Woolly Days media person of the year 2013 – Edward Snowden

snowdenI read the other day an article in Nieman Journalism Lab that pronounced the death of the blog in 2013. It had been overtaken, the article said, by social media, aggregators, micro-blogs and meme police (think Reddit) in setting agendas and influencing other media. That may be so, but I think the death of blogging is exaggerated. The article that reported the death was itself a blog post and there are hundreds of millions of blogs still active. I’ve been blogging for over eight years and don’t see myself stopping soon. I enjoy writing them, I like the way they force me to marshall my ideas and I enjoy my work in the public domain, no matter how uninfluential. Millions of others will continue their blogs for a million other reason. One of my many million reasons is that I can get to name a Woolly Days media person (or personality) of the year award, something I’ve done for the last five years.

My winner wouldn’t be aware of the award but that doesn’t stop me from having fun and naming someone I saw making a difference to the world of the media. The year I started the award – 2009 – was around the time Australia was grappling seriously with the end of analog and the idea of paywalls for internet content. ABC boss Mark Scott was in the fortunate position of being able to deal with both issues without the need to turn a profit. He was emerging as a thoughtful contributor to where the digital world was taking us. As boss of the national broadcaster he straddled the political divide as a former Liberal staffer appointed by John Howard yet who seemed ready-made Labor-lite and someone not afraid to put the boot into Rupert Murdoch. It is difficult to see how Scott will survive into an Abbott Government but he has put ABC in a strong position as an independent cultural institution, albeit very safe and conservative in its Sydney values.

I didn’t give thought as to whether it was a one-off award or not in 2009. As it happened, one person dominated world media headlines in 2010 and he was Julian Assange. Assange was Australian but his actions had huge international ramifications. Wikileaks transformed the dangerous act of whistleblowing by providing a safe place to blow the whistle. Wikileaks’ best work was tackling corporate crime such as Trafigura and Bank Julius Baer but like Icarus, Assange got too close to the sun. The astonishing horde of documentation Assange got from Bradley Manning made Assange a public enemy to western powers. Assange was a brilliant operator who changed the rules of information dissemination but he had massive personality flaws. Assange has a case to answer under Swedish law and needs to face that justice system, otherwise the current Mexican stand-off will last only until a more American-friendly Ecuadorian government tosses him out to the streets of London.

While Assange languished in legal no-man’s land in 2011, a massive new media story was developing. What initially was regarded as ‘a few bad apples’, turned out to be an organisation rotten to the core showing it wasn’t just our intelligence services that spied on us. Guardian journalist Nick Davies with the fierce support of his editor Alan Rusbridger courageously overcame a smear campaign to reveal malfeasance by Rupert Murdoch’s News International with the assistance of the Metropolitan Police. The Guardian’s work was the best media on media story in years and Davies and Rusbridger fully deserved my 2011 award.

In 2012 I gave my award to the British judge Brian Leveson who took on the Inquiry that bears his name from the Guardian hacking revelations. Leveson is a thoughtful jurist and his findings were admirable – though I have serious misgivings the British government’s new regulator will actually carry out his wishes. Nonetheless he deserved the award for running the best daily entertainment that year. Testimony after testimony was spectacular and it bordered on soap opera at times – especially when any of the Murdochs were giving evidence.

When it came to this year’s award I became aware of an anomaly – there was a serious gender imbalance, all my winners were men and White Anglo Saxon Protestantish at that. This said more about the stereotypical way I think about media than a lack of suitable women candidates. Indeed, I found a magnificent contender in the very last week of the year. I had not heard of Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chornovil before she was beaten up for investigating the Interior Minister but she is everything good about a journalist: single-minded, honest, fearless and determined to tell the story in the face of intense intimidation. She is already the favourite to win my award in 2014.

Yet I cannot give Chornovil, or any other journalist, my 2013 media person award. That has to go to Edward Joseph Snowden, the American computer specialist who leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The thousands of documents show the extent of surveillance nationally and internationally, against friend or foe. Pentagon Paper leaker Daniel Ellsberg (who was assiduously courted by Julian Assange as he set up Wikileaks) described Snowden’s revelations as the most significant in US history and it lays bare the US’s intelligence framework, not to mention causing political headaches across the globe.

Snowden became the story after his dramatic flight from the US to Russia via Hong Kong and he now remains stranded like Assange in legal limbo (of the unholy trio of leakers, only Bradley Manning has ended up in an American jail so far and even he has ‘escaped’ by changing his identity to Chelsea Manning). The idea that Russia, with its own repression, gives Snowden immunity is a sick Putin joke. However the laugh has been on the Obama administration left flat-footed as it attempts to deal with the scale of the leaks without being able to press charges.

There are times when we become a little cynical of the way government works and we look the other way when they get involved in sausage-making. There is the sense in many of our obsessive rules and regulations that it won’t affect us if we don’t do anything wrong. But there are times when someone holds up the mirror and we must look. We know we won’t like what we find and Snowden’s material shows government at its most paranoid and Orwellian. What the leaks showed was government surveillance is not about protecting people from terrorism but about protecting power. The US and allies spied for political, economic and social reasons, and while this was something we all suspected, here was the proof. Media commentator Jay Rosen said Snowden exposed threats to our freedom and his going public was a decisive moment.

Snowden says he did it to inform the public what was done in their name and what was done against them. One NSA documents he leaked admitted they wanted mastery of the intelligence medium. To find the pin the haystack, they would collect the whole haystack. What they wanted was the ability to spy on anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Snowden left authorities and their lackies flailing for answers and blaming the messenger. The craven editors at News Ltd and the Washington Post claimed publishing the articles breached national security but the leaks showed it was national security that was on trial.

What happens next to Snowden is anyone’s guess, but I cannot imagine it will end happily. He is too far outside the pale for the US to forgive and forget and sooner or later, Putin will cash in his chip. Snowden will likely rot in prison like Manning. Whether it is enough to deter other would-be leakers, remains to be seen. In the meantime we must do all in our power to read what he has risked so much for. Not a woman, like Chornovil or Manning, but a worthy winner of the Woolly Days media person of the year 2013.

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