The BBC’s 16 questions to Glenn Greenwald

Oct.
4

Hey, that was a tough interview! No, not really.

This week Glenn Greenwald was interviewed on the BBC for the first time since the revelations from Edward Snowden began to flow. The program on which he appeared, Newsnight, is one of the BBC’s premiere productions. The interviewer was Kirsty Wark. Here’s the clip:

Below I have listed the 16 questions asked in this interview. These are my paraphrases but they are very close paraphrases.

1. Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?

2. 58,000 documents! GCHQ says this is a car crash coming. [No question.]

3. Metadata connections are often used to track terrorists. By revealing them, you may have caused would-be terrorists to change their tactics. So it’s possible you’ve made it easier for terrorists to evade detection. [No question.]

4. How can you be sure that your actions have not made it easier for the terrorists. You can’t prove a negative, can you?

5. Is it shocking that spy agencies spy? Don’t you think a majority of people would be reassured by that and feel safer because of it?

6. You still have a vast cache of materials from Snowden. Is it in your bedroom in Rio? People want to know: how can you guarantee that it’s being kept secure?

7. When David Miranda was stopped at the airport he was carrying a password on a piece of paper. For a lot of people that doesn’t inspire confidence in your methods. [No question.]

8. After Miranda’s detention you said you would be far more aggressive in publishing things about the UK government and they will be sorry for what they did. That was months ago: is something coming down the pipeline?

9. Can you see why those statements were seen as you, Glenn Greenwald, acting as a campaigner and an activist?

10. Do you fear for your safety?

11. Do you feel you could travel to the US or Britain?

12. Are you still in touch with Edward Snowden?

13. How do you know he hasn’t been forced to give up secrets if he’s under Russian protection? You can’t be sure that he hasn’t had to give up something, can you?

14. Given the precariousness of his position, does Snowden really feel all that safe?

15. This is in some ways like a spy film. How did you identify him when you first met him?

16. Do you think he might end up in an American prison?

I’ve been talking about this interview on Twitter today because to me this is a weak form of journalism. It takes common criticisms made of the subject and simply thrusts them at him one after the other to see how he handles it. The basic format is: “People say this about you. What is your response?” Questions 1-7, 9 and 13 are all of that type.

Defenders of this style always say the same thing: Hey, that was a tough interview! People in the public eye should be made to answer their doubters. You may not like it, especially if you’re a fan of the person in question, but that’s our job as journalists: to be tough but fair.

No, your job as a journalist is to decide which of the common criticisms have merit, and ask about those, leaving the meritless to chatrooms. It is also to synthesize new criticisms, and ask about those. It is to advance the conversation, not just replay it. People say these bad things about you– what is your response? is outsourcing the work to other interested parties. It doesn’t make for a tough interview; it makes for a predictable one, easier for the subject to handle. It’s also the cheapest and simplest way to manufacture an “adversarial” atmosphere.

Greenwald’s reaction is here. As he notes, it’s a strange decision to make the interview about the various charges against Greenwald and not what his journalism has uncovered.

UPDATE, OCT. 5. The BBC has now posted to YouTube the video of the entire program on surveillance, which, according to Ian Katz, the editor of BBC Newsnight, is necessary context for understanding the Greenwald interview, which was a part of it. Also, Katz replies to my criticisms here.

In the comments, the former head of BBC Global News, Richard Sambrook, weighs in. “I agree it was an ill-thought through interview and consequently weak.”

47 Comments

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    I thought it was excellent. Whatever the interviewer’s intention, what it actually did was give Greenwald a platform to explain exactly what the situation is, and why it’s important. People who have been following these issues closely won’t have learned much that’s new. But that’s the important thing. What matters now is to reach the people who, till now, have been ignoring all this. That’s what Newsnight does.

    • Plus, No. 7 is very legit. I and several friends on FB who are very concerned about this issue, and who “semi-like” Greenwald, found this issue of sending a physical password along with the “mule” transporting the password-protected information to be problematic at best.

      Comical at worst, were it not also so serious.

      I actually would have asked this one before No. 6. Contra a couple other commenters, at times, one should still be linear and logical. And, if Wark’s “game” was to knock Greenwald off of being quite so cocksure, alternating from random-conversational to linear-analytical might be part of that.

      And, given my feeling about No. 7, unless Greenwald is **accepting** some technical security advice (which he needs to, from his initial talk about the “servers” when first writing about Snowden’s leaks), uhh, no, per No. 6, I don’t trust how secure he might be keeping remaining evidence.

      • Jorge says:

        If you had actually watched the thing you would realise that Greenwald responded to no.7 by stating that this was a falsification. There was no password on a piece of paper. If there was then why did the same authorities state publicly that they wanted to keep all the data long enough to break the encryption.

  2. james robbins says:

    Yes, you’re barking up the wrong tree here. Little public interest served by pursuing fine details in a way that assumed lots of prior knowledge. Most viewers are not across the intricacies of the story. It was vital to recap while also challenging Greenwald on his version. Was it perfect, no. But ‘advancing the conversation’ would have excluded the vast majority not part of the conversation you’re referring to.

    • Foppe says:

      If that is true, I have a few questions, though, to which I do not know the answers for certain, because I cannot watch the BBC from here.

      1. why does this seem to be pretty much the first time Newsnight is doing a piece on this scandal? (The related stories section shows nothing other than 1 other recent piece.)

      2. why was that political person invited as an ‘expert’, when she clearly wasn’t, and why is she basically never challenged when she offers unsubstantiated ‘facts’?

      3. have government spokespeople ever been asked questions about these programs?

  3. LF says:

    You have to live outside the UK for a bit to realise JUST how aggresive TV interviewing is in the UK. I used to like it. Now I just find it annoying. There is a time and a place for it, but every interview, and such stupid questions? I mean the man has loads of information to tell, and Newsnight wastes its opportunity.

    The other issue, of course, is that the BBC and Newsnight are hardly unbiased reporters. They are firmly under the control of the government, and are able to comment on politics but not on the secret apparatus of the state. This isn’t just done through law, it’s done through networks and class.

  4. BBC is completely biased. Tough questions like these are never levelled at Israeli officials post rationalising violence in occupied Palestine.

  5. Nate Bowman says:

    Thank you Jay.

    This is when you are at your best, deconstructing what is good for journalism and what is not.

    As a side note, BBC took down the comments section of the video, probably because, up to that point, it was so overwhelmingly pro-Greenwald and trashing NewsNight.

  6. Sam Johnson says:

    Good analysis, but as bad as Wark was the bigger disgrace was Neville-Jones.

    The interview was preceded by some inane computer graphics “enhancements” of a package to make it cool and futuristic.

    A crossposted comment from The Guardian:

    I have just watched Newsnight and felt almost sick afterwards.

    First, consider the importance of a free press, and the look at what the Daily Mail spends its time doing. That is emetic enough.
    Next, behold the BBC yet again getting the dept of silly graphics to spice up, as in totally distract from, an issue of immense importance. I wanted to throw something at the television.

    I will pass over Kirsty Wark’s pathetic performance and trite repetition of lies that have already been addressed (really, I’ve seen Tea Party spokespeople repeating conspiracy theories with a bit more authority). What REALLY took the biscuit was DAME NEVILLE JONES’s ignorance

    a) about metadata and the implications of exactly the kind of total surveillance that was simply talked around (where’s the dept of intelligence graphics when you need it?) and

    b) her patronising know-all attitude about encryption, a subject she clearly hadn’t THE FAINTEST clue about. (Snowden has been in Russia and China and therefore his encrypted materials have been decrypted).

    What utter claptrap. Mind you, Greenwald is clearly also dependent on his support team, unless he was dumbing down his 4096 bit key reference for TV.

    This woman is on a Council for CyberSecurity?! It’s laughable. She is clearly completely out of her depth technically and YES IT DOES MATTER. The whole Snowden scandal is a direct result of decisions made by people who simply don’t understand what they’re doing and whose actions, via the law of unintended consequences, may be catastrophic for us all.

    It is isn’t just about Al Qaeda switching to typewriters when the game is exposed — THIS is what they worry about? The stupidity of it is beyond staggering.

    America has set about destroying any trust the rest of the world has in its IT industry, and the UK is along for the ride as usual.
    And then there’s any semblence of a right to privacy, crushed like a bug. And the self-censorship etc., barely touched upon.

    Ross Anderson was the person who should have been in the studio. He knows what he’s talking about, about security, and about technology. Or Bruce Schneier, whom, to its credit, the House of Lords has consulted in the past.

    Greenwald was right to be angry. And he was rightly contemptuous of the UK’s protections for a free press.

    It’s a sad day for democracy that that was the best the BBC could do. If it wasn’t for the Guardian one would just despair.

  7. A television interview is different from the preparatory interview conducted during the process of newsgathering in order to acquire information that will later be used to produce a piece of journalism.

    A television interview is the piece of journalism itself. It not only seeks to elicit information or opinion. It also seeks for the choice of words, the tone of voice, the visual affect of the interviewee. It tests the plausibility of the interviewee’s answer not only by what is said, but by the way it is said.

    So inviting Glenn Greenwald to be the subject of a television interview in which he is going to repeat answers he has already rehearsed dozens of times before is not necessarily a “weak” form. The questions may indeed have been “predictable” as far as Greenwald was concerned, and therefore “easier for the subject to handle.” Yet, seen from the point of view of the television medium, there was value in being able to assess how plausible and convincing Greenwald was in his choice of argument, phrasing, and attitude.

    For television, the negative potential for this sort of approach — inviting a subject to rattle off already-rehearsed talking points — is seen every week on the Sunday morning shows. Every week, Gregory or Stephanopoulos or Schieffer or Wallace or Crowley, ask already-known questions to talking heads, who reply with already-rehearsed answers.

    There are two ways to deal with this. If short of time, questioners could stipulate the already-known talking-point answer in their question — I know you believe that blah-blah-blah blah-blah-blah… — before starting off with the follow-up: “…but isn’t the consequence of that blah-blah-blah?”

    The longer form is superior, giving the respondent the time to ramble on with his already-rehearsed talking point out of his own mouth, before asking the follow-up. This is superior because of the point made above, namely that the respondent’s rhetorical affect provides information over-and-above the content of his answer.

    This longer form, remember, was the style of Tim Russert on Meet the Press. He would routinely frame his interviews — in the same style as Kristy Wark — with the talking points of his respondent’s critics, then wait for the already-known prepared talking point, and then ask the follow-up.

    To my mind, the flaw in the Wark interview was not the fact that she posed known questions in order to receive known answers — but that she seems not have given any thought to the consequences for the ensuing line of inquiry. It is instructive to read the 16 paraphrased questions cited above and to see how few of them were logical follow-ups to a scene-setting or stipulating question, perhaps only #4, #8, and #13-#14.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Good points, Andrew. Thanks for your analysis.

      But it is instructive that your comparison point is Tim Russert’s interviews of politicians and their spin. Let’s think about that for a moment. Is Greenwald running for office? Is he conducting a campaign and trying to pull the wool over the eyes of voters in the UK? Why is an interview with a journalist in the midst of covering a major story with genuine public consequences for Britain exactly like an interview with a politician trotting out his talking points?

      Now I realize in asking these questions that I am inviting an obvious reply: that Greenwald is not like most journalists. He is far more likely to display his opinions, condemn his enemies, and he tries to persuade, not just inform. He argues like a lawyer at times. He defends and supports Edward Snowden, rather than treating him as a source with an arm’s length relationship. After being asked the same questions over and over, he does have talking points of his own, etc.

      I understand all that. I do. But what it says to me is: this was a tricky, challenging interview, not like questioning an officially impartial journalist (“impartial” being a statutory requirement at the BBC) on the trail of a story, but not like questioning a politician with his talking points either. In a word, not a set piece. It required more thought than that.

      And I still think its striking that BBC Newsnight chose to treat him as a politician who needed confronting on his lies and evasions except where it wanted him to describe the “spy movie” aspects of his story, in which case the interviewer eagerly lapped up the sensational details. Question 15 amounts to: tell us about the Rubik’s cube, man, that was soooo cooooool.

      This is juvenile. “Here are some bad things people say about you: your response?” is juvenile. The way “Newsnight” treated it, this was an interview that a very inexperienced person could have done after an hour or two of clicking around the internet to gather the most common attacks on Greenwald.

  8. Jay — you will not find me among those saying that Greenwald deserves politician-like scrutiny because he is “not like most journalists.”

    You will also not find me among those saying that journalists should be immune from the type of skeptical questioning that politicians are — and should be — routinely subjected to. On the contrary.

    But journalists deserve skeptical and aggressive questioning about their journalism.

    Leaving aside how inartful, or downright rude, Wark’s questions may have been and how sorrily lacking in follow-ups, let’s go down your list of sixteen paraphrases and see which ones were legitimate and which illegitimate lines of skeptical inquiry to a journalist, any journalist.

    1. Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?

    A bona fide question about where the line should be drawn, deserving of a definitional answer

    2. 58,000 documents! GCHQ says this is a car crash coming. [No question.]

    I am not impressed by this question. It does not address Greenwald’s journalism, rather Snowden’s behavior, and assumes that the journalist is accountable for the actions of his source. So I score this as one for you

    3. Metadata connections are often used to track terrorists. By revealing them, you may have caused would-be terrorists to change their tactics. So it’s possible you’ve made it easier for terrorists to evade detection. [No question.]

    Bona fide: where do you, a journalist, draw the line between publicity and security?

    4. How can you be sure that your actions have not made it easier for the terrorists. You can’t prove a negative, can you?

    a follow-up of sorts to #3 — not really a follow-up, more a repetition, but still bona fide

    5. Is it shocking that spy agencies spy? Don’t you think a majority of people would be reassured by that and feel safer because of it?

    a bona fide question to a journalist: do you really have a story here? Isn’t this just dog-bites-man?

    6. You still have a vast cache of materials from Snowden. Is it in your bedroom in Rio? People want to know: how can you guarantee that it’s being kept secure?

    a bona fide question: how good is your encryption? Admittedly it is asked in a demeaning sarcastic fashion, so I score a half point to you

    7. When David Miranda was stopped at the airport he was carrying a password on a piece of paper. For a lot of people that doesn’t inspire confidence in your methods. [No question.]

    a bona fide question, a sort of follow-up to #6 about his security measures

    8. After Miranda’s detention you said you would be far more aggressive in publishing things about the UK government and they will be sorry for what they did. That was months ago: is something coming down the pipeline?

    a bona fide question, assuming her sourcing was correct. Are your motives vindictive? What are your future plans? (Greenwald contradicted her sourcing in his answer)

    9. Can you see why those statements were seen as you, Glenn Greenwald, acting as a campaigner and an activist

    a bona fide question: where is the dividing line between journalism and activism? It is a question that has exercised PressThink itself

    10. Do you fear for your safety?

    it would have been a bona fide question if framed in the general context of the dangers governments pose to journalists globally. Here Wark is not asking about his fears as a journalist but in his capacity as a gadfly against the national security state, so I score half a point for you

    11. Do you feel you could travel to the US or Britain?

    this is similar to #10. It could have been bona fide, asking Greenwald to contrast journalistic protections afforded by the First Amendment and those denied by the Official Secrets Act. But, again, Wark was not framing it as a question about his journalistic travels, so I score the second half of the point in #10 for you

    12. Are you still in touch with Edward Snowden?

    100% bona fide: are you in contact with your source?

    13. How do you know he hasn’t been forced to give up secrets if he’s under Russian protection? You can’t be sure that he hasn’t had to give up something, can you?

    I am not impressed, just like #2. Wark assumes that Greenwald’s relationship to Snowden is as his representative, rather than Snowden’s to Greenwald, as his journalistic source. A point for you

    14. Given the precariousness of his position, does Snowden really feel all that safe?

    a bona fide question: does a journalist’s source feel safe?

    15. This is in some ways like a spy film. How did you identify him when you first met him?

    a bona fide question about tradecraft, although, as you suggest, from the tabloid school

    16. Do you think he might end up in an American prison?

    a bona fide question, like #14

    So: 16 questions, of which 3.5, by my count, are clearly inappropriate to ask of a journalist and instead, as you put it, treat him as “all politician who needed confronting on his lies and evasions.” In addition one more question (#8) appears to have been incompetently sourced.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      I enjoyed your defense of the legitimacy of most of the questions, but I am not arguing that it’s illegitimate to ask Greenwald these things, as if they should be off limits or something. No. Most of them are valid questions, but when you add them all up, the product is weak.

      A journalist ahold of a major story gets to reply to the most common criticisms of his conduct… but what about the story?

      Ian Katz’s reply to this is that the rest of the program was about the actual surveillance story, and thus the interview was about putting the doubts to Glenn:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkGDTnsOkxM&feature=youtu.be

    • Victoria Luckie says:

      I agree with many of the comments here.

      But Andrew, you say her question about data security and how he identified Snowden etc were bona fide? I found them quite oddly specific and bizarrely sliding off topic, as if she were justifying going on some ill-thought out fishing exercise.

      There were also few follow up questions on what he said about statements and truth not necessarily being the same thing. Why did she not challenge him on this, or were her questions all pre-prepared and was she not listening?

      The issue of where you draw the line between publicity and security could have been expressed more simply, as you yourself did, and could have included some direct examples of where this could prove to be an issue.

      And, as a onetime Database Manager, both Dame Neville Jones and Kirsty Wark missed the point entirely. The UK govt is currently collecting enormous amounts of data which is not well secured between vulnerable and in fact all kids in the state school system, on the “one” database, health information, care data and asking your child’s route to school.

      Any journalist knows the dangers of triangulating data and of protecting sources. Apply the same rules to someone wanting to target vulnerable kids or with ill intent, wanting to screen out health insurance risks, whatever, and you immediately see the issues. There really needs to be oversight into who collects and stores personal data and for what purpose.

    • Walter Winkler says:

      Even though I agree with Rosen that counting the questions point-by-point misses the larger weakness, I’m not at all convinced your qualification of question #1 (‘Why should you be the arbiter’) as being legitimate is correct.

      It seems to me that it would be ONLY be a legitimate question if EVERY interview with EVERY correspondent (or anyone reporting on third parties) would start with that particular question. For the idea that an outsider (which journalists essentially are and should be) has an inherent +right+ to such arbitrage is the whole basis on which journalism is built. Denying -or merely putting into question like Wark did- anyone’s right to such arbitrage essentially bans all journalism.

      That doesn’t imply the interviewee’s cannot legitmately be asked for his/her considerations on the arbitrage at issue.

      It does, however, imply that if -apparently- that right of arbitrage was so weak that Greenwald had to be asked to defend himself using it, then ANY reporter should be asked that same question (‘What right do you have to intervene here?) before given the opportunity to air his report.

      Since the latter is never practised in any media and, instead, all reporting is accepted, in principle, as being in good faith, why on earth would Greenwald have to be singled out to defend his right to put his nose into something that wasn’t his – exactly like all journalist do all the time?

      • Walter Winkler says:

        Perhaps I should add/clarify that one can (only) legitimately debate or question the +outcome+ of Greenwald’s arbitrage (and for an outcome that would be totally irresponsible by a broad standard he could -and should- be convicted). But that’s not at all what Wark did. She essentially questioned Greenwald’s +right+ to that arbitrage. That pulls the carpet straight from under all journalism.

      • Jay Rosen says:

        I agree that every journalist who ever reported on something government would prefer to keep secret is acting as an “arbiter of the public interest.”

        • An uninformed subject interviewed a knowledgeable citizen with predictable results: namely, the utter humiliation of the pathetically government-trusting subject.

          I can just see George Orwell spinning madly in his grave, repeating over and over what he wrote in The Prevention of Literature:

          “… freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose. … [and] the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at the bottom a controversy over the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.”

          The subject willingly (if not eagerly) swallows official lies. The citizen refuses to do so. Pretty much my summation of the “interview.”

    • Peter Monnerjahn says:

      So “Why should you be the arbiter of what’s in the public interest?” is a bona-fide question? And you have a job in journalism? Have you wondered how NewsNight decides which stories to air and which not to? That’s right, by being “the arbiter of what’s in the public interest”, so that should be the baseline for any questions on the programme. Why is Glenn Greenwald challenged on that point? Well, two obvious options kind of present themselves: 1. He is not “real journalist”—which is a partisan talking point; 2. The government talking-points should be presented without any journalist inserting their “agenda”—except for the government’s agenda, of course, such as when Bill Keller of the NYT said that they stopped using the word “torture” about waterboarding when the government declared its use to be controversial. Those look like the only two bona-fide reasons to me to ask Greenwald that question. Which would mean that NewsNight are completely onboard with the Colbert brand of journalism: “Make, announce, type.”

      Then throwing a government accusation of unethical behaviour (“car crash coming”) at the journalist who exposed undeniable unethical behaviour on the part of the government is not just unbelievably lazy: any journalist worth the name would have independently researched some actually plausible scenarios and asked for an explanation from Greenwald of the possible consequences of those scenarios. Not doing any of that means you’re basically happy to do the most shamefully gutless He Said–She Said “journalism” imaginable.

      And just one more thing, since as I am actually proud to be a journalist, reading this ridiculous “defence” of what can only responsibly be called professional misconduct makes me sick. As an interviewer, you are the advocate of the audience. Your job is to represent your audience in a conversation with the interviewee. Asking a question says to your audience that this question is legitimate, and that they would be justified in asking the same question. Wark’s question about “terrorists changing their tactics“ is, as Greenwald rightly points out, completely ludicrous. Why, for example, do you think did OBL not use mobile phones and the Internet? Because actual terrorists are well aware of the dangers of communicating over an unsecure channel such as the Internet. But judging from Wark’s question, she thought (and by extension let her audience feel justified in thinking) that terrorists only now stopped planning their next chapter meeting on Facebook. Again, she seems not to have done even the slightest bit of independent research.

      The same goes for “Is it shocking that spy agencies spy?” Which legitimises the idea that this whole story is a lot of fuss over nothing—when the point is that much of the spying is blatantly illegal, that there is hardly any meaningful oversight, and that much of the spying is completely useless for fighting terrorism—but very useful for an authoritarian government in keeping the people from saying (or, God forbid, doing) anything about that autoritarianism. The frankly idiotically transparent red herring, “of course spies spy, what did you think, thicko?”, thus has only one function: to distract from government criminality and pervasive lying. And who does Glenn Greenwald think he is, barging in to our cozy little profession and lecturing us about how it’s not our job to be government mouthpieces. He is just a “blogger”, right?

      The only regret I have about Greenwald’s reaction is that this would have been a golden opportunity to put the ball right back in Wark’s court and to say: “How do you make the decision what stories to put on NewsNight? Do you perchance use your own critical judgement, or do you just announce what established authorities tell you to?” Either there might have been at least a chance at an actual (and possibly enlightening) conversation, or we would have been treated to seeing Wark crash and burn.

    • Peter Monnerjahn says:

      Oh, and one more thing about the mindless cliché that “you can’t prove a negative”. Apart from the fact that Wark charges head first into her own trap in question #6 without even noticing that she is doing the exact same thing for which she had indignantly berated Greenwald just a minute earlier, the idea is about as ignorant as they come. As philosophy professor Steven Hales lucidly explains in this article, you can prove negatives as much as you can prove anything. It would be nice if this mantra betraying your never having seriously thought about something you self-assuredly proclaim to be self-evident were to be replaced by some actual knowledge about, and understanding of, logic and argument.

    • I think the interview could have mixed hard-hitting and informative.

      After doing a *brief* tick-off of about half the questions of the 14, but no more, I would have zeroed in on No. 7, then No. 6. I and several friends on FB who are very concerned about this issue, and who “semi-like” Greenwald, found this issue of sending a physical password along with the “mule” transporting the password-protected information to be problematic at best.

      Comical at worst, were it not also so serious.

      And, given my feeling about No. 7, unless Greenwald is **accepting** some technical security advice (which he needs to, from his initial talk about the “servers” when first writing about Snowden’s leaks), uhh, no, per No. 6, I don’t trust how secure he might be keeping remaining evidence.

      Finally, I would have reversed Wark’s “angle” in just the opposite direction, the “angle” on “aren’t you worried about helping terrorists?”

      I would have asked Greenwald, “If this is that, that serious, why haven’t you/the Guardian yet published all but a few of the 53 PowerPoint slides Snowden gave you? Can we expect more of those to be published sometime soon?”

      From there, you get into (one hopes) a longer dialogue with Greenwald about just what limits, if any, one sees to reporting like this.

    • joe says:

      Just look at your list: you’ve rewritten the questions to phrase them in such a way as they’re “bona fide good questions”.

      And it’s not just a word or two — it’s a complete rewrite. Why did you feel that’s necessary? Why wasn’t it sufficient to explain some ambiguity in the question, or even a paraphrase, but a full rewrite?

      Those are not the questions asked. Those are the questions you feel should have been asked in place of those questions. You appear to be a much better journalist than the interviewer in question — there’s no need for you to present apologia for her. It’s demeaning to you, making it appear that you confuse what you think with the thought processes of another.

  9. Richard Sambrook says:

    I agree it was an ill-thought through interview and consequently weak. More broadly, for at least 25 years British broadcasting has been enthralled by the adversarial, devil’s advocate, form of interview. Journalists careers have been made and interviewees careers destroyed by it. Personally, as a form, I think it is all but exhausted and is increasingly tiresome – and seldom reveals as much as a more forensic approach could achieve. It stems from the 1960s and what was then a new breed of broadcaster like Robin Day and has been built on by subsequent generations. Innovation is long overdue – but will have to come from outside the current stable of programmes.

  10. Richard Sambrook says:

    PS: It is also so much of an insiders game (with shorthand plays like not actually framing a question) that those involved fail to recognise the public – and interviewees from outside the regular stable – increasingly don’t understand what’s going on. Another reason to innovate.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks, Richard. “Shorthand plays like not actually framing a question” is the tip off. You isolated something I noticed, as well, but didn’t describe in my post. Ian Katz and others defended the Greenwald interview by noting that the subject was largely new to BBC audiences because in the UK the surveillance story has not generated the kind of debate that it has in the U.S. and in European countries like Germany.

      That’s a relevant fact. But the adversarial, devil’s advocate approach as seen here relies heavily on shorthand and an insider’s knowledge. It does not introduce the subject to an audience unfamiliar with it. On the contrary, it rehearses the debate for those already familiar with it.

      • joe says:

        To generate debate, you have to actually represent many different sides to the issue.

        The approach we saw here is a way of stifling debate in the guise of having debate. It’s like a Warsaw pact election, where the form doesn’t introduce a choice put to participants, but gets the acquiescence of an audience to a predetermined conclusion.

        It makes the false-dichotomy approach of steering an audience seem sophisticated.

  11. Jay Rosen says:

    Newsnight’s editor Ian Katz (formerly, deputy editor of The Guardian) emailed me with this response:

    Hi Jay,

    A few comments in response to your blog post on the NN Greenwald interview:

    1. The interview was part of roughly 30 min package about the Snowden leaks, probably the most extensive bit of UK broadcast coverage the story has received since it first broke back in May. The interview was preceded by a film laying out most of the arguments around the disclosures, and followed by a debate about their consequences between a former senior intelligence official and a liberal commentator. You can see it all here. Taken as a whole I thought the package reflected both sides of the argument exceptionally fairly.

    2. You can quibble about the tone of the interview and about one or two bits of infelicitous language…when Kirsty asked whether the files were in Glenn’s bedroom what she meant was “Are they kept in your house? How safe can that be? ” but I can see why some people thought it was an odd question. You could also argue that we should have allowed Glenn more time to expand on the significance of his disclosures, and what impact he believes they have had.

    But I would defend all the questions Kirsty did ask him as perfectly legitimate. The central charges, as you know, against Snowden and Greenwald are that their disclosures have damaged national security and put people at risk, and that they are not able to keep secure the highly sensitive material they still hold. Those are not manifestly ludicrous claims and it is facile to dismiss them out of hand as establishment flannel. Any interview which did not throughly probe Greenwald on them would have been supine in my view. It’s worth pointing out that these allegations were made by interviewees in the film that preceded to interview so it would have been doubly odd not to press Glenn on them.

    3. To your ear I’m sure many of the questions Kirsty asked Glenn were quite old hat but remember that this story has not been running in the UK anything like as big as it has in the US. Most of our viewers would have had only a glancing knowledge of it, which is why we felt we needed to lay out the story to date, and rehearse the arguments around it, from first principles. I’m sure if you view the package in its entirety that will make more sense to you.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Thanks, Ian, for the additional context and clarification. I updated my post to include the longer video and made note of your plea to see the Greenwald interview in its full context:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree about the framing of the Greenwald interview. I am not trying to claim that the questions asked of Greenwald are illegitimate or unfair. But I do think — as you do not — that it’s a very odd statement of priorities when a journalist ahold of a major story, and the only journalist with access to the key source in that story, is brought on your air primarily to face the charges against him. That’s a strange decision by Newsnight. You don’t think so, but I do. I think it deserves criticism, and that is what I have provided.

      By the way, former BBC executive Richard Sambrook agrees:

      http://pressthink.org/2013/10/the-bbcs-16-questions-to-glenn-greenwald/#comment-73511

      • I would have responded to Ian Katz by quoting George Orwell, again from The Preventiond of Literature:

        “Freedom of thought and of the press are usually attacked by arguments which are not worth bothering about. Anyone who has experience of lecturing and debating knows them off backwards. Here [we have at issue] the [unfortunately] tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of antisocial selfishness.”

        Now, Glenn Greenwald certainly qualifies as someone with great experience in writing, lecturing, litigating, and debating questions of press freedom, so he knows all the usual and tedious attacks on press freedom only too well. Therefore, it borders on professional malpractice to publicly attack him with nothing more than yet another lickspittle apologist for heavy-handed government deceit and thuggery.

        The U.S. and U.K. governments have demonstrably lied and have gotten caught out doing so. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have not lied about official U.S. and U. K. mendacity. Chronic, official lying begets government corruption, leading to public cynicism and distrust, eventually resulting in the de-legitimization of the government. One would think that a competent and ethical journalist would start with that truism and not keep essnetially repeating sixteen times in a row: “Why can’t you selfish and antisocial citizens just allow the government to mind your business for you and stop imagining that you have some right to mind it yourself?”

    • Peter Monnerjahn says:

      Ian Katz has apparently said:

      But I would defend all the questions Kirsty did ask him as perfectly legitimate. The central charges, as you know, against Snowden and Greenwald are that their disclosures have damaged national security and put people at risk, and that they are not able to keep secure the highly sensitive material they still hold. Those are not manifestly ludicrous claims and it is facile to dismiss them out of hand as establishment flannel.

      The mind boggles. Not only is this an all but explicit defence of He Said–She Said—“the central charges” are, of course, the defensive tactics of an interested party, which we only feel it our job to invite the accuser to rebut, as in those intellectually barren “debates”—but the failure to come up with even a single argument for the legitimacy of the questions is as embarrassing as it is telling.

      The facts of the case are that it is undeniable that the governments involved were not able to keep sensitive material secure, since they actually lost it; it is also an undeniable fact—which the NewsNight people would know if they had done the least bit of research—that it is quite easy (especially for someone like Snowden) to encrypt documents on an external hard drive so that they are unbreakable even by the NSA or the Chinese; another verifiable fact: about half a million people in the US alone have top secret clearances and can access those documents. To confront Greenwald with the accusation that he cannot keep those documents safe is exactly that: manifestly ludicrous. But to come to that conclusion, one would have had to have done a little research and gone to the trouble of actually explaning to the audience what the facts are and what they mean. But apparently, NewsNight think that’s not their job. Which I think is a scandal.

      Any interview which did not throughly probe Greenwald on them would have been supine in my view.

      Except Wark didn’t probe anything, muss less thoroughly. The only thing she could expect her mindless questions to elicit were well-rehearsed denials by Greenwald fending off more or less personal attacks. Those attacks have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual story, which Wark very successfully buried in piffle. Probing would have to aim at explanation, enabling an audience to form an independent opinion that conforms to reality.

      And to introduce the idiotically transparent false dilemma of having to choose between mindless (and not just unenlightening but actively misleading) questions and supineness shows how completely trapped these guys are in their self-righteousness.

      • joe says:

        It’s not precisely He-said-She-said, which is the “the false dichotomy” approach to propaganda. By defining the sides you can take in response to a perceived problem, you determine the range of responses available to your audience. You don’t care actually whether they agree with He or She — you care that you’ve eliminated everything other than He or She. The price may be that He or She may be an insane proposition (that’s often helpful to make the whole thing seem more legitimate).

        This case is the Inquisition approach. You take the opinion of a narrow band (‘the establishment’) as common sense, and hide behind that to attack the outsider, but in the form of questions. It’s not an interchange and it doesn’t represent a full spectrum, just the dominant voices against the dissident.

        It’s a very crude approach, just a step above interviewing an opponent of the dissident with soft-ball questions (with the same world view).

        But crude is easy and often sufficient.

    • joe says:

      This is crucial: “3. To your ear I’m sure many of the questions Kirsty asked Glenn were quite old hat but remember that this story has not been running in the UK anything like as big as it has in the US. Most of our viewers would have had only a glancing knowledge of it, which is why we felt we needed to lay out the story to date, and rehearse the arguments around it, from first principles. I’m sure if you view the package in its entirety that will make more sense to you.”

      That’s what justifies the rest — that first you have to deal with these rumors and innuendos before you can get to the substantive discussion.

      The essential problem is that it’s not true. In fact, the US press has barely covered these stories at all, and when they have it’s been dominated by this innuendo. Greenwald has been writing for the Guardian — by itself that leads to more exposure than what you see in the US.

      On top of that, this issue has been heavily, heavily covered in other European countries — and if the UK is able to isolate itself from the news in countries within it’s federal zone, I think we have evidence of something much more serious than this story in itself.

      What we have more likely is that the BBC organization has avoided this story professionally and personally and are projecting their self-inflicted blindness upon the general population, in the same way that the NYT projects their own tunnel vision upon the US population. Never be surprised by the much more blinkered vision of elites compared to the population in general.

  12. Sam Johnson says:

    What a lame defence by Ian Katz. Does he imagine that UK TV viewers don’t have Internet connections? That they get their news from UK news sources exclusively?

    • Foppe says:

      apparently his frame of reference is other tv shows, with the guardian still being considered a fringe/minor newspaper.
      A few questions that arise are
      a: why has the story not been reported on more by other British media, including the BBC.
      B: Why was the Baroness invited as a security ‘expert’, when she so clearly is no expert on anything except authoritarian nationalism?
      C: Why did Wark let her yammer on again and again without interruption when she spouted off unsubstantiated propaganda, red herrings and/or FUD? (The red herring about the danger posed by the existence of the evil Russians/Chinese, her fantasies about encryption being trivial to break.)
      D. Why no questions about operational security and database access?
      E. why were the contributions by the other expert largely ignored? In deference to the minister?

      • Victoria Luckie says:

        D) Is particularly important, especially given the UK government’s apparent laissez-faire attitude to data security of, for example, health, care, school, records and data.

        F) As is method of data collection and verification of the correct data. Within the wider applications too much trust seems to be put on the opinion of so-called “professionals” who have little oversight and unless specifically requested by the person it concerns, and then corrected (often a pretty arduous process) it goes unchallenged.

        G) Who has access to all the joint databases that remain on records and are these sometimes available to every sppok, hacker, council worker, social worker, policeman, medical / school admin person, teacher, temp, DWP / ATOS person etc? What checks and balances are put into place to guard against misuse of this data? Or to limit those allowed to comment?

        F) With councils and Govt. selling or renting data what limitations are / should be put in place to allow people to opt out / protect people’s privacy, and how does this fit in with with the Data Protections Act. I could go on.

  13. Sam Johnson says:

    I nearly fell out bed this morning when listening to the radio. The celebrity baroness was on for a review of the sunday papers, and would you believe she was calling for investigative journalism to unravel the truth of allegations of corruption in FIFA (over the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar).

    As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

  14. Francisco says:

    Glenn is a genius that has one big advantage: he is right. the NSA is spying on everybody, not on the people it should spy on to avoid terrorism, etc. The brasilian tv channel Tv Globo in its show called Fantastico is about to reveal how the NSA spied on the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy. Is this not unlawful espionage? What does this have to do with terrorismo/child porn prevention?.

    Source: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Fg1.globo.com%2Ffantastico%2Fnoticia%2F2013%2F10%2Fnovos-documentos-revelam-que-ministerio-de-minas-e-energia-foi-espionado.html

  15. @Monnerjahn

    As an interviewer, you are the advocate of the audience. Your job is to represent your audience in a conversation with the interviewee. Asking a question says to your audience that this question is legitimate, and that they would be justified in asking the same question.

    I think this is the crux of the controversy being discussed here. There is an alternate understanding of the role of the interviewer, which would lead to a different set of tests as to whether any given set of questions was properly posed.

    What if the job of an interviewer was not…“to represent your audience in a conversation”…but “to produce an exchange of views between questioner and respondent that made the audience understand the issues at stake more clearly”?

    So, Wark is perfectly entitled — even if she does so tendentiously — to ask Greenwald to spell out, in his own words, his bedrock principles. Wark may know perfectly well what the correct answer is, and she may even agree with it, yet she may still prefer that it comes out of her respondent’s mouth rather than her own. It might, after all, make for more dynamic and persuasive television journalism:

    “Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?”

    “Because that is the work of journalism and I am acting as a journalist.”

    There is no doubt, as her editor Ian Katz concedes here, that Wark’s tone was worthy of a quibble or two (to say the least) and that her language was at times “infelicitous.” Abiding by Richard Sambrook’s request for a “more forensic approach” to interviewing — one influenced by the courtroom techniques of cross-examination — would go a long way to producing question-and-answer sessions that were structured as blocks, with a series of follow-ups probing the logical conclusion of an initial proposition, rather than the Attention-Deficit-Disorder non-sequiturs of Wark’s effort here.

    All that conceded, if only Wark had prefaced this interview with an announcement that it sought to probe the ethics and logistics of producing journalism about Edward Snowden’s revelations, rather than the underlying import and wisdom of Snowden’s revelations themselves, then many of Wark’s confrontational questions would not have seemed so weak or so juvenile, as Jay Rosen puts it, but merely as a series of bona-fide oppositional statements that allowed Greenwald — successfully as it turned out — to vindicate his journalistic methodology…

    …and therefore to elevate the audience’s understanding — even at the cost of making Wark appear confused, scattershot and argumentative.

    • Peter Monnerjahn says:

      Andrew Tyndall said:

      What if the job of an interviewer was not…“to represent your audience in a conversation”…but “to produce an exchange of views between questioner and respondent that made the audience understand the issues at stake more clearly”?

      It’s not only that it’s an interviewer’s job to represent their audience but also that journalism’s job to enable people to form an independent opinion. And that of course means that you should help your audience understand the issues at stake more clearly. What you seem to be studiously ignoring is the fact that that didn’t happen.

      Let’s take your example of “more dynamic and persuasive television journalism”:

      “Why should you be the arbiter of what is in the public interest and what is vital to national security?”

      “Because that is the work of journalism and I am acting as a journalist.”

      Not even that enables any actual understanding of the issues. The issue here is two-fold. a) Journalists make decisions about what is in the public interest all the time, otherwise they would be mere scribes, Colbert-style. b) There may be a legitimate concerns about information that should be kept secret, e.g. for national security reasons. The issue there is how to determine what the national interest is and what might be appriopriate measures to safeguard it. Wark’s choice of “more dynamic and persuasive television journalism“ managed to throw light on neither of these issues. Furthermore, there is a clear line of separation here in terms of specific expertise: Wark could have shed light on a), Greenwald on b). Wark would even have had more time to pursue the weightier issue of b) if she had briefly prefaced a question about b) by explaining that a) is understood to be the common ground, e.g. by giving an example of how Newsnight chooses which stories to air. That would have been persuasive television journalism in the public interest.

      To pretend, however, that only her tone was a little off or that she could have kept all her questions if she had only added a brief preface that she was going “to probe the ethics and logistics of producing journalism about Edward Snowden’s revelations” seems to me almost unbelievably misguided.

      • To pretend that only her tone was a little off…

        My comments here were not made in order to defend Wark’s interview as being dynamic and persuasive. Instead, it was to address the suggested explanations about what precisely was the nature of Wark’s errors.

        So, to recapitulate:

        1.I challenged Rosen’s criticism that the flaw lay in Wark’s rehashing of already cited criticisms of Greenwald. I tried to argue how — on television especially — rehearsing old debating points was a legitimate tactic.

        2.I challenged Monnerjahn’s (your) assumption that the role of a journalist, when acting as a television interviewer, was to be the representative of the audience. I tried to argue that the role could be defined as providing clarity, rather than offering representation.

        3.I suggested that the Wark’s underlying error may have arisen, instead, from category confusion. Her series of questions — mostly bona fide, some off topic — revealed muddled thinking. Was she addressing Greenwald as a journalist who used Snowden as a source, or as a spokesman for Snowden who was accountable for his actions? Thus my suggestion about stipulating the former, as a framing device.

        4.Your example, here, of a two-step sequence for asking the “arbiter” question is excellent. It comports with my criticism that Wark failed to use follow-ups and Sambrook’s suggestion of adopting the forensic approach — an approach which, courtroom-style, asks questions as blocks with a series of simple, single, logical propositions. Thus the confusion of the “arbiter” question — asking both about what a journalist does, and also about Greenwald’s thinking on national security — should have been clarified by such sequential separation.

        • Peter Monnerjahn says:

          Andrew Tyndall said:

          1.I challenged Rosen’s criticism that the flaw lay in Wark’s rehashing of already cited criticisms of Greenwald. I tried to argue how — on television especially — rehearsing old debating points was a legitimate tactic.

          And you continue to refuse to even contemplate the thought that the validity of such criticisms may be important to establish even before one decides whether to rehash them or not. Which is odd.

          And you also ignore your own advice of viewing the journalist’s job as “providing clarity”—which simply putting person X’s words to person Y and asking them to respond (the prototypical He said–She said “journalism”) isn’t doing.

          2.I challenged Monnerjahn’s (your) assumption that the role of a journalist, when acting as a television interviewer, was to be the representative of the audience. I tried to argue that the role could be defined as providing clarity, rather than offering representation.

          And I pointed out how that definition of yours really adds nothing to the discussion. If your job is to enable your audience to form independent opinions, then of course that entails providing clarity. What else would it entail providing? But you work in television, right? You have to know that there is no such thing as absolute clarity; the question always is: clarity for whom? The expert, the layman, the woman in the street? If you have no idea who is supposed to understand what’s going on, and what the ideas, prejudices, expectations etc. are that those people bring to the table, then you are going to fail. In that sense at least, you simply have to be a representative of somebody—and either you consciously make that somebody your audience, or you will very likely end up unconsciously representing whatever parties that have the most power to shape the agenda.

          Her series of questions — mostly bona fide, some off topic — revealed muddled thinking.

          What her questions revealed was mostly a complete lack of research on her part. It is not just that she put government talking point questions to Greenwald (which on its own might be borderline defensible), she was genuinely upset that Greenwald challenged their validity. She genuinely had no idea that e.g. China’s getting their hands on digital data a security professional carries with him on an external hard drive is prima facie extremely unlikely, given a few simple facts about strong encryption. And consequently, she did nothing whatsoever to “provide clarity“ to her audience about this particular issue.

          The problem, in a nutshell, is not her lack of a preface that would have put her questions in a different category. The problem is that she (unconsciously, let’s hope) chose to represent an interested party, namely the government. And that may be the job of a press secretary, but it’s not the job of a journalist.

    • joe says:

      Do you honestly think that the goal here is to have an adversarial battle between the host and Greenwald, where one is victorious? Beating Greenwald (or not) may be a desired side effect, but this format is about giving you the establishment talking points with the counter-establishment counter-points.

      It’s not really an adversarial game except formally. It’s sufficient to let people know what the official line is that they’re supposed to follow, but make it easier to take by giving “counter-points”. But since these are all counter-points, and not the counter-establishments actual propositions, they are much less dangerous. Those who will always reject the establishment position will be reinforced — but since they would anyway, that does little practically.

      Q: “Some say that Green politics is just a mystical, non-scientific Ludditism intended to destroy mankinds last hope to save technological civilization with the naturally renewable energy source of nuclear power, which is know to be safe.”
      A: “That’s not true because of a) b) c)”

      You see how this format works? Even if A “wins” the conversation, the point is to draw the political sides and define the establishment political side — that to agree with A is to be, from the start, a dissident.

  16. Luca says:

    Either Kirsty Wark was tired, under-prepared and over-confident … or the interview was in fact deliberately somewhat casual, unecessarily personal and the order of questioning non-consequential — the qualities most likely to provoke and unsettle the rigorous, litigious and notoriously linear Glenn Greenwald. Ms Wark is hardly a novice so I would have to consider the latter scenario more likely.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Did Greenwald seem unsetttled to you? Thrown off stride? Was he fumbling for answers, taken back at the questions because he did not expect them?

      As I said in my post, this style of questioning “doesn’t make for a tough interview; it makes for a predictable one, easier for the subject to handle.”

  17. BobM says:

    Looking at Greenwald’s body language at the very beginning of the i/v and afterwards I would say that he was ready to be friendly and relaxed, at the outset, but progressively alienated by Wark’s tone.

    I am in the camp that views her questions as largely sensible, had they been put neutrally, or quizzically. But they weren’t.

    I cannot imagine why BBC allows Wark to continue unless as a female counterweight to Paxo.