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NSA Scandal

German media neglects UK mass surveillance

Wolfgang Blau, the Guardian’s director of digital strategy, tells DW that anti-American bias in German newsrooms may have prompted journalists to focus on the US scandal while ignoring the UK's role.

DW: Edward Snowden's revelations on surveillance by the US and Britain have played out very differently in Germany and in Britain. While German media covered the issue prominently and continuously, British outlets with the exception of the Guardian and the BBC seemed to report about the story with much less gusto. Having worked in both German and British media, how do you explain this difference?

Wolfgang Blau: Germany has a tradition of fierce debates about privacy that reaches back long before the advent of the internet. Germany holds deeply rooted collective - as well as individual - memories from two totalitarian systems in recent history: fascism and then communism. I remember more than one conversation in my prior newsroom in Germany where we were discussing hypothetically how the Stasi, the former Eastern German Secret Service, would have used Facebook had it already been available for them. Did we all continue to use Facebook anyway? Of course we did. Germans are also the world's second-most frequent users of Google Streetview, despite the fact that we had the most passionate public campaigns against Streetview when it was introduced.

In addition to these well-known cultural mindsets, the NSA affair came at a time when the German federal election campaigns seemed utterly uneventful. The scandal has then been further fuelled by the German government's remarkably poor handling of it. While vigorously defending the NSA's mass surveillance, Germany's Minister of the Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, suddenly claimed the existence of what he called a "citizen's superseding right for security," a legal construct that doesn't exist.

Digital-Direktor Guardian.
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Wolfgang Blau

The German Chancellery's Chief of Staff, Ronald Pofalla tried - in a somewhat quixotic moment - to publicly declare the end of the NSA scandal, which has only led to a Tumblr-blog satirically showing Mr. Pofalla ending all kinds of other things as well, from Schubert's Symphony No. 8 to Iran's nuclear program. Chancellor (Angela) Merkel herself tried her proven method of not taking a stance at all, which led her to publicly belittling the Internet as something that is a "Neuland" anyway, a "terra incognita" - more than 20 years after the invention of the World Wide Web. For many of Germany's younger and more digitally minded journalists, this only confirmed their long-standing perception of Merkel's government as not being interested in the Internet and its protection.

What is noteworthy, though, about the coverage by German media is their focus on the NSA while hardly mentioning the mass surveillance by the British government's GCHQ. As Europeans, we have not even begun yet to discuss what this largest spy attack since World War II by the UK against its fellow European countries will mean for Europe's future.

Optimistically speaking, Germany's press is focusing on the NSA's role more than on GCHQ's because these revelations have been such a painful reminder that more than 20 years after the fall of the wall, Germany's sovereignty is still not fully established. A more pessimistic and probably more realistic interpretation would be that this scandal resonates with a widespread anti-American sentiment in Germany's newsrooms.

I call this view pessimistic, because I consider myself half-American, my wife and children are US citizens. In the past, America's influence and cultural dominance in Germany was being discussed primarily in the context of the film and music industries. The Internet has amplified this discussion. As the Internet is becoming something like an operating system of our societies, we begin to realize that this very promising civic and cultural space is not only privately owned and run, but mostly by American corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Apple.

The fact that the NSA seemingly takes advantage of the American corporate dominance of the net painfully highlights how far Europe's digital industries have fallen behind and how the limitations of Europe's legally still fragmented and multi-lingual marketplace work in favour of the American firms.

The UK features prominently in Snowden's disclosures and the fallout. Despite Britain's key role in the affair, evidenced by the surveillance efforts of the GCHQ and the subsequent actions against the Guardian and David Miranda, the public response's seems relatively muted - especially compared to that in Germany. Why is that?

I am still fairly new to the UK and can only speculate about the reasons for this comparatively dim response, not by all, but by most of the UK's media, also when comparing them to many news organisations in the United States. I assume there is still more of a partisan divide going through the British media landscape than in Germany. You still hear the terms "Tory Press" and "Labour Press" in UK newsrooms.

In Germany, the political delineation between, for instance, Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung is increasingly blurry and mostly reduced to editorial nuances and corporate marketing. To be fair, though, it should be acknowledged that it is lot easier and less ego-bruising for German media to frequently lead with a Guardian story than it is for the Guardian's direct competitors in the UK. It is also slightly more difficult to editorialize on a topic about which more revelations might still be coming.

Should these competitive considerations keep other British newsrooms from starting their own, independent investigations? I don't think so.

I also find it interesting, that some of Germany's most insightful journalistic commentaries and analyses are being written by online journalists who often have a much deeper technical knowledge and philosophical background for understanding the net and the NSA affair than most of the traditionally trained political editors in their respective newspapers do.

Germany is unique in that leading publications such as Spiegel, Zeit or Süddeutsche Zeitung have online newsrooms with a large degree of editorial autonomy. All three of them frequently take political positions regarding the Internet that differ vastly from the more conservative views of their respective print publications. This is not without complications, but it seems to have allowed for the development of valuable editorial expertise that often cannot be found in integrated newsrooms where the print culture usually dominates.

Here in the UK, the Guardian seems to be the newsroom with not only the most digitally savvy newspaper journalists, but also with some of the world's leading web developers and software architects, who frequently take part in our editorial conferences. As a traditional newspaper editor without a solid understanding of the net's architecture and without a team of engineers you can frequently ask for advice, there is only so much general editorialising you can do without meeting your intellectual limits.

I would hope that the NSA files have made it blatantly obvious to many traditionally trained political journalists, that it is their duty to society to deepen their technical and philosophical understanding of the net. And while I am impressed by many of Germany's efforts to shed light on the NSA scandal, there is not a single newsroom in the world that is not facing the challenge that it is comparatively easier to report about the messengers of this scandal and their challenges than about the actual content of Edward Snowden's revelations.

As societies, we are still in the early days of comprehending how vast 'Big Data' really is and why this kind of mass surveillance and algorithmic profiling not only targets criminals, but can also inflict considerable damage to citizens of integrity who rightfully thought they had nothing to hide.

Germany and Germans with their focus on data protection are often described as international outliers when it comes to digital privacy and Internet security issues. Is that an accurate characterization?

Senior executives of both Google and Facebook have confirmed to me in the past that they share this view of Germany. Google's global privacy dashboard has been developed in Germany. Philip Schindler, now Google's Vice President of Global Sales and Operations, once said to me that there is a tendency within Google to assume that if the Germans accept certain privacy settings or policies, the rest of the world will follow suit. This shouldn't cover up, though, that digital privacy and with it also the freedom of speech is currently at risk in Germany as much as in the US or the UK. I will be curious which stance Chancellor Merkel will take once she has won her election and won't have to consider young voters as much anymore.

What was your biggest professional surprise since your move from Berlin to London?

I guess my biggest professional surprise was that for many of my colleagues in various newsrooms in the UK, the question whether the UK should remain in the European Union and whether the UK is a part of Europe often are two completely separate questions. I have met more than one brilliant British journalist who explained to me that the UK wasn't really a part of Europe, but should stay in the EU nevertheless. It will take me a while to better understand this discernment between identity and affiliation.

The interview was conducted via e-mail.

Wolfgang Blau is the Director of Digital Strategy of The Guardian in London and a member of the executive committee of Guardian News and Media. Prior to his work for the Guardian, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Zeit Online in Germany.

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