Should The Guardian have destroyed its copies of Edward Snowden’s leaked files rather than go to court? That’s a question raised by Index on Censorship and put to editor Alan Rusbridger by Channel 4 News (from 3.40 in).
Publishing is a practical business, and there are three key duties which a publisher has to consider.
Firstly, a news organisation must try to protect its sources.
Second, a news organisation must endeavour to protect its journalists.
And thirdly, a news organisation must continue to report news that is in the public interest.
Failing to destroy the files would have put all three duties at risk. As The Guardian explains, the files could “ultimately have been used in the American whisteblower’s prosecution.”
“I don’t think we had Snowden’s consent to hand the material back, and I didn’t want to help the UK authorities to know what he had given us,” the Guardian editor said.
Not only that, but the computer record could have “been analysed forensically to yield information on which journalists had seen and worked with which files.”
And, of course:
“I preferred to destroy our copy rather than hand it back to them or allow the courts to freeze our reporting.”
Handing over material to the legal system in any sense would have represented a worrying security breach – and made it harder for potential future sources to put their faith in the publisher.
Index on Censorship’s question is understandable – it is the job of organisations like them to fight cases on principle and establish new case law. Liberty is doing just that by challenging Schedule 7 in the European Court of Human Rights - you can help them here.