Sunday, 20 August 2017

In conversation with Glenn Greenwald

"The journalist has an adversarial relationship to institutions of power," said Glenn Greenwald at the start of this afternoon's talk. Greenwald today shared the stage with compere John Keane, the author of an important book on democracy, ex-Greens senator Scott Ludlam, and journalism academic Benedetta Brevini. (I enjoyed today seeing Keane in action as much as I did seeing Greenwald talk, although the Brazil-based journalist was the main draw card for the afternoon, which was organised by the University of Sydney. Keane has a plummy accent and a shock of white hair and was assiduous in his attempts to keep questions taken from the audience short and to-the-point.)

Greenwald justified his position vis-a-vis the powerful by noting that the second half of the 20th century was peppered with "a series of significant and consequential lies", namely the debacle of Vietnam (which was a war started by an American administration that simply lied to the public about who first attacked whom), the war in Iraq under George W. Bush, and the appearance of James Clapper before a 2013 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing during which he denied that the National Security Agency collected data on "millions or hundreds of millions of Americans". Edward Snowden, the CIA whistleblower who leaked thousands of classified documents to Greenwald, told Greenwald that this statement had angered him and had helped him decide to leak information to the media. Journalists have to have a "willingness to challenge conventional pieties", Greenwald told the audience. "You can't want to be liked. If you're liked you're not doing your job."

Greenwald recalled the example of Scott McIntyre who, in 2015, criticised the Anzacs publicly in a series of Anzac Day tweets, which resulted in him losing his job with broadcaster SBS. What McIntyre did was "the essence of journalism", Greenwald said. It sounds like something that should be normal but it is actually something that is in fact polarising, he went on.

Brevini asked Greenwald how society should go about funding journalism, and whether there should be a levy imposed on internet companies by the government.

On privacy, Greenwald said that the goal of the NSA was the elimination of privacy in the digital age. And there was "no democratic accountability in this decision", he said. But he added that because of the way that Silicon Valley companies had been awakened to expressions of public anger at the loss of their privacy - something that had happened because of the Snowden leaks - they had started "providing a measure of privacy" in order to stop consumers going across to rivals in the digital space.

On the issue of public debate, Greenwald said that "In that clash of ideas I think truth is found," referring to the plurality of views that are available on the internet if you seek them out. It was put to him that many people spend their time online in a virtual echo chamber, because they surround themselves only with views that agree with what they already think. "I think our polity and our discussion will be improved" if we pay attention to what people who have opposing views are saying.

On the rise of extreme political players in the US and Europe, Greenwald was philosophical. He said that inequality is a "disease of spirituality", and that Americans feel that they have no future. He mentioned how he had spent time recently in Wisconsin - a state that Donald Trump won in 2016, and that Hillary Clinton had been so confident of winning that she never visited there - and he talked about rising rates of opioid addiction in America. "What causes addiction is a lack of hope," he said. But he added that, "If Hillary had won, the crisis would just have been delayed." Society needs "systemic change", he went on, rounding out his views on the issue of inequality.

With the threat of terrorism "we've allowed [it] to evoke all of our tribal fears", he opined.

On free speech, he takes a 'absolutist' approach and admitted to feeling wary of allowing the government to decide what people should or should not be allowed to say publicly. He doesn't trust governments to say what cannot be expressed by individuals.

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