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Former Guardian columnist Michael Wolff says Edward Snowden story ‘broke’ The Guardian US

By Dominic Ponsford

Former Guardian columnist Michael Wolff has accused the paper of losing its objectivity on the Edward Snowden story and losing interest in its United States operation.

Wolff was recruited as a weekly columnist for Guardian US in 2012. At the time Guardian US editor Janine Gibson praised his “unparalleled knowledge of big media”.

Wolff’s Guardian column was axed in April, and in the latest issue of GQ he wrote an in-depth report on his former employer.

Whilst describing Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger as “one of the most talented newspaper editors of his generation” he also said he was among the most “opaque and cryptic”.

He said:

Six different people of high rank at the paper have said to me, on different occasions, the following words: "I would do anything for Alan." These are not words you usually hear in a modern company; they are not even credible. But they suggest the Guardian's sense of purpose and the potency of its Kool-Aid.

His is an absolute, pre-modern sort of power, faith-based and exclusionary. You believe or you don't. You are in or you are out.

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The Guardian’s coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks last year hugely raised its profile in the US culminating in the joint award of the Pulitzer prize in April (which was shared with the Washington Post).

According to ABC, 95 million unique browsers (different devices) visited The Guardian website in April and two thirds of these came from outside the UK.

But Wolff suggests that The Guardian has ‘gone native’ on the Snowden story. He also says that the story has resulted in resources being sucked out of the US because it was so intensive to cover.

He said: “News outlets want to break big stories but at the same time not be overwhelmed by them – a certain detachment is well advised. It is an artful line. But the Guardian  essentially went into the Edward Snowden business – and continues in it.”

He noted that The Guardian now campaigns for Snowden to be pardoned by the US Government and said that in the wake of the Snowden revelations:

The theoretically freewheeling Guardian  locked itself down. Staff and contributor Twitter feeds were closely monitored for indications of Snowden or Greenwald deviations, with instant reprimands when any party-line divergence was spotted. The Guardian  had become the story and its journalists had to observe a loyalty oath in covering it.”

Wolff said that covering the Snowden story was “overwhelming” for The Guardian and meant that:

Most of the heavy lifting, decision-making and oxygen in the room was returned to London, creating the sense in New York of after-thought, or of leaving everybody in Manhattan twiddling their thumbs…”

He said that despite the huge traffic lift prompted by Snowden, “it made no money for The Guardian”.

He said: “Snowden hopelessly demoralised, and, in a sense, broke the Guardian US, or at least the people working on it….

The Snowden story was too imbued with worthiness and principles for staffers to object to it (indeed, that would have been the end of your Guardian  membership), but in a quieter way the organisation rebelled: key players in the New York office left, including many of the top editors and writers, the CEO of Guardian US, as well as Glenn Greenwald himself. The replacement team is vastly younger and cheaper, and, one suspects, even more temporary.”

In March it was announced that Guardian US editor Janine Gibson would be returning to London as editor in chief of to be replaced by Guardian Australia editor Kath Viner.

It was also announced that Guardian America deputy editor Stuart Millar was returning to become head of news.

At the time Guardian editor Rusbridger said in an email to staff: "Janine Gibson has done an extraordinary job opening and editing Guardian US. She has assembled a first-rate team, pioneered award-winning digital journalism, and helped build a hugely significant audience in the US.

"The [Edward] Snowden scoops dominated the news agenda in the US (not to mention the rest of the world) for months, and their impact continues to reverberate."

The Guardian declined to comment on the Wolff piece. 

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