Edward Snowden on the front page of a newspaper in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
There is something about news stories that alter the course of history and the month of June. On 13 June 1971 the New York Times published the first Pentagon Papers story about how the Johnson administration misled the public about the scale of the Vietnam war. The papers were brought to the Times by the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
Two years later, on 15 June 1974, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their book All the President’s Men on the Watergate scandal after two years of reporting the affair and two months before President Richard Nixon was forced to resign. On 6 June 2010, Wired magazine reported that Bradley Manning had been arrested in connection with the leaking of thousands of classified state department documents and combat video to whistleblower organisation WikiLeaks.
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This year had a flaming June too. On 6 June 2013, the Guardian pushed the button on the first story outlining the mass collection of phone records and online user data by the National Security Agency. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the story, was given access to a cache of 58,000 documents gathered by a young security analyst and former intelligence agent, Edward Snowden.
The stories rolled on through the weeks and months of summer, and continue still. Snowden remains in exile in Russia. His revelations illuminate a US intelligence operation indiscriminately swabbing the internet for the world’s digital fingerprints and sticking them in a big shiny building for an indeterminate period. In America the story is all pervasive. Alongside Obamacare, it is defining the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency. In Britain, journalists and news organisations outside the Guardian have largely been mute. The public interest is subsumed in competitive differences, and parliament’s interest centres on chasing the leaks, not what they reveal.
The impact of the NSA files will reverberate for a generation. It has already forced a re-evaluation of the relationship between powerful technology and telephone companies, the government and the consumer. It has raised the issue of digital human rights and how to control a covert surveillance state. It has made the internet potentially unstable and untrustworthy. It has made Angela Merkel redo her Christmas card list and change her phone provider (or at least it ought to have). The story is significant for everyone in the world. Because the systems it elucidated are not confined to one geography or government.
At the heart of this story is the “network effect”, the phenomenon that dictates the benefit or impact of goods or service is determined by the number of people using it. In a real sense the NSA files showed a significant cost to the benefit of living in a highly connected world, namely that of privacy, freedom from surveillance and the right to be left alone. In a journalistic sense the reporting of the story demonstrates that the modern leak, the enormous cache of digitised documents, needs a new kind of reporting. The Guardian leading the Washington Post on a scoop such as this was impossible pre-internet, and unlikely until it did just that.
The individualistic nature of the journalism that led to the scoop is new too. Greenwald is an engaged, opinionated journalist who writes to his own agenda for a community that follow his every word. Within his community was Snowden. And in the manner of the unusual framework of the story, it was unexpected but maybe logical that Greenwald was hired to lead a new news organisation, the shape and substance of which is unknown but the financing of which comes from the new network economy billions of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
At a time when we have come to think the days of the spectacular scoop and thorough reporting are over, constrained by resource, news organisations are adapting to this post-industrial world by finding collaborations of scale. The legal and logistical challenges of shepherding the mega-revelation into a fragmented international and diverse public sphere now needs its own network effect.
The lessons laid out by WikiLeaks – that the distribution of information through a geographically diverse network is a foil against legal interference and publishing restraint – has been absorbed by the mainstream media. ProPublica and the New York Times received and reported NSA documents. Public broadcasters such as Australia’s ABC helped unearth and expand on local angles. Greenwald took other documents to the Brazilian press, and the Canadian press. This is a trend we will see far more of: expensive public interest journalism produced by multiple outlets.
Snowden’s leaks delivered another jab of electricity to journalism. The surveillance practices of the NSA went unflagged, yet were widely known to 480,000 government contractors with Snowden’s level of security clearance. Technology journalists (at least numerically) have thrived in Silicon Valley, but from a proximity to the subject rather than scrutiny of it.
Networked technology and its intersection with government is a story for our time. To hold such rampant power to account journalists must first understand it better and question it more closely. As Snowden floats in a gloamy limbo of a life, we owe him at least for the light he shed on a shadowy new power in our midst.