Guardian reports 'unusually' small amount of criticism from readers over Snowden surveillance revelations

The Guardian’s readers’ editor has received 13 emails criticising its coverage of the leaks from Edward Snowden about the National Security Agency.

According to Chris Elliott, only two of these criticised The Guardian for publishing details of US and UK government surveillance programmes, based on Snowden’s NSA leaks.

Elliott said that the low number of critical emails was “unusual for such a high-profile story”.

The readers’ editor analysed emails he has received, comments from readers below the stories published by The Guardian and spoke to many of the key individuals involved.

The Guardian has published more than 300 articles on the NSA files since it broke its first story in June, Elliott said he has received 108 emails relating to the leaks.

He said that 48 were supportive of The Guardian’s coverage, 27 offered further information,  while 13 were requests to know how readers would be affected by the surveillance. A further seven emails offered help to Snowden, including offers of money, visas or places he could stay.

Elliott’s analysis of comments on NSA stories also revealed that few readers felt The Guardian should not have run stories based on Snowden’s leaks.

“Below the line there are thousands of comments but outright criticism of the Guardian for publishing is relatively rare,” he wrote. Elliott added that he spoke to moderators about the range of opinion among commenters.

“One, in a fair reflection of the general view among his colleagues, said the commenters had ‘angrily debated the issues, but very few took any issue with us revealing them’.”

The fallout from the NSA revelations led to the detention of the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald under anti-terror laws and the revelation from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that the paper had destroyed computer hard drives under supervision from UK security officers.

One reader criticised The Guardian for agreeing to the destruction of the material, writing: “Not only [have] the UK proven themselves to be on the same level of being pathetic and despised the world over like their American friends, you as a news organisation have gone a step further. Your actions of destroying your own equipment due to pressure from your own pathetic government show what a true spineless coward you truly are."

Greenwald himself, questioned by Elliott, defended both the publication of details from Snowden’s leaks and the level of detail being revealed, which some readers felt showed an overly cautious approach.

“There are two strains of criticism about what the Guardian is doing,” he told Elliott. “i) That we are endangering national security. ii) We are actually publishing too little, publishing too slowly, which I think is a more interesting critique.

"We have been extremely careful and cautious the whole time, probably careful to a fault. We have been determined not to unilaterally destroy programmes or put people in danger. Snowden was adamant that we engage in this very careful process. If we didn't it could render the debate ineffective. If anything, people have been concerned that we have been too much of a gatekeeper.

"I think you have to remember that you can always publish something that is unpublished but you can't unpublish something once it's published."

In the days after his partner David Miranda was detained for nine hours at Heathrow by the Metropolitan Police as he tried to take files from Berlin filmmaker Laura Poitras to Greenwald in Brazil, the journalist threatened to publish further details of the UK’s security operations. At the time, Greenwald told Reuters he would become “more aggressive” in his reporting.

He told Elliott he “never thought” Miranda would be stopped given that “Guardian journalists much closer to the story had been going through Heathrow all the time”.

But he added: “In a way I think it turned into a helpful episode because it highlights the willingness of these governments to abuse their power and attack press freedoms."

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