“You have to be adversarial,” Glenn Greenwald tells me yesterday in a George St basement food hall. “You don’t get into this business to be liked.”

For what little the detail may be worth, Greenwald, the journalist who earned a Pulitzer for the pivotal part he played in the Snowden revelations — the latest of which fuelled a joint investigation into Pine Gap by the ABC and The Intercept, published and broadcast this past weekend — is himself tremendously likeable. He is, unlike the Democratic National Committee, respectful to basement baristas, he is very fond of a joke and will even agree to pose for selfies with mildly starstruck Crikey reporters.

But, forget all this. Greenwald is chary of being uncritically liked, even by the vast, sometimes devout, readership he’s accumulated through his work at Salon, The Guardian and, now, The Intercept. “Any profession that does not question its pieties, that doesn’t interrogate itself cannot advance.” Any journalist, he says, that does not return, post by post, to the assumptions that underscore their work will not offer true analysis of a world that, it is largely agreed, in a state of transformation. Just more reasons to be liked by those who already find you adorable.

“I was liked by many readers when I was critical of the Bush administration,” he says. But when Greenwald began to apply the same tools of critique to the Obama administration, his efforts resulted in tangled ripostes like this one.

Just days before I meet Greenwald in Australia this past weekend to address a sell-out crowd at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, he posted an Intercept piece that exemplified what we might call his methodical antagonism.  Following the tragedy in Charlottesville, he wrote from a standpoint that even his left-liberal devotees were bound to find despicable. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union is under widespread liberal media attack for its decision to offer the cultural horror Milo Yiannopoulos legal support when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refused to allow ads for his book on public transport. Greenwald’s argument is plain in the piece, but he draws his thinking out again for me.

If we defend, which the ACLU has and does, the right to free expression for the US Muslim community and we argue, very rationally, that the violent actions of ostensibly Muslim terrorists have no direct connection to the texts of Islam, then this logic must hold true for the writing of the so-called alt-right. A figure like Yiannopoulos is said by some to bear partial responsibility for the deaths in Charlottesville; for legitimising the brute ugliness felt in the lives of those in Virginia and broadcast across the world.

“The left will say that Muslim terrorists are a tiny faction. That free religious speech should not be curtailed because of the very minimal risk this poses.” We will not, however, think of the so-called alt-right as a tiny faction. The liberal-left exaggerates the importance of a minority — even in the face of growing and widespread Western support for material left politics — and demands that the state be the arbiter of liberty.

Greenwald is, both in this piece and elsewhere, eager to look at the ethical laboratory of the liberal-left that seek support from the state to codify hate-speech. How, he wants to know, does applying law or sanction to speech that many of us would agree is vile actually function? First, as we can see in the Yiannopoulos example, attempts to “no-platform” his speech have simply amplified it. A fool like Milo who trades in poor logic and copious hate may never have been so popular were it not for his moments of media-enabled martyrdom. Second, to relinquish to the state the power to control speech is no guarantee that speech you dislike will be controlled. Born, as he was, in a nation that actively suppressed the speech of communists, civil rights and Black Power activists, Greenwald makes a good, but a difficult, case.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to write. I could have been silent about it and I felt a temptation to do so. But it’s not,”  he tells me, “a popularity contest.”

Journalism of the sort that Greenwald offers is not about popularity, but nor is it sheer contrarianism. It is an effort to develop intellectually, along with one’s audience, and “identify centres of power”. Most especially those less immediately visible, such as the state itself, which left-liberals continue to look to as the means, and not the target, of resistance.

“I try and self-consciously poke at the ideas that are most dearly held. It’s my role.”

To give graceless voice to the bleeding obvious: the state of journalism is one of decay. And, no, it’s not just that so-called listicles — you know, those widespread curiosities made by quasi-advertising companies for a “youth” that truly exists nowhere outside of market research — have come to dominate as a form of news. It’s not that large media companies behave precisely like the finance industry and reward CEOs while reducing services to the millions they claim to publicly serve. With global giants like Facebook and Google providing no original content yet devising algorithms that are precisely tailored to individual users, most of us will never see a challenge to our world view, only a powerful restatement of it.  

None of these things help, at all, to advance an era of news some of us naively suspected long ago would be boosted and not shackled by the technological freedoms of the internet. These market conditions described do give us “left-wing” newspapers that prefer personality profiles to grand narratives. These market conditions give us right-wing newspapers and their partner think-tanks that would prefer to talk about minor matters of civil law than to rigorously defend their grand economic agenda. These market conditions give us personalities like Tracy Spicer, a broadcaster hardly notable for her unorthodox or even mildly surprising contributions to TV journalism throughout her career, who become known as “brave” purely on the basis of her twilight realisation that women are expected to wear a lot of makeup.  

Yes, market conditions and market decisions largely determine the shape of any commodity, including journalism. But, we must also lay some blame with labourers in this industry who largely and outright refuse to resist. Greenwald, a likeable man who refuses to be liked, has the disposition and the carefully built means to resist these fatal conventions. He is one of a very few.

Tomorrow: Razer with Greenwald on Donald Trump.