"What rules do you construct about what you are going to look at? We constructed rules around what we would look at and what we wouldn't. Then having decided that you are going to look at it - and actually apart from Edward Lucas I can't think of any journalists worth their salt who wouldn't look at it - do you use it? What do you use?


"It's evident from the reaction of some journalists that they think we shouldn't have used it, especially if told not to by the state. There was an interesting moment last year when quite surprising newspapers in Britain said that if MI5 tells you that this stuff is harmful, then you shouldn't use it. So that is journalists saying we defer to the state and if the state tells us not to use it, then we won't use it.


"I find that an untenable position for journalists, I just can't understand the idea that any journalist would defer to the state and allow them the final decision about publication because that is exactly what happened in 1819. Anybody in a modern sensibility would say that the people in the crowd that day were completely right and the magistrates were completely wrong - it was a completely rotten system and they were completely right to be there and the journalists were completely correct to write about - but the state thought otherwise at the time."

The Lessons of Snowden...

7 mins 42 secs

Another interesting question raised in the lecture was 'do you talk to the state or the intelligence agencies in advance of publication?' Rusbridger argued that the answer to all of the above questions was 'yes' - yes you should look at it, yes you should publish it but yes you should take to the state in advance.


It was at this point that the lecture became even more interesting as Rusbridger talked through The Guardian's attempts to speak to the state about Snowden and the leaked materials.


He said:


"Talking to the state is a much easier thing to do in America than it is to do in Britain. In America, since 1971 and the Pentagon Papers - the Supreme Court have set the barrier very, very high for the considerations of national harm to allow anybody in Government to stop a newspaper from publishing something.


"In Britain, there is 'prior restraint' - it's a posh word for censorship - the state can intervene to stop you from publishing, so if you alert the state and you go to the state in advance and say 'I have these interesting documents, would you like to talk about that?' - the state in Britain can come and say 'oh no you don't, we're going to stop you from doing that.'


"In America that is unthinkable which is a fairly crucial difference between these two countries.


"Of course that is exactly what the British government did and I sort of knew it, I knew the moment we started to engage with the British government that there would come a time where they would say 'that's it, stop' and the Cabinet secretary eventually came to me and said 'Ok, you've had your fun - this now has to stop.' I asked him what he was going to do about it and he said 'we will come in here either with the police or with the civil law - but we will stop it unless you destroy all the material that you have.'


"I don't think the British government was thinking very clearly at this point. Firstly, I told them, and was incredibly upfront, that we were working with the New York Times  and ProPublica  - and that it was not going to be possible to stop this reporting.


"I also told them, and I hope they would have known already, otherwise they're really inefficient intelligence agencies, that Glenn Greenwald out on the edge of Rio De Janiero had all this stuff too and that there was no way on Earth that he was going to stop publishing. So I asked them if this was what they really wanted?  Would they rather deal at a distance of 10,000 miles with a guy who was likely to take very different decisions from the Guardian if left to his own devices - and if so, what did they think they were going to achieve?"

"The final thing to remember was the New York Times in 2005 - if the state's response is to stop publication of these things then the next generation of leakers, and they don't seem very good at keeping this stuff safe, will just simply publish themselves.


"Why would you go to The Guardian if we had the reputation that it simply wasn't going to publish the stuff? You wouldn't, and so the British state would be forcing this stuff into the kind of publication that Edward Snowden didn't do.

Hard drives full of leaked documents being destroyed at Guardian HQ. Photo: The Guardian

"The next leakers would just publish it themselves and the sight of GCHQ agents in the basement of The Guardian that day in the Summer of last year supervising the destruction of The Guardian's computers in this completely pointless distraction - and I think they now think that it was completely pointless - just sent a terrible picture of Britain which was about to celebrate Magna Carta next year and about Britain's view of a free press."


"As it happened, and as I said to the state in our conversations with them, this was going to have no effect on our reporting because we would simply report out of New York. This is another lesson of Snowden, that in the world of the internet you can go forum shopping - people have done that to us in the libel courts for years and now we can do it. We can say 'well, where are the best jurisdictions to publish?' and if Britain is not a very good place to publish then you can go to America and publish there. The extraordinary thing about the dispersed nature of the internet means that we really can go and publish anywhere.


 "I think that is a profound thing and to give Julian Assange credit he was the first person who really saw this, this ability to use the internet as a hinge to publish stuff that would be unpublishable in one country and to publish somewhere else and I think we are just beginning to see the importance of how that is going to work in the future.


"So what were the other lessons of Snowden in terms of these public interests? People very soon tried to narrow it down to something of national security vs press responsibility and of course that is an issue and nobody underestimates the job that security services have to do as we live in dangerous times.


"So of course that is a legitimate issue but it would be a terrible mistake I think to try and just force it down to that because these documents told us lots of things - one was about the nature of consent and whether that given this is all our information, our medical records, our emails, our relationships, our thoughts that we communicate through Google searches - should any of us have a say in whether the state can scoop all that up, collect it and search through it? What does consent mean? That leads you to think about the role of Parliaments and Congresses - should politicians have known about it before these vast databases were made? What form of conversation could you have - it's a sort of 'who rules Britain?' conversation I think.


"It transpired that during the discussions about Snowden the people who had been in charge of approving the so-called Snoopers Charter, which is about to come back, knew nothing about the capabilities that we already had and that Parliament had been kept in the dark. So that leads into huge questions about legality and was any of this stuff legal? They say it was, but during the discussion and debates they rushed through drip legislation at the end of the Summer when Parliament was given two days to discuss this.


"Lots of distinguished people, mainly in the House of Lords stood up and said that 'RIPA' was an analogue law that had been twisted or stretched to cover digital spying and this is really important for journalists because we've seen in the last month that the police have been using RIPA to bypass judges and the protections that are in place in order to find out who journalists sources are.


"What about the private sector and the telecoms companies that we rely on? Google, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Whisper, WhatsApp all have relationships with the state of some form - are they going beyond what they are legally required to do? How does that work? What about the integrity of the web itself? It turned out that the NSA itself was boring trapdoors into the architecture of the web - this was the story that Tim Berners-Lee thought was probably the most significant because there is no cryptologist that I've met who believes the NSA can put a trapdoor in the web that can't be used by bad people or crooks. How do you govern the architecture of the web itself?


"This leads onto a huge risk to the digital economies of western states and puts billions and billions of dollars at risk if the rest of the world decides that actually they don't trust American and western technology in future.


"There was the whole questions of relationships with friendly governments - is it okay to bug Angela Merkel's phone? It really pissed the Germans off, but what are the rules about spying on your allies? Were they telling the truth? If you're going to have this extraordinary capability what is the responsibility to go to Parliament or Congress and tell the truth? Lots of people have doubts as to whether they always have told the truth.


"There are also vast questions about privacy and this new word that many of us are coming to terms with - 'metadata.' If you ever hear Malcolm Rifkind or William Hague on the Today programme they always go in and say you have no reason to worry - nobody is looking at the contents of your email. What they don't say is that they are collecting all your metadata and metadata tells us all that they need to know about you. Metadata tells us all about your relationships and your positions, your locations and you can build up an almost complete picture of somebody's life."

Bringing the lecture to a close Rusbridger discussed the true purpose of journalism - one that has remained constant from Peterloo in 1819 to 'After Snowden' in 2014. He said:


"I think there were enormous issues that Edward Snowden raised which of course lead back to the justification for printing this stuff in the first place. You can't take these kinds of decisions about publishing these kinds of materials without public interests and I think there were enormous public interests revealed by Edward Snowden. The British state really didn't like this and The Guardian came under huge pressure  - the police were set on us, the police as far as I know are still pursuing us, they would have stopped us through legal means if they could. I was summoned to Parliament and asked if I love my country - they tried to nobble me through all means that they could and they found that The Guardian was an 'unnobblable' institution.


"It was rather satisfying seeing all the normal levers of power fail. Normally you go to the proprietor or the board or the shareholders and they kept writing to the Scott Trust and saying 'Stop this from happening' and the Scott Trust said 'I'm terribly sorry but The Guardian is set up so that nobody can tell the editor what to write.' I think it is probably the only paper like that in Britain - they are not allowed to tell us what to write - they can sack me - but they can't tell me what to do.


"So it's the same story as Peterloo - the state will always react in the same way and it left me at the end, and its not necessarily the end, but the end of what we did feeling immensely heartened by it and I was obviously really proud of the journalists involved and proud of The Guardian and so happy to work for a paper that had that kind of robustness so that people couldn't get at it.  It also made me think really hard about this new media environment in which we live and whether Glenn on his own could have possibly done that story and I don't think he could. The mainstream media - even though it has a bad name - has the institutional power and the resources to do a story like this and to defend it under really quite intense pressure. This told me something about the independence and necessity of reporting and when we got the Pulitzer Prize this year, it was the prize for Public Service and it was the main prize.


"I've always thought of journalism as a public service - those of you who are training to be journalists, you're training to do a public service and I'd think of it as a public service like a fire service, or a police service or a water utility. Societies needs unpolluted, verifiable information in order to function.


"So that's where we are, you're celebrating your 20 year anniversary, we're celebrating this 200th anniversary of the birth of the essence of reporting and all the lessons that flow from it and the perpetual tension between what we do as journalists and what the state will do. This has huge implications for the post-Leveson world as well and this feeling that what we have to protect is the independence of what it is that we do and I'm so happy to be here with a bunch of you - even though sometimes journalism must seem really puzzling and gloomy and lots of people must have said don't go into journalism.


"And yet you're still doing this course because there is something that has driven you into this chosen path and you instinctively realise or maybe you've read George Orwell - something has led you to this path and I just hope this story of public service and the absolute necessity of having journalists who can do what we did with Edward Snowden is going to be an incredibly important bit of the future of any society at any time."


Q. I heard that Snowden was saying that he was afraid that people would not actually do anything with the information he leaked - that regular citizens would not care at all about the NSA revelations - and I was wondering, do you still then feel motivated to inform the population if a lot of people were saying 'well I don't care - I'm not doing anything wrong, they can read my emails as long as I'm not doing anything wrong.' What do you think about that?


A. I think the reaction has been different in different countries - sometimes it's an age thing, sometimes it depends on your experience or what you do. In Germany this is a huge debate and I think it is because of incredibly obvious things. Germany's recent history means that Germans see this through a completely different prism from Brits - the Brits think of their spies as James Bond and they think of Enigma and that Britain's spies are rather wonderful.


If you're East German you think of the Stasi, and that was why it was a really bad idea to bug Angela Merkel's phone. In America, they've had really bad experiences of politicians, state, FBI, Watergate, of being lied to and the First Amendment of Privacy they are much more hot on. It was a right wing story in America if anything, it was the right wing Libertarians who were outraged - the people who passed the Patriot Act after 9/11 - said 'I didn't mean for the Patriot Act to be used to spy on citizens.'


This story played in different ways in different countries and it is interesting to me that now a British press that was a bit 'meh' about Snowden for whatever reason has woken up to the issue now that Sun and Mail On Sunday journalists have had their sources revealed through the use of the surveillance powers. As it begins to effect you and as people started waking up to the loss of their health records or the notion of all kinds of agencies having access to information I think this has sparked a debate that will be a slow burn in some countries but it is not going to go away.


Q. Do you think there would ever be any form of protection for whistleblowers and journalists reporting on such cases?


A. The short answer is 'yes' - I think there should be if somebody has come out and talked as profoundly as Snowden has or has raised such issues of public concern. The reason you can tell they are big issues is that Parliaments and Congresses have acted on them so it's not that these things were brought into the public domain and everybody shrugged their shoulders.


The tech companies have radically altered what they do - Google have transformed what they do about secure communication, Apple are now building privacy as one of the main things that they offer to people. Congress is rewriting the bills that they passed after 9/11 and they're never going to bug Angela Merkel's phone again.


Real things have started to happen and the debates, even in the UK which has been one of the most complacent countries, so that is the public interest and therefore I think that the people who raise these fundamental issues in which the public interest is self-evident - however much the state might be cross with a whistleblower - I think they deserve some kind of protection. The one thing they don't deserve is to be prosecuted under an espionage act that was designed to deal with German spies in the First World War - whereby they are dragged back to America and prosecuted with a charge under which they can't even use a public interest defence.


Q. At one point when the NSA leaks were making headlines the Daily Mail ran a front page with high-profile person saying that you'd damaged national security - and the next day you ran a front page with another high profile person saying the opposite - did this get personal and did it start to become some sort of ideological competition between different media outlets?


A. I hope this was the only time in my life when I appear on the front of the Daily Mail.  What they do is to find the least flattering picture of you - the one of me was from some book event I'd been at in August where I was wearing a shambolic pair of ill-fitting jeans and I hadn't had my hair cut and it was sort of 'would you trust this man to look after your secrets?'


I looked at the picture and I thought 'well, no I wouldn't' on the basis of that image.


There was a visiting party of editors from abroad who were concerned by what was going on and after a couple of days they came to me and said 'you know this all because of Leveson' and I said 'what?' and they said 'we've been told by the other editors that they are letting The Guardian hang out to dry because they disapprove of what you did over phone-hacking and Leveson.'  I don't know if that is true or not and it wasn't very high-minded if that was the motive of other papers.


The Mail, in fact, has had an honourable record with things like the Snoopers Charter and they are very cross that Mail on Sunday reporters' records were looked at by the police so I think the penny is beginning to drop with the Mail, the Sun, the Times that actually it really does matter who has access to this kind of information and the misuses to which it can be put so I think actually there will be a broad consensus.


We emailed 45 of the greatest editors in the world today and said 'what do you think about this?' and it was so obvious to any serious editor around the world who was in the right and so I took much more comfort from the fact that all 45 knew exactly which side they were on.


Q. Have you seen any internationalised action from States in response to the global forum-shopping approach to journalism that you outlined in your lecture?


You would imagine that it is going on and we won't know about it until the next Snowden. After 9/11 they decided that all this information was too siloed so they knocked down all the silos and then they were astonished that Chelsea Manning sitting at the front line in Iraq could read what the American ambassador in Vienna was sending back to the State department. That was a huge lesson and you would imagine that they would have reacted to that and I think there was astonishment that a 29-year-old sub-contractor in Hawaii was inside the GCHQ system.


You would have to think that as a result of this there are spooks all round the world saying this has got to stop and that we have to put up these silos again and work out ever more byzantine ways of stopping this from ever happening again although Glenn Greenwald says he has another source inside the NSA so if that's true then their actions so far haven't worked.


I know there are people in Whitehall who think that the response to this should be to lock up journalists just like in 1819 and that if you print true material that doesn't coincide with what the Government of the day thinks is the national interest that journalists should be locked up for longer and that they should be pulling the draw bridge up.


Q. Do you think that self-regulation and ethics is the obstacle and restraint for freedom of the press?


We should have an ethical system. All journalists should be taught ethics and we have to think very deeply because the responsibility that we have and the power that we have is enormous and if we're going to claim that we are this estate that is separate from the State then I think we can only do so if we operate to a very high standard of ethics. I know we didn't win many friends in some of the higher echelons of one or two newspaper companies when we did all the phone-hacking stuff but journalists were the ones who enabled us to do that story because they felt uneasy at the ethics of the companies that they were working for.


I think if we behave unethically then we're no better than the intelligence services when they behave unethically and there is obviously a parallel between phone-hacking and the NSA revelations. If journalists are going to behave like that then who are we to take the moral high ground?


Obviously you can make the argument that having complete license to be as scurrilous as you like is a purer form of information and some journalists do make that case but I don't believe it myself.


"There was a big gathering on the 16th August 1819 of people who came to talk about that and to protest. It was a peaceful gathering with a speaker called Henry Hunt who was a great orator of the time.


 Into that gathering, as the historians among you will know, the magistrates sent the cavalry to break up the meeting and they went in with their swords unsheathed and cut down the protesters.



"There were about 15 people killed and about 500 more quite seriously injured - it was Britain's Tiananmen Square if you like, and the importance of that event in British journalism was that it raised the question 'who got to tell the story?' The fear amongst the people who were in the crowd that day was that the magistrates would tell the story because in those days the people who had the money and the power also got to tell the story.


"It was important that the truth of what happened that day came out, and it did through a couple of remarkable acts of journalism. The Times correspondent was locked up so they took care of him so that he couldn't tell the story - but there was a man called James Wroe in the crowd who edited the Manchester Observer and he wrote his account and there was a man called John Edward Taylor who was a Manchester businessman who managed to get an account, even though he wasn't a journalist, on to the night trains and the night coaches from Manchester and a couple of days later it appeared in London.



"Part of the reason that he didn't was that in 2005 when the New York Times had a similar cache of material about warrantless wiretapping under George W Bush, the paper had sat on that story for about a year. I think he thought if he was going to risk everything - and he went into this with his eyes wide open knowing he was taking an enormous personal risk to his life, his freedom, his friends and relatives - he didn't want to do that if other people weren't prepared to take the risk as well.

"Journalism is there to stand aside from all the other forms of power in order to question them to interrogate them to report on them, to hold them to account and really the most basic thing just to bring into the public gaze in a responsible and accurate way the facts as had happened in Peterloo in 1819 - just that act of reporting and saying 'this is what happened."

By Andrew Twist & Matt Robson

"John Edward Taylor started the Manchester Guardian because he felt that it was important that reporters had somewhere where they could write accounts of events like that and of hugely significant events in history."


The story of Peterloo and the founding of The Guardian served as an important introduction to what Rusbridger would go on to say about Edward Snowden and it highlighted what he describes as the 'perpetual tension between reporters and the state' - something that has always been completely fundamental to journalism.

Who gets to tell the story?

3 mins 58 secs


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