The NSA, Germany, and journalism

SDZ front page

spiegel front page

Look at the home pages of two major German news sites today, August 20. The Süddeutsche Zeitung talks about the government forcing the Guardian to destroy computers holding leaked NSA data in “a scene out of a spy novel.” Spiegel Online talks about the UK as “the land of black helicopters.”

Now compare them with leading American and British news sites, pictured below. The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Telegraph, The Times of London — nada, each essentially silent on their web front pages regarding this amazing Guardian tale of the destroyed computers or the prior detention of David Miranda, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s husband, at Heathrow airport under a terrorism statute.

Therein lie two tales, one about Germany and privacy, one about journalism and news judgment; they are linked and mysterious.

First, Germany. In my book Public Parts, I used Germany as a case study in the fight over privacy (and publicness) and technology. Germans, I said, care deeply about privacy not just because of their recent political history — the Stasi and the Nazis — but also because culturally, they are lead quite private lives, rarely even talking about their voting preferences with friends and relatives (I know; I married into a German family).

In the NSA story, we are seeing both traits but, of course, we are mostly seeing the political side in open anger about American and British government attacks on their privacy. Germans held protests in almost 40 cities — dwarfing the turnout in a few American cities (I attended the one in New York and was saddened by the sparseness of it). German media — led strongly by Der Spiegel — are holding politicians’ feet to the fire over any allegations of cooperation with American and British spies. They have already made the NSA a big issue in the upcoming national election. It is a major story there.

But that’s not so much so in the two countries where the story originates, the US and UK (present company of the Guardian excepted, of course). Why not? I’d start by arguing that the German editors are displaying appropriate news judgment. This story affects every user of the internet; it affects the internet and technology industries (that link is to another German publication, Zeit Online, saying — in German — that the NSA scandal is bad for business); if affects international relations; it affects the fate of journalism.

So I don’t understand why editors at the august publications pictured below are not giving the story the prominence the Germans are. Of course, the Washington Post was in on the story early (but it also editorialized that Edward Snowden should stop leaking) and The New York Times has reported on the story with varying degrees of oomph. But the Telegraph and the Times and other British publications have not given it much coverage or prominence and I’d say the same of the BBC and American TV news networks.

Why? Is it jealousy of the Guardian: not-scooped-here syndrome? Is it the too-close relationship of the institutions of media and government (witness NBC’s David Gregory saying he’d almost arrest the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald or CNN’s and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin practically flacking for the US Justice Department). Is it bad news judgment?

Or are the Germans and I wrong, and as a journalist I am expecting too much attention to be paid to this story because it is about in news? (Full disclosure: I consult and write for the Guardian.) You could argue that. But I’d argue back.

When I presented Public Parts at the re:publica conference in Berlin — before I wrote it — I spoke about the German paradox regarding privacy (they can be militantly private about Google Street View or Facebook but when it comes to the sauna, they are more public than an American would ever dare to be). A member of the audience asked me in turn about the American paradox. What’s that? I asked. Well, he said, you Americans are suspicious of government though you’ve had a far better government over the years than we Europeans have and we trust government more than you do. Right, and Europeans — Germans especially — are suspicious of companies even though theirs are highly regulated.

But the NSA story isn’t moving according to that script. The Germans are exhibiting deep distrust of government — theirs and our’s — but our media and our citizens, apparently, not so much. If no media in the world cared a bit about the NSA story, then perhaps you could chalk it up to the Guardian being too proud of its scoop. But German media by their enthusiasm dismantle that theory.

I am left without a good explanation why this story is getting less attention in the English-speaking world, only with a hope that our media will soon wake up.

LATER: Spiegel Online just posted a translation of its black helicopters commentary, arguing that Britons are just too comfortable with surveillance, too cozy with government and its spies.

The United Kingdom is not an authoritarian surveillance state like China. But it is a country in which surveillance has become part of everyday life. The cold eyes of the security apparatus keep watch over everything that moves — in underground stations and hospitals, at intersections and on buses. The British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) recently estimated that there could be up to 5.9 million surveillance cameras in the country — or one camera for every 11 Britons. Most were not installed by the government, but by companies and private citizens. One wonders who even has the time to look at these images.

While there is the occasional burst of resistance on the island, most just accept surveillance as the price of freedom. And in contrast to Germany, many journalists are wont to defend their government, particularly when it comes to the global interest of the United Kingdom and its so-called national security. Dan Hodges, a blogger with ties to the Labour Party, echoed the sentiments of many in the Westminster political world following the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been instrumental in exposing the breadth of GCHQ and NSA surveillance activities. Hodges wrote: “What do we honestly expect the UK authorities to do? Give him a sly wink and say ‘off you go son, you have a nice trip’?”

It’s astonishing to see how many Britons blindly and uncritically trust the work of their intelligence service. Some still see the GCHQ as a club of amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II.

So there’s a theory: The Germans are reacting to the NSA saying, “No us, not again.” The Brits may be saying, “We miss Le Carré.” And the Americans? Maybe we think this doesn’t matter to us because the NSA is spying on all those foreigners, or maybe we’re embarrassed, or maybe we don’t know what to do in media until somebody goes on trial.

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