The first, second and third duties: why The Guardian had to destroy Snowden files

The Guardian's destroyed files - Photograph: Roger Tooth for the Guardian

Photograph: Roger Tooth for the Guardian

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.

4 thoughts on “The first, second and third duties: why The Guardian had to destroy Snowden files

  1. Bitethehand

    Or Rusbridger could have refused to co-operate as other journalists / editors have done in the past and engineered an international media outcry.

    Now his action will be used by the security services as an example, to intimidate any and every journalist and editor who happens to have something the state would prefer it didn’t have.

    1. paulbradshaw Post author

      Fair point. Perhaps he gambled that the same outcry would be generated by the images of the destroyed hard disks, when released at the right moment…

      Follow the process through – if The Guardian had gone to court/refused to cooperate then US papers for one would have reported it rather differently – as the pursuit of their ‘stolen’ documents. The issue of prior restraint would have been obscured by others, while The Guardian’s reporting is hamstrung. Some rival UK papers would revel in this happening to the paper that revealed phone hacking.

      This approach gets the ‘stolen’ issue out of the way. They complied with the instructions so the only question/story left is ‘Why?’.

  2. Pingback: The Guardian fez bem em destruir os ficheiros de Snowden? : Ponto Media

  3. IC

    I do not understand the issue. Isn’t it obvious they could have made copies? As a journalist I would do exactly that and continue working in secret, revealing the stories later on, after my research be completed. Or I would pass the copies to a competitor who could work them in the name of the free speech. Yes, the duty of a journalist is to protect its sources but also to tell the truth that matters to the public/citizens. And they can do both. Can’t they?
    If journalists would always comply with the law we would never know what happens in dictatorship regimes… Journalism ethics, code of conduct and the duty to inform should be above the law.


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