Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The curious case of Glenn Greenwald

As the story about Edward Snowden and government snooping struggles to capture the imagination of ordinary people, the chattering classes are getting more agitated by the day. One person at the centre of the NSA scandal is Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio.

Greenwald has been instrumental in ferrying some of the stolen material from Edward Snowden to media outlets in the West. He is on the payroll of the Guardian but does not live in the UK (he once remarked cryptically he is lucky not to have been to England).

Greenwald's pieces in the Guardian are published with some regularity which is probably due to the fact that he has a contract stipulating regular contributions, yet his writing bears little resemblance to balanced journalism or the search for truth. He is reported to easily take personal offense, to be quite thin-skinned and not very tolerant of opinions other than his own. Of late, his pieces have offered little data or information on the NSA programme, perhaps a result that the latest trawl of data was intercepted by the British border agency at Heathrow, an event which triggered a furious outburst from Greenwald saying that 'they [England] will be sorry for what they did [intercept and seize the stolen material]'.

His interview on Newsnight showed an highly opinionated person, who sometimes shoots down even compatriots in the cause with friendly fire.

Yet, apart from these character traits, what makes Greenwald a curious case in the journalistic landscape is his writing. For a journalist, his pieces are remarkably low in information and high in polemic. For his most recent piece in the Guardian, he extracted a single line from a colleague who wrote in the Independent, twisted the meaning of this line and tried to sully his colleague's reputation by calling him a 'career journalist' and member of the 'establishment' (you can read Blackhurst's piece here and Greenwald's recent piece here).

What emerges is a strange picture of an American journalist writing for a UK reputable daily newspaper in a tone that befits American ideological trench warfare rather than the intelligent, nuanced debate that is characteristic of much of the UK media landscape. In a sense, Greenwald's pieces are instances of advocacy or campaign journalism rather than journalism proper. The sad result of this is that the debate on the NSA is becoming ever more polarised with the moderate and reasonable voices being crowded out by those who prefer to shout.

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