ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 22 DECEMBER 2013
Here's the full video of my talk at New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengraber
and here's an account of it by Genevieve Belmaker
When you see Alan Rusbridger in person, there’s almost an expectation that he will be 10 feet tall and able to breathe fire. After everything he and his media outlet, the Guardian, have been through in the past few years, it seems like a reasonable expectation. WikiLeaks. The UK phone hacking scandal. Snowden.
The impression I got after hearing him speak Wednesday night at the New York Public Library is that he’s humble, witty and committed to protecting the future of reporters and the free press. Wherever they might hail from.
As if life as editor of the Guardian wasn’t enough to stay busy, in 2010 he also made an ambitious plan to take up the piano again. He set out to learn, in one year, Chopin’s Ballade No.1. The one-movement piece is considered by the world’s best pianists to be among the toughest ever composed.
Rusbridger spent 20 minutes a day, for one year, to achieve the task. The result was his book, “Play It Again.”
“The book is partly about having a crazy life,” Rusbridger said. His interview with New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber was part of an annual “who’s who” series that includes authors, intellectuals, and influential social figures.
Rusbridger said the additional task in an already incredibly busy life actually helped prepare him for each day’s events.
“I made it almost religious that I would find the time,” he said. “In times of great stress it helped a lot. It feels as though that 20 minutes prepares you.”
As an amateur pianist, though, the professional journalist in him eventually ended up taking the driver’s seat. In 2010, he talked with a neurologist to see if his then-56-year-old brain was too old handle the task. He sat down with professional pianists whose skills were far superior to his. That part of his quest brought him to Condoleezza Rice’s doorstep. Rice is an accomplished pianist.
He said of that encounter that he was impressed that she “was quite busy being involved in a lot of wars, but kept up with the piano.”
Rusbridger’s adventures in starting to play the piano again after quitting earlier in life brought him another interesting insight. He glimpsed the massive gap between the worlds of the professional and the amateur.
“I realized on a microscopic level that this is what pianists face,” he said.
Regardless of what one thinks about Rusbridger’s role in WikiLeaks, the UK phone hacking scandal, Chopin and Snowden, his apparent dedication to what he calls the “fourth estate” is admirable. Especially when it comes to the hard, sometimes lonely work, of reporters.
“You could strip away everything from the newsroom, but leave the reporters,” he said.
Before the event, Rusbridger had been given some surprise inspiration by his host. They took a close look at the Pentagon Papers. He called it “moving” to read materials that are such an important part of the history of American journalism.
Then there are the parallels to his own recent work.
Though Rusbridger thinks the leaked Snowden papers are just as important as the Pentagon Papers, he has no illusions about sources who reveal state secrets.
“There are no perfect sources,” he said. “Archbishops don’t leak documents typically.”
He still finds the debate that comes out of such disclosures to be highly valuable, but extensive jail time can put a chill on exercising First Amendment rights.
“That sends a pretty strong signal as to what you think about whistle blowers,” he said.
Despite the U.S. government’s reaction to leaked documents, Rusbridger still finds American soil a more welcoming theater for the free press than the UK. It’s partly for that reason that the Guardian has “found shelter” in working with The New York Times and has put more focus on reporting from the U.S, Rusbridger said.
He believes the Guardian has an inherent U.S. audience that wants to read global news and reports. With all of their foreign bureaus still open and one-third of their readers in the U.S., they are well-positioned to provide that.
“People understand that their lives are unintelligible just in national terms.”
Yet in light of the freedom of the Internet and the debates over how much should be published and who is qualified to publish it, there are more questions than answers.
“We’re just right at the beginning of it,” he said.
Based on Russbridger’s willingness to learn Chopin’s Ballad No. 1, tackling unknown challenges that lay ahead shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.
And here is the full transcript:
September 25, 2013
LIVE from the New York Public Library
Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: That was the Ballade No. 1 as played by Arthur Rubinstein. My name is Paul Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of Public Programs here at the New York Public Library, known as LIVE from the New York Public Library. As many of you know, here my goal is simply to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful to make it levitate. I hope you have had a chance to review our season in progress, please do, join our e-mail list as well so that you know of some of the surprises that will come up this season.
It is my great pleasure to announce and welcome LIVE from the New York Public Library’s first ever season-long presenting sponsor, Morgan Stanley. (applause). We are thrilled to have them on board for the entire fall season and are grateful for their support to LIVE and to the Library. We are also live tweeting our event this season. Alan Rusbridger, if you could afterwards tweet the event, and invite you all to follow us using—and here I really don’t know exactly what I’m saying, but using the hash tag #LIVENYPL. What a joy.
Thank you to Jo Murray from the Guardian in the UK, who helped me so much making sure Alan Rusbridger could be LIVE from the New York Public Library tonight. Thank you so much, Jo. (applause) And as always Jeff Seroy from FSG who for a decade now has worked and put up with me mostly joyfully. (applause)
Now, as you know, for the last seven or so years I’ve asked my guests to provide me with a biography of themselves in seven words, a haiku or better yet said, a tweet. (laughter) Now, Alan Rusbridger submitted these seven words to me: “Amateur musician and professional journalist, both essential.” It is my utmost pleasure to warmly welcome to the LIVE from the New York Public Library stage the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Thank you.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There is a line in Leonard Bernstein which appeals to me enormously as it pertains I think to your work and to the challenge you have put forth to yourself in learning the Ballade No. 1, and we’ll get to what that challenge was. Perhaps this line will help you unpack this challenge you put forward to yourself. He says, “To achieve great things two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That sounds about right. For this talk to work or for this book to work you have to understand two things. One is that the First Ballade is impossible. I can’t see anybody in the audience, but if anybody has tried to play it and would like to put their hands up, then nobody’s tried—oh, no, a few people have tried. And can you confirm it’s very difficult? Okay, right? Because “good pianist plays easy piece” would not be a good book. “Bad pianist plays impossible piece.” So it was a sort of ridiculous thing to try and as you suggest I didn’t have enough time.
But that was almost the point of the book because there’s so many people who used to play the piano or used to do this or this and usually it’s the biggest regret of their life, or one of the biggest regrets of their life that they stopped, and usually their excuse for not starting again is they didn’t have time. So the book is partly about having a fairly crazy life, editing a newspaper during a particularly crazy period, and yet finding time to tackle this impossible piece of music.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Why though the choice of something quite as mad?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I now look back and think it really was insane because it’s so hard. It’s not just me saying it, during the course of writing this book—it’s one of the privileges of being a journalist, you can be completely impudent and ring up anybody you like, so—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You can be completely—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Impudent. So I rang up a lot of very great pianists or went to see them, and people as disparate as Daniel Barenboim and Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax. This is a piece they fear, chiefly because it’s sort of—it all gets out of control, so the fact that these really, really, really good pianists fear this piece would put you off, except that I was on a piano camp, a piano course in France, which I’ve been doing for the last seven or eight years, and someone like me, a man called Gary, played this piece on the last day, and he was no better than me, and that made me realize it was possible, and then I was just intrigued in a sort of—kind of journalistic way, the way you might be how somebody made this table, how it was done, so it began as a sort of exercise in curiosity and then the greatness of the piece pulled me into it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You speak in the book of all these pianists you went to speak to—Murray Perahia, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Emanuel Ax, Condoleezza Rice you went to speak to also.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: She can play it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: She can play it. Why did you go and speak to her? I mean, did you—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, I was interested—I was interested in someone else who I had read—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Has a busy life.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Had quite a busy life, she was involved in a lot of wars. (laughter) But at the same time as being involved in a lot of wars, she would find time to play chamber music once a month, and I thought, “Well, that’s rather admirable,” and actually we sat down and had a lovely discussion about the piano, not war.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: All right. What did you actually hope to—what kind of counsel did you hope to get from these various pianists, like Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax? Did you feel that they could enlighten you about how to play it or how to understand it better or that you had made an ill choice in choosing it?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I realized in the writing of it and in trying to play this piece that on a microscopic level, that this is what is involved in being a great musician, that they lead this solitary life of constant repetition, play it again, and it’s a highly technical thing, in which you have to almost disintegrate a piece and work out what the technological problems—the technical problems are that you’re trying to solve. And so I had some insight into what a pianist has to do, and you sit down with someone like Murray Perahia, who was just extremely generous and giving me time but fascinating in—he went through the whole piece telling the story of it, because he has a story for every piece of music he plays, so it’s about love, this bit’s about exile, this bit’s about revolution. And that was interesting to see a pianist framing—how a pianist frames the arch of a piece, and then we went right back to the beginning, and he described the musical structure, then he went right back to the beginning again and told me how to play it. But his account of it was completely different from Barenboim, it was completely different from Richard Goode, so it was just fascinating to compare my amateur attempt on this piece with what a proper pianist would do.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And Perahia mentioned that the piece had a narrative and that narrative must have spoken to you as he described it. The fact that it was in some way about, as you said just now, about revolution.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, he, for those of you who know the piece, and if you don’t know the piece we’re talking about, it’s the music that is in the Polanski film of The Pianist, it’s the piece that Szpilman, who’s been hiding in the attic, plays to the Nazi in order to save his life. It’s not actually the piece he played in his book, that was an invention of Polanski. But the reason Polanski I think chose this piece is because it’s immediately, it’s immediately powerful. At the end of it, at the end of all Ballades, they descend or ascend into fury, and Murray Perahia’s image—there are these sweeping scales at the end of the First Ballade, which just end in silence, and he said that was like bodies rising out of the grave, he really thought this was a description of the end of the world, and that’s such a powerful metaphor for what is on the page, and I think it’s partly why the pianists fear this piece, because once you get to that coda it almost plays you, it takes you over, and you have a decision about whether you’re going to surrender yourself to the music or try and keep control of it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Quickly a few more comments about the musical aspect of this book of yours. Do you think that this choice at the age of fifty-six of putting forward to yourself this challenge in some way corresponds to a midlife crisis? (laughter) And I think of it particularly in the way you frame it by using an incredible quotation I’d like to read of Carl Jung, where Carl Jung says, “A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage of life’s morning.”
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I mean, as midlife crises go, it was a fairly harmless one. I can think of worse things you could do. But I think that’s right, and I think it’s—I’m terribly interested in the creativity that you have, because most people at school play or dance or act or paint or play music and then kind of life overtakes us, doesn’t it? We plunge ourselves into things that seem more important, more vital, or more necessary. And then I think there is a moment in midlife where that creativity that we’ve ignored resurfaces, and I’ve felt it very powerfully in my late forties, my early fifties, and that’s the point at which after a twenty-five-year gap I went back to playing the piano.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you felt that precisely in the Bernstein mode, the shortness of time and putting a limitation to the amount of practice you could have—twenty minutes a day—would permit you to somehow master the piece after a year.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It didn’t. It took me eighteen months. Because life was a bit busier. There was Wikileaks going on, there was this story about phone hacking, there were tsunamis, the whole financial infrastructure of the world was collapsing, (laughter) so not like there was nothing going on in my life in the day job, so it took me longer and the piece was harder, but there’s a sort of more general point, and I don’t know if this is true, whether people in the audience recognize this, but I’d sort of thought, I’d always thought there’s all these things I’m going to do when I retire. There’s all these Dickens novels I haven’t yet read, Middlemarch, I’ve never read Middlemarch, and I was going to relearn to play the piano. And then you realize, you know, you’re fifty-six, why wait till you’re sixty-five?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It won’t get better.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It’s not going to get any better, and you’ll have thirty-five years of missing technique, so why not start now? And that comes to the question of how do you find the time, and my answer was just to get up half an hour earlier in the morning. But I made it almost religious that I would find the time and in moments of great stress, I found it helped—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I was going to ask you, did that help you with your day job, as it were?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It did. During the course, my other great fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to remember, or memorize music, because I never have, I’ve never been able to memorize a note. I can remember music, but I can’t memorize it. And you so you also ask yourself, at the age of fifty-six, is your brain too old? So I went to see neuroscientists and I said, you know—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Is my brain too old?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Tell me the worst, Doctor. The good news is that your brain is not too old at fifty-six. The plasticity of a brain is very good. So I learned how to memorize music. And I was also interested in—whether there was a sort of—a scientific explanation, whether the chemistry of the brain is altered by doing something like playing the piano. The answer is no, but it feels like it. It feels as though having that twenty minutes carved out just prepares you, and in some way I felt less stressed at the end of the day if I’d done my twenty minutes, and if I’d missed out my twenty minutes, I felt more stressed.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about your lack of memory and the fact that for this piece in particular not being able to memorize it makes it even more impossible because of the movement of both hands.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That bit that we came in on with Rubinstein playing, so what’s happening in that passage there are huge chords in the right hand and things going like that in the left hand, and then you get those crazy scales that go like that, and you have to look at one hand or the other, it doesn’t really matter much which you look at, but if you’re going to be looking at the sheet of music, it’s all going to go horribly wrong, and so therefore, you have to memorize it so that you can look at your hands. And that was just something I had never—I can sight-read, but I’d never memorized a note of music.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And, Alan, lest people believe that you can’t play it, you actually can.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I can now.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You can now. And I’d like us to take a listen to you playing the very beginning.
[Ballade No. 1 audio]
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Thank you for sending me that. I was very grateful.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You were going to say something.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Tell me.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Were you going to say something?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well I was going to say, you note the artful fade right before it gets difficult. The pianists in the audience will—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Will understand. What effect does it make for you to hear yourself play?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: There’s a bit of me that does look back on this as a—in slight astonishment that I did manage to do it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Are you in disbelief?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That was my final performance, that was my sort of bit where I played it in public because I knew some people wouldn’t believe it unless I did it, and I haven’t listened to that since, so I think it’s very—I think it’s very impressive, isn’t it?
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I think they do, congratulations! Just before coming downstairs here, I took you to the Special Collections and one of our fine curators, Bill Stingone, showed you some impressive papers, the Pentagon Papers, and I want you to tell me and tell us how you reacted to it and if you see any parallels between the Pentagon Papers and some of the stories the Guardian has broken over the last few years.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I didn’t know this was going to happen, but Paul took me up and the New York Times library is here, or New York Times archive, and there was a series of correspondence around the publication of the Pentagon Papers. I want to ask if Max Frankel is here, did he manage to make it? No. Max Frankel was the executive editor of the New York Times who nursed through the lawsuit, and I’ve been in correspondence with him over the Edward Snowden matter.
And it was just remarkable reading the correspondence around the very, very brave stance that the New York Times took in 1972 over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, because it mirrors so much the internal discussions and the challenges that we have had over the Snowden material, which I think is a comparable publishing event and now including the New York Times, and that was done in the face of, you know, real government menace and criminal menace and it was a very brave thing to do so it was moving to see these letters laid forth about the spirit of teamwork and the public importance of what the Times was doing then, which I think, you know, as I say is comparable, I make no claims for the Guardian’s role, but the material is of comparable importance.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Can you say a little bit more about in what way it’s comparable and in what way the challenges seem similar?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: At the most basic level it’s a vast spill of secrets, and the Snowden spill of secrets is bigger than the Pentagon Papers, I mean it’s a—and in a sense it’s about a matter of I think equally high public importance. Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, has said as much himself, because it’s about, to me it’s about very profound things about the nature of potentially putting entire populations under a form of surveillance, it’s about everybody in this room who believes they are secure in using the Internet for banking or their medical records or for e-mail and the degree to which that is a well-based trust, which takes you into very profound questions about the integrity of the Internet itself, and there are so many issues of balancing privacy and security that are engaged by this archive of material that it feels to me a very, very important matter, which is why the public debate in this country has been so welcome.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Take us back, if you would, to how the Guardian came to collaborate with Julian Assange.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, a very brilliant reporter on the Guardian Nick Davies who did the phone hacking story, which was a three-year, very lonely story and his theory is that the most important stories in a newspaper are never on the front page. I think this betrays a basic contempt for editors that’s probably well merited. (laughter) He believes editors can’t spot interesting stories, and on page seven of the Guardian one day he spotted a story that he thought was, should have been the front-page splash. Which was it was a man on the run with an enormous leak which then was the biggest leak of material from inside the U.S. government/military and he couldn’t understand why nobody was interested in the fact that this man was out there with a backpack on his shoulders, so he tracked him down and persuaded him that he should give the material to the Guardian, which he did.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Were you—was the Guardian worried of collaborating with him? Because there was some fear involved, and some ambivalence to say the least.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, at—well, the reporters in the room will know that there’s never a perfect source. There’s never a—archbishops don’t leak you documents, generally, (laughter) so you’re usually—you’re usually dealing with people who have differing characteristics or differing motivations and are often less than spotlessly pure people. And, you know, Assange is an intensely interesting figure because he’s so hard to categorize. He wasn’t the source. We know Chelsea Manning was the source, but he was a kind of source, quasi source, quasi publisher, quasi activist, cryptographer, hacker, so he was all these things and so, you know, it was a complicated thing to understand and to work with.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And do you see Wikileaks as a turning point in journalism?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think it’s an intensely interesting idea. The same thing has happened in Wikileaks that happened with Snowden, which I think America ought to be really proud of but also ought to think a little harder about, which is—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: America should be proud of—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: What I mean by that is that there are extremely high protection for free speech in this country, you know, the First Amendment, in a written constitution, and I know that the journalists in the room deplore certain things that Obama has done about pursuing whistleblowers, and I deplore those, too, but nevertheless there are very great protections for free speech in this country. And what we did with Wikileaks was by insisting that the New York Times came in, because I thought we would be prevented from publishing it in the UK as we were with Edward Snowden.
I wanted to get the New York Times involved in order to have, in order to root this material in the highest standards of free speech, and I do think that’s a really interesting model for the future. If you live in China, Iran, in Turkey at the moment, where journalists are having real problems, in Russia, and we know that we would welcome whistleblowers in these countries and that would be important and using the Guardian as a hinge to publish that material but with very high protection I think is a terribly important model for the future.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You have a line, you said to Bill Keller, the then editor of the New York Times, “We’ve got the flash drive, you’ve got the First Amendment.”
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Yeah, you see I think—yes, I think you do have to—of course I can see in real life you have to prosecute Chelsea Manning, you have to prosecute Edward Snowden, you know, Snowden knows that, but at the same time sending out a signal, if you lock somebody up for sixty years, that’s a pretty powerful signal about what you think about whistleblowers and the public interests involved. And as far as I can see of American public opinion at the moment, it’s slightly pro-Snowden, if I can use that as shorthand for the issues that he’s raising, and I would guess the same would be true with Manning, so you’ve got things where the balance of public interest is fairly evenly weighed, and I think to reward the person who brings this stuff into the public domain by locking them up for sixty years sends an odd signal to people who might be thinking about leaking the Iranian nuclear secrets or bad things that are happening in China. It’s because these issues engage universal human rights that they’re so interesting.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You say the balance is slightly perhaps more in favor now of Snowden.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I don’t say of Snowden himself but of—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: The issue—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The issue I think people can see now and the more we publish the more people can see the issues and that they are real issues, and everybody now says that from the president of the United States down, you know, it’s become a cliché that everyone’s saying, “Well, maybe this debate is necessary and maybe we should have had this debate earlier,” but you can’t have a debate unless somebody gives you the information, and if you try and criminalize the people who give you the information, see the Pentagon Papers, then you’re not going to have these kind of debates, so there are conflicting interests, and I think one of the interesting, you know, questions for society is whether the old way of looking at this very narrowly through a national security prism and having a essentially national security oversight or secret court oversight is sufficient to deal with the very, very big issues that are engaged.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You have lived, though, with the fear of not being able to do your job properly, with great fear, people telling you you’ve had the debate now, now stop having fun, give us the documents, smash them, I mean literally—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Literally.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Bring us back to that, I mean, I read it but bring us back to that moment.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, there was a moment I mean, I mean this is why the Pentagon Papers upstairs were so—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Are so relevant.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Evocative. Because since 1972, and that’s why that court case was so important, I think it is inconceivable that a government would try to use prior restraint against a news organization, that is, to stop something from coming out. In Britain, what happened was that the government came to see me to say, “That’s enough,” exactly that, “you’ve had your debate,” and I just don’t think it’s for the state to say when a debate is over. I can see the anxieties about security and I’m not blind to that, but I think that for the state to say, “You’ve had your debate, now destroy it,” was—is something that I think Americans would find it odd, which is why I’m here, it’s why I’m in New York, why we’re reporting from New York even more than we were before, which is why I found shelter with the New York Times, and we had this, you know, the most bizarre event in my journalistic life when we were in the basement of the Guardian with power drills attacking the, this is the hard drive of a Macbook Pro once it’s been destroyed to British government standards.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Do you carry that around with you?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I do, just as a reminder. In fact, I’ve got boxes of them, I’ve offered to—I was going to give one to the New York Public Library.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I hope you do, but quite literally you—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I think it’s a sort of artifact. It’s about that’s a sort of symbol of the role of the state versus the role of the journalist and one obviously for understandable reasons wants to close down debate, although it says it doesn’t, and I think the role of the journalist is to responsibly open up the debate and that’s what happened in Britain, and I don’t think that’s what would happen in America, so I carry it around with me.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And yet what is happening so often is that journalists are turning against journalists, so you have for instance Jeffrey Toobin saying Snowden is a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison. David Gregory to Glenn Greenwald saying, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden even in his current movements why shouldn’t you Mr. Greenwald be charged with a crime?”
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I find it absolutely extraordinary that—I mean I would really love to hear from these journalists, who if they had been given this material would have refused to read it or would have handed it back. I would just—I would love to meet a journalist who would do that, just ask them why they’re a journalist, you know, why not choose another profession? It defies belief that anyone, any journalists would not have read this material and then would have not seen the public importance, we might differ at the margins about what we publish.
But I think what’s engaged here, which is another interesting issue is these people who I think want to narrowly, very narrowly define what a journalist is and that in a way is a theme of this book, because it comes back to the theme of amateur versus professional, so you know, the reality is that in this digital revolution that we’re living through everybody can publish. Everybody in this room is a publisher of some form and and many, many people could do things that look like journalism, and this is an important subject because it’s at the heart of who gets protection under shield laws, so people look at Glenn Greenwald and say, “Oh, he’s not a proper journalist.”
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: He’s a blogger.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: He can’t be a journalist because he’s a blogger, he can’t be a journalist because he has opinions, or he can’t be a journalist because he gets angry on Twitter, which he sometimes does, or he’s approaching this from an ideological point of view, and so they want to close down the permission to be a journalist and so I think some people just don’t want to allow that, obviously most of this reporting has been done in conjunction with people who are recognizably journalists on the staff of the Guardian, but I think some people react to this notion of this anarchy of publishing today and want to get back into a sort of twentieth-century, nineteenth-century model of a limited number of people who had permission to be journalists.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And yet to some extent at the Guardian you want to encourage open journalism, you want to encourage people to join the discourse even if they’re not professional journalists, is that correct?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Completely, because—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: How isn’t then—isn’t there some kind of a tension there?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, I think it’s very, it would be very odd and it’s very odd for a news organization to try to wall itself off from this tide of information some of which is rubbish, maybe most of it’s rubbish, but not all of it is rubbish. Twitter is a formidable news breaking machine which is—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You love Twitter.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Often, I can tell that this is news to you, or not—maybe you don’t spend your life on Twitter, I’m guessing.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I spend too much time on it. I think I do already, yes.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: You’ll know its capabilities and for journalists to sort of draw up their skirts and say, “We’re journalists, you’re Twitter,” seems to me silly and through Twitter you are drawn into a world of people who are experts but aren’t journalists and some of them are obsessives. So the more you can incorporate the best of what’s going on there, you just give a better account of the world, which is what journalism should be doing.
The reason, you know, we hired Glenn Greenwald, which I can’t imagine many mainstream American news organizations doing because they would be suspicious of him and they would not regard themselves as open. But we were open to him and Snowden read him and thought, “There is somebody who is highly knowledgeable about this area, I feel safe with him, because I feel he understands the issues I’m writing about,” and that’s how the Guardian got the story. People keep saying, now, “why didn’t the New York Times get the story,” why didn’t—the Washington Post to be fair did get some of the story and has done it very well but the main relationship has been with Greenwald and I think that’s not an accident.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s been a fair amount of debate around Greenwald in terms of what makes a journalist and what doesn’t, and there’s this comment by Margaret Sullivan in the New York Times where she says, “So who’s a journalist? For now I’ll offer the admittedly partial definition. A real journalist is one who understands at a cellular level and doesn’t shy away from the adversarial relationship between government and press, the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.”
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That’s very good. I don’t think it always has to be—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Adversarial.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It’s just different. Our job—you know, I perfectly understand the concerns of those whose job is to keep things secret, though they didn’t do a very good job with this material. (laughter) I find it ironic when I get lectured by spooks about our security, because the only people who have actually leaked this material so far has been the NSA but never mind. But I understand that that’s their job and politicians have their job and journalists are a fourth estate, they’re just in a different place and you must never forget that.
I think the boundaries of the fourth estate are becoming very blurred at the edges, and I just think, you know, the coverage of Syria or the Arab Spring, which mainstream media organization could really do justice to the Arab Spring? Or felt that just writing commentaries from New York or London or just trying to put a few boots on the ground was really—there are hundreds of thousands and millions of people who are capable of informing journalism and one of the things our generation of journalists have to do is to work out how to filter that and incorporate it and test it and verify it and that’s why in my little seven-word biography I described myself as a professional journalist, and I say that’s essential.
I’m not undervaluing the skills of professional journalists. I don’t think the Snowden story would have been possible without the fourth estate, the institutional strength of a newspaper standing behind a story, you know, there are too many people trying to crush it and the New York Times is a great institution, it’s been a privilege working with them. ProPublica, a little start-up organization, has the same values. But there are not many of us around now, you know, because there’s been a financial catastrophe for journalism, and, you know, the few of us that are still around and standing I think are going to be strong in future because what we do is so necessary.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I don’t know if this is a right segue but it is something that I think will be on many people’s minds people here is the sustainability of journalism and the sustainability of the Guardian with an organization that is challenged financially, how best to address this whilst at the same time you have I don’t know how many tens of millions of readers online. Journalists are not only a breed that is in danger because it is disappearing for all the reasons you mentioned but also financially a burden and the guardian itself is losing so much every year.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, it is and it isn’t. Those of you who don’t know about the Guardian, it’s been around since 1821 and in 1936 this extraordinary thing happened which was the family the equivalent of the Sulzbergers, the Scotts, gave away their interest in the paper for a pound. It was an unbelievably selfless act and they set up this thing called the Scott Trust, so essentially since 1821 the Guardian has been in this independent family or trust, but the trust did this very clever thing, which was to build up a business portfolio next to it. So the Guardian makes a lot of money out of secondhand cars, little-known fact, a wonderful magazine called Auto Trader, it’s now an online magazine, and Auto Trader makes a lot of money, which supports the Guardian. So the Guardian in common with every other paper on the planet since 2008 that does the kind of journalism that we do has had a rough time, you know, you can almost date it to the troubles over Lehman Brothers, but we’re coming out of it, we’re way ahead of our financial model and it’s completely sustainable by the money that we’ve got in—which the Scott Trust so cleverly built up. But lots of papers are going to—we know, it’s incredibly testing times.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Partly because of the openness.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Partly because of Twitter, partly because of Facebook, partly because of Google, partly because of Craigslist, so the old economic basis for it has been undermined faster than we could build a new economic basis for it, but—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So what do you do?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The people who kept true with journalism and didn’t react to the crisis by sacking all their journalists, which lots of papers did. We’ve kept open all our foreign bureaus, and that’s—you know, a third of our readers are now in America. Why are all these Americans reading the Guardian? Because I think everybody realizes at some level that their lives are unintelligible in purely national terms. You can’t understand these stories about the environment or security or security or economics without putting it into an international context. And there are not many news organizations in America that still do that, so the ones that still give an international perspective I think will be just fine.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So you feel that the Guardian for these readers has a distinct identity.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It must do. We spent about thirty-four dollars on marketing the Guardian in America, (laughter) and we now have an audience that’s almost neck and neck with the New York Times in the world, so our comScore figures are about 42 million and a third of those are in America, so they must find something. They found us, we haven’t gone out looking for them, so I assume there’s something that we’re doing that is distinctive.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What do you think of the purchase of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Intensely interesting. Nobody’s got the faintest clue what he’s going to do with it and that includes me, but I think it’s, you know, it’s heartening that somebody wants to use their personal money to sustain a paper as important as the Washington Post and I think it’s really interesting that somebody whose only existence has really been digital. Really interesting to see what he will do with it, because I’m sure we will all learn things that are incredibly valuable. I wish he’d pay more tax, though—not him personally, Amazon.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You wrote in the Guardian, “I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance when or if it comes, and increasingly it looks like when.” And my question is quite simple: What is the public missing?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I think the penny’s dropping, I mean I said the other day that this was, this was more than Orwell could ever have conceived. I mean, there were about eight hundred comments under this article debating whether that was true or not. The first comment said, “But in 1984 they could see into your bedroom.” And then someone said, “But they can see into your bedroom, they’ve got your mobile phone in your bedroom.” And then there was a discussion about whether you could issue in with a mobile phone when it was turned off or not. But you see I mean I think it’s not an overstatement to say that what is happening today is way beyond anything what Orwell imagined.
The people on the security side of the argument would say, you know, “Calm down, we’re not reading your e-mails. This is a haystack, we’re looking for needles,” and one of the problems is we can’t tell if that’s true or not, because it’s all secret, but the—I think the problem is so broad in the extent that if you try and escape any kind of digital life, it’s virtually impossible now so that the potential is there, the bugging device that we all carry around in our lives, your mobile phone, the locational capabilities of that and it may be that after this debate people decide it’s fine, you know, they’re prepared to sacrifice that degree of privacy in order for security.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: But you don’t believe that sacrifice is ever really justified.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I just think there’s never been any consent. Nobody in this audience has never been asked whether it’s all right for the state to collect your e-mails and to build up a picture of your life through metadata.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And to build up a picture just in case.
And it’s not all right to do it, I mean, I think the one thing that’s missing from the American debate is, you know, the president keeps standing up and saying, “We don’t spy on Americans,” but if you’re German, that’s not of much comfort, (laughter) and if it was the Chinese spying on you, or spying on us, we wouldn’t feel that was very comfortable. And Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook the other day said, “I’m trying to build an international business. It’s not much comfort to say we don’t spy on the Americans.”
And this latest story about encryption, which is a real turnoff word, because nobody is interested in encryption but if you explain it and say actually what the American department appears to have done is to weaken the security of the entire Internet by putting backdoors into bits of software and maybe even hardware, and the cryptologists seem agreed that you can’t put a backdoor in that’s just going to let the NSA in. You know, that’s going to let the Chinese in and criminals in. So you’ve weakened the entire system for the sake of finding these needles in a haystack.
Now, as I say, it may be that everyone’s okay with that, but I think it’s the right of people to understand what is happening and that’s what, having been caught at it, they’re all now saying, we must have this debate, well, that’s right, we should have the debate, but you can’t have—there was no information on which to base that debate until the Guardian sprung into action using the material that Snowden had given us.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There are moments in the book that are very lyrical and there’s one moment in particular that I’d like you to read. It’s a very brief passage on a dinner party you hosted for—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Lyrical dinner party.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You hosted for Nick Davies. You have this passage here, which I’ve marked for you. You might want to contextualize it but just to read that to give a sense of your prose.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Oh, okay. So this was June 2, I’m guessing 2010, the same thing happened with phone hacking. So the phone hacking for me was a story about a very powerful institution, not the state, Rupert Murdoch who had, who had enormous influence over British public life, 40 percent of the British press, and when we started writing about these stories, nobody would follow them up. They were published into silence, a bit like is happening with Snowden at the moment. There’s a huge debate in the U.S. and an awful lot of silence in the UK. So it becomes quite lonely. The police didn’t want to know, the regulators didn’t want to know, Parliament didn’t want to know, the other newspapers.
So all the things that you believe in civic society will kick in and act as a check and balance didn’t happen, so what you’re left with is a reporter and he’s working with other, with people who are bravely standing up to Murdoch, because, you know, the blunt truth is everyone was frightened of Murdoch, and they were right to be frightened of him because it turned out he was employing criminals to go through their private secrets like the NSA and nobody would do anything about it except Nick. So at one point I held a little dinner for Nick, because I wanted to keep his spirits up and for some of the victims so Hugh Grant, the actor, was there, and some of the lawyers, and the bit that you’ve asked me to read out is this:
“But the real hero of the evening is Nick, one of the most naturally talented reporters I’ve ever worked with. He’s had a few long, dark nights of self-doubt during the course of this story which he’s been working away at for three years or more now. It’s not remotely over. In fact, I have a suspicion it’s barely begun, but this is a night on which to pause and celebrate what the best of reporters can do. I keep thinking of a book by a Guardian colleague, Alison Benjamin, called A World Without Bees, which argues that were anything nasty to happen to bees, and they’ve been having a rough time of it recently, the planet would be done for. I feel a bit the same about reporters.”
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It’s a great passage. In praise of—I mean, this is in a sense in praise of a certain form of journalist.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Yes. It’s, I mean, I think you could strip away everything from a newspaper but leave the reporters, because they’re so essential to stand in this fourth estate and to stand apart and to find things out and to challenge and to interrogate, and this Snowden story would be meaningless without reporters, it really would. You read the stories that emerge at the end of it, but the source documents are very, very, very dense, like Wikileaks, you know, it required hundreds of hours, it has required hundreds of hours with Snowden, to work out what’s going on, to redact appropriately, to explain, to test, and, you know, without those reporters, this important story would not have been possible, the debate would not have been possible that everyone says we have to have. Reporters are in the front line. That’s what a lot of newspapers have begun by sacking all their reporters, not sacking, you know, stripping back on the newsrooms, and it’s such a short-sighted thing to do, because then there’s no reason to buy the newspaper.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: A world without bees.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: A world without bees, yeah.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: So in closing we’re going to briefly go back to the challenge, and to the challenge you put forward to yourself. After that, and we’re going to have a mic right in the front here and turn on the lights a bit higher, and we’ll have the audience ask you questions. I insist on questions rather than comments, questions usually can be asked in about fifty seconds. So we’d like to get as many as we possibly can into this evening. If you hadn’t put forward this challenge to yourself of learning this Ballade No. 1 in twelve months which ended up being eighteen months, nevertheless, do you think you would have written this book?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: If I hadn’t—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: If you hadn’t, I mean, because a book in a way is an interesting combination, it feels to me nearly like Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, where you have the foreground and the background. You have the sentimental education and all the events happening in 1870 in France. And so I’m curious if this, if you hadn’t come upon this whether we call it a midlife crisis or a midlife discovery or rediscovery, would this book with all its intertwining interests of current events and challenges have come into our hands and would we be—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I wasn’t bursting to write a journalistic memoir. I don’t know if I ever will, I think probably not—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You mean again.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Again, yeah, well—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Play it again. No, you won’t.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I didn’t know what this was going to be, as I said, to begin with it was sort of notes to myself just because this process of how you unpack a piece and learn it was interesting to me, but, you know, I’m that kind of journalist, as I say, I would be interested in how a carpenter made this table. So it began like that, but it so happened that I was living through a rather extraordinary period and so this interweaving of themes began, and I hope it works. I mean, I think there are parallels between, which we talked a bit about tonight, between the value of amateurism, which is literally doing things for the love of it, and this amateurism that has entered into information and how you can incorporate professional journalism with the amateur in ways that seem to me end up giving a more complete account of the world. The other thing you showed me tonight was a Gutenberg Bible upstairs.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: From the Pentagon Papers to the Gutenberg Bible.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: You know, there’s a—lots of people, this is not a new thought. Lots of people are comparing the age of Gutenberg with the age that we’re living through and I think that they are now comparable revolutions. But I forget what, Gutenberg is sort of 14—
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Fifty-seven.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: 1457.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I think I’m wrong, it might be 1521.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I think it’s 1457. I think it is.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I should know.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: We’re about 1460, you know, we really are at the—people are behaving as though, you know, it’s all over. One of the things about the Snowden story is people are literally saying maybe the Internet is all over, you know, it had a brief lifespan of about twenty years, but now it’s fatally flawed.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Because?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, because this utopian ideal of having a common platform on which the whole world could speak to each other has been fatally undermined. Well, not fatally, it has been undermined. And so there are people who are saying there’s going to be a balkanized Internet in which, you know, Iran will have one Internet and China will have another one or that there will be a peer-to-peer system because you can’t trust all these snooping eyes. And that I think would be a tragedy. There’s this utopian ideal to be stillborn because people decided to behave in this way would be—So, you know, there are all these parallels with Gutenberg and what we’re learning about how professional journalists work in this new incredible world of information, you know, we’re just right on the beginning of it, and it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a journalist.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You brought up spontaneously the word, which is so important to your book, of amateur and it made me think of a wonderful line from The Writing Life of Annie Dillard where she says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And in some way you made a choice at the age of fifty-six to devote a certain amount of time on a daily basis to improving and to giving meaning in some way to your life. The way that Mark Twain says that there are two important moments in our life: When we are born and when we find out what it means. I would like us now in closing listen to Horowitz playing the coda of the Ballade, and I think in some ways that coda and the way he plays it illustrates better than anything your subtitle: Play It Again and the subtitle being An Amateur against the Impossible. Let’s take a listen.
[Audio of Horowitz playing]
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I saw a big smile.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That’s why. That’s why it’s impossible. (laughters) And he made lots of mistakes.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: No, he made a lot of mistakes and Murray Perahia says—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Murray Perahia said to me, I get these, people—Earl Wild said Horowitz kept playing out, it was his encore in every concert he gave, and Earl Wild said he did that because he never managed to play it. Murray Perahia says, you know you get so fed up he says, oh, people say, “Oh, he made those mistakes,” he says, “I don’t hear the mistakes.”
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I listen in a different way.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: You’re so good why don’t you post your version of YouTube? And that’s part of this. When I played it I by no means played it perfectly, I made lots of mistakes, but being an amateur it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, you’re literally, you’re playing for the love of it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And you kept asking the various people you spoke to, the various musicians and others, whether they agreed with Alex Ross’s point about the cult of precision and how maybe dangerous it is in some form or fashion to look analytically for every little mistake one make, because here we have something quite different.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It doesn’t matter.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It doesn’t matter.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: If Alex managed to make it tonight. Yes, he’s there. Hi Alex. But Alex has written so interestingly about it. I feel embarrassed about summarizing Alex in front of him.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: It’s okay.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: thank you. About how this gulf between professional and amateur was very, very small before the moment of recorded people, and you could still meet people. I interviewed Claus Moser, a great person who rose to great distinction in British public life, having fled Berlin in the 1930s, so there are still people around, he is ninety-something now. He did this, he played amateur house music in Berlin with professional musicians and the gap was not large and then recorded sound came and people expected to hear perfection and so the gap became huge. Yet on YouTube there are thousands of accounts of the G Minor Ballade, some played by signally young Chinese and Korean girls who are just astonishing and each of them has a bigger audience than the Wigmore Hall or the South Bank Center in London and so there are millions and millions of people who have looked at these amateur performances of the Ballade. And that’s you know again that’s something about the distribution system of modern digital publishing that has got the G Minor Ballade into infinitely more ears than would ever have heard it at any point in history before.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: You say in closing that the point of the challenge that you put forward to yourself, you said the real point is not that I can play it to concert standards, it’s being part of a broader experiment in how to use your time, back to the Carl Jung, back to the Leonard Bernstein, back to Annie Dillard, how to relish and revel being an amateur. If one person leaves the room tonight intent on relearning and you say an instrument, I would say really anything, that wouldn’t be a bad result. For that’s your hopeful message in some way.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Some of the loveliest reaction to this book has been on Twitter. Sorry.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Sorry—
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: No because people just tweet and they say, “Just finished reading it and I’m now determined to go back and learn the piano,” and you know I met—It’s so true of so many people, because of course you give up the piano when you’re sixteen. There are many better things to do when you’re sixteen and playing scales is really boring, and so people give up, and then when they’re forty-five they regret it and some people then take it up, but a lot of people don’t because they say, “I haven’t got the time.” So if there was one reason for writing that book it was really just to say, well, there is time, really, if you—you can make the time and it’s just a question of the value and the importance and the value that you give to it.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Thank you.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: We’ll put up the lights and there’s time for questions now and they can be about obviously anything.
Q: Thank you. I think what interests me about tonight is that you’re talking about learning, learning as a journalist and learning as a pianist, you have the mind and you have the body, and there’s always a link between the two of them about learning, and I just wanted to know if you could give a definition of what it means to learn?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, that’s such a profound question I’m not sure I’m equal to it, but with this piece the reason I went to see neuroscientists to talk about it was precisely that question, to understand what happens between—what goes in through the eyes and what emerges through the fingers, and which is essentially the learning process. And if you buy the book there are very interesting discussions by neuroscientists about exactly what is involved there. And all I can say is that this process of memorizing and sort of conquering this piece, although, as I said, I could by no means play it perfectly, was a sense I’ve never felt before of completely internalizing something and feeling a kind of unity where you almost the conscious disappears, so the subconscious takes over, you sit down, and it emerges and you’re not sure how and I think that must be what professional pianists feel when they play and I had never felt that before and that must be something about the learning.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I think there’s something also different between learning and relearning.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Yeah, I mean, you know, it’s another really interesting question about piano—these pianists like András Schiff or Angela Hewitt, these people who just seem to carry the entire classical music around in their brains and can play anything and lots of pianists seem to be like that, but at some level they must read before playing a piece, they must reengage with it, and relearn it even though it’s all there, it’s all there, it’s extraordinary.
Q: Yes, good evening. Welcome to New York. I first of all would like to thank you for standing up to your—for your bravery in standing up to the powers that be, because as you alluded to earlier and in the past a man of your caliber is really a rare thing today considering how oppressive the governments are around the world, so I want to thank you, first of all.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Thank you.
Q: Secondly, Malcolm said in 1963 that either one of the newspaper reporters come to cover a story, or none of them come or all of them come or none of them come, something to that effect, so that really started me thinking about that, so there’s no surprise. My question is since there’s obviously more material to be revealed, I was wondering somehow if people like yourself, you in particular, can take some of this material and still abide by Snowden’s wishes as not to reveal certain individuals in sensitive positions, if you can sit down with the United States government in particular and the English government and make some kind of a bargain and deal whereas you would not reveal XYZ until Chelsea Manning get less time, and use that as a bargaining chip. Thank you.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Thank you for your kind remarks and for your welcome to New York. You know, listen, you know what I’ve said about Chelsea Manning and I think it was important that the newspapers who used her material stand by her and report on that trial and continue to give publicity to the conditions in which she’s being held. It feels to me confusing to these two stories and confusing to the act of journalism to use such things as a bargaining chip, though I respect what you say. I think there is a broader question about what does happen to this archive afterwards, which may have interest to a library and this question of whether we once again do that to it or whether it can in some way be held and maybe that involves, maybe that does involve a bargain with the government, but it seems to me an archive of the sort that has never been seen before and probably will never be seen again and I think that’s something collectively we ought to think about what happens to it.
Q: They’re steaming along, they’re going along like a steamroller. And the powers are not going to concede anything without a demand, so I’m saying make some demands in order to give Chelsea Manning, because it seems to me you’re in a key position to do that. Thank you.
Q: Thank you so much. It’s been a brilliant evening. We’ve all enjoyed it incredibly. You did a superb job with telephone hacking in Great Britain, and I was wondering about the plans to do a similar expose here in the United States, because many activists and dissidents feel it’s more than mere surveillance, mere monitoring, that there may be some intentional deliberate disruption in communications from time to time and we were hoping that perhaps you would look at American telephone hacking as well.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Phone hacking by who do you mean?
Q: Because it’s so very easy to do even with cell phone spyware, if you’re in a highly competitive or contentious situation if you Google cell phone spyware people can do it to each other, then if you have an intelligence organization of some kind, private contractors who get involved, perhaps whistleblower silencing or retaliation, it can get pretty intense, and really nobody wants to deal with it and the American media has not covered it perhaps because law enforcement is using cell phone spyware and telephone spyware for surveillance.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: I think the implication behind that that everyone ought to regard all forms of digital communication with extreme care because it seems to me there is almost nothing they can’t get inside. I’m not saying that—I’m not so paranoid as to be unable to distinguish between the needle and the haystack, but that seems to be true, and so the opportunities for abuse, not simply by the state but by other actors, is there and I hadn’t appreciated that at the beginning of this journey, I appreciate it better now, and to give credit to Julian Assange, he’s written about this interestingly. But beyond that we need whistleblowers, you know, we can do so much, but if I can make a general appeal to whistleblowers tonight, if anybody’s watching this and you have any evidence of what you’re talking about, you know where to find me.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, welcome to New York. As I was signing up to come to this, I realized it’s fifty years ago that I asked my father if I should subscribe to the Manchester Guardian Weekly, it was called that back then, and I’ve been a subscriber ever since as it became the Guardian Weekly. The issue of whistleblower suppression in this country has blown up under Obama. He’s very enthusiastic about that. I can make a lot of comment, but you’re here to answer questions and I’m going to ask. What do you think makes his administration so distinctively strong on that. I mean, he’s very militaristic, very obsessed with secrecy, but why is he so het on whistleblower suppression. The James Risen story, the business about the fake nuclear trigger to Iran. I’m a physicist, I laughed at that story for two years after I read about it. And there they are prosecuting it ten years after that book was published. Why is the guy so keen on whistleblower suppression?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I mean, I think sometimes it’s a feature of people on the sort of slightly liberal end of the spectrum who desperately don’t want to be caught out on national security, and I’ve seen that in Britain a bit—that and if you’re a bit inexperienced in government and you’re surrounded by people who are in this business and you’re highly dependent on them and nobody’s coming in to put the civil liberties argument or the privacy arguments, then you become highly dependent on this. Maybe Obama, coming in, thought, “I’m not going to go down in history as the president who allowed X Y or Z terror attack,” and so he wants to be—he wants to show his national security credentials. But that’s just completely amateur psychologizing on my behalf and has no value at all.
Q: My sense is that statistically it’s impossible to pick those needles out of the haystack anyway, I mean, that’s a huge amount of data, and I think the guy’s swamped with PowerPoint bullshit from the NSA and the military. Remember it is the military running that.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: You may very well be right.
Q: Hello, Alan. Thank you for your talk. A bit of a media question actually. In light of the intimidation that you saw from the UK government in recent months, is there anything to stop in the future UK newspapers or publications simply moving their operations to the U.S., where they are afforded a bit more safety and security?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: None at all, I don’t think. It’s one of the—you know, we’ve been talking a lot about the Internet tonight, and the Internet and these digital systems is what allows for this global supervision of everybody. It’s a golden age of surveillance, but that’s the very same thing that can be used to disseminate the information, that was what Wikileaks was about, it’s what Snowden is about and it seems to me virtually to stop this story in a way I’m sure that certain people within the intelligence and military and government would like to have, because it’s in Germany, it’s in Rio, it’s in New York, and America there are these laws, there is this protection against prior restraint, so I think the answer is that the governments with more repressive media laws, I hope, are going to be outwitted by people doing what we did, which is to come to somewhere which has got greater protections, it just does, and I understand all the points about whistleblowers, but it’s I think better to be a reporter here than in most countries in the world.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: We’ll take a couple more questions.
Q: I want to thank you for being there and making it possible for the information about Snowden, that Snowden provided, available. Daniel Ellsberg as you know, actually came out and said that that that information that was made available by Snowden was as important if not more so important than what was done with the Pentagon Papers and I’d actually like to ask a question that I think perhaps you might be able to answer. In looking at and hearing how you talked about reporters and how important you thought they were, I’m curious what kinds of things do you do as the editor to really encourage your reporters to live up to those ideals in terms of creating a hospitable climate, in terms of talking about those kinds of things, because we would love to see those kinds of things sustained and continue.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: In a way it’s easy on the Guardian because we have no proprietor, there’s no one telling us what to write. We have a trust that exists only to protect that kind of reporter. So it’s not hard. It’s not hard being editor of the Guardian in that respect, but I hope there is something the Guardian can show in being a beacon to others about the importance of staying true to reporting. And beyond that, what happens on the Guardian, because we have no proprietor, because our only relationship is with our readers it’s very much not a sort of pyramid structure, so we begin each day with an open conference where anyone can come along and challenge what the decisions that I and my colleagues have made, and those are good debates and I hope—I think this has always been true.
The Guardian started with an act of reporting, the Peterloo Massacre, 1819, troops riding into a crowd of peaceful protestors who were demanding suffrage in St. Peter’s Square in Manchester. And somebody wrote that this was the birth of the reporter in English public life, because it was essential that what happened was reported accurately as opposed to what the magistrates would write in the official publications. So that idea of a reporter on the Guardian that you’re not going out to prove a theory that has been arrived at inside head office, but in a way that will be inverted, that they should go out and come back and tell us what’s happening in the world is a very important principle I think on which you know every newspaper should be based but not every newspaper is based.
Q: Good evening and thank you. My question is actually about the Ballade.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: That’s much harder.
Q: So as someone who really played the piano seriously between the ages of five and sort of twenty-three and spent one of the most sort of rapturous summers learning the first Ballade and now works in the area of international human rights, and I’d like to thank you so much for what the Guardian does in that area.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: You are my target audience.
Q: No, seriously, for those of you who don’t read the Guardian, the Guardian is one of the best coverers of international human rights and development, so thank you. We don’t have that in the United States. But my question is why the G Minor Ballade? You could have chosen the Fourth Ballade, or the Polonaise in A-flat or the Barcarolle or Schumann’s Carnival or the Liszt sonata, I mean there are absolutely gorgeous and amazing pieces of piano music each one better than the other, so I’m actually quite interested to know why you religiously decided to spend these twenty minutes a day for eighteen months on this particular amazing piece rather than another?
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Will you be my witness as to hard it is?
Q: Absolutely. No question.
ALAN RUSBRIDGER: It was just the accident. The book begins with this guy Gary, who—who’d I think had a difficult life. He’d been a taxi driver, he’d been a publican, he had I think been really depressive at the point that the ballade came into his life, and it came into his life because he saw the Polanski film. And the Polanski film was about somebody saving their life by playing this piece. It was the piece that stopped the Nazi guard killing Szpilman. And Gary—his life was saved by the piece. He’s played this piece six times a day ever since in his life and he absolutely felt this piece had saved his life, so it would never—I’ve listened to the Ballades and the Fourth Ballade, I agree is the absolutely towering piece, possibly greater than the First Ballade and possibly even more difficult, I don’t know, I’ve never tried playing it.
But it would never have occurred to me to try this piece, let alone the Liszt sonata, if Gary hadn’t set there and played it. I thought, “Okay, Gary’s played it, he’s no better than I am, therefore it must be playable.” I was just intrigued, you know, how was that done? And I started blowing it apart. That’s what you have to do with a piece. You isolate what are the hard parts, what are the impossible parts, what are the truly impossible parts, and I just started keeping a diary of how that was done, so it was a complete accident, I was really lucky that the first ballade is a great piece of music and I guess you could easily get bored with a piece of music if you’ve lived with it for eighteen months, so it was an accident, and rather hubristically, I end the book saying, you know, now I’ve done that, I will do all the late Beethoven sonatas, and that’s such rubbish, I’m never going to play the Beethoven sonatas or the other three ballades but I had a sort of moment of intoxication of ending the book, so I’ve gone back to playing very small, easy pieces.
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: On this note of intoxication, thank you very much. Thank you.