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.”