After Wikileaks and phone-hacking, who sets the new frontiers of information gathering?

Two important articles have discussed journalism’s role in pushing back the frontiers of information and disclosure in two very different, highly sensitive areas: hacking into the phones of the famous and the mass leaking of government files. Should journalism incite more disclosure or offer greater protection?  The clear message of both pieces  is that journalism in the digital age remains as important as ever. But press self regulation and practice must  raise its game at the vulnerable end of government and public pressure.

When Freedom of Information in America was launched in the 1970s, it gave birth to a great oxymoron,” censorship by disclosure.” This meant that only the most motivated and eagle- eyed inquirer could ever find the nugget buried in the mountain of badly photocopied or microfilmed documents in the pre-digital era. The tag exaggerates the problem but has more than a grain of truth in it. Today technology has been transformed but the volume problem remains, dramatically revealed in the saga of Wikileaks.

In an extract from a book on the saga of Julian Assange’s weird and wonderful enterprise, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger ranges over the swirling story, fastening finally on the need which Assange intermittently recognises, of journalistic mediation to cut through the thickets and strike a balance between “publish and be damned” and “responsibility.”

WikiLeaks and similar organisations are, it seems to me, generally admirable in their single minded view of transparency and openness. What has been remarkable is how the sky has not fallen in despite the truly enormous amounts of information released over the months.

To judge from the response we had from countries without the benefit of a free press, there was a considerable thirst for the information in the cables – a hunger for knowledge which contrasted with the occasional knowing yawns from metropolitan sophisticates who insisted that the cables told us nothing new. Instead of a kneejerk stampede to more secrecy, this could be the opportunity to draw up a score sheet of the upsides and drawbacks of forced transparency.

That approach – a rational assessment of new forms of transparency – should accompany the inevitable questioning of how the US classification system could have allowed the private musings of kings, presidents and dissidents to have been so easily read by whoever it was that decided to pass them on to WikiLeaks in the first place.

In Saturday’s Independent, Ian Hargreaves, who has held senior positions in the BBC, New Statesman and the Indy itself, laments the performance of just about all the parties involved in the phone hacking scandal, and urges the self-regulators of the press to raise their game.

Some people say that these issues merit less concern today because the press is in decline, its activities, good and bad, diluted by an ever-expanding digital media, some of it outside traditional media industry ownership and control. This indeed is one of the arguments News Corp has used to justify its bid to secure complete control of BSkyB: the news market is more competitive than it used to be.

There is some truth in this, but it is not a complete picture. Analogue-era news brands remain powerful online, even as we approach the end of the second decade of the commercialised internet.

More important, we have seen a number of examples in the past year which indicate the growing importance of professional journalism. The mass leakages of data behind the MPs’ expenses scandal, WikiLeaks and the Palestinian papers could not have happened prior to the digital age. Yet none of these data transactions would be viable without the intermediation of professional journalists. The firewall of experienced editorial judgement is crucial to WikiLeaks’ defence against the charge of reckless disclosure.

 Pious and self-serving? Note that these problems are being defined by journalists themselves. But does anyone want to take them on – politicians, the blogosphere? Or will they grumble and continue to accept their essential mediating role?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Before we rush to new legislation surely the first step is to use the full force of the law against those who have already broken it. And those who covered up the law breaking.
    We cant confuse the lawlessness of the Internet (for WHICH legislation might be needed to clarify) with phone hacking. There would or should have been no doubt that phone hacking is wrong and illegal.
    I dont suppose anyone is seriously suggesting it should be legalised or “clarified” and the slate wiped clean and start again.
    Some brave journalists in the Guardian have folowed the phone hacking scandal. But it is now widely known that the NOTW mantra (and tabloid journalisms) that this was a single rogue incident is nonsense.
    Journalists therefore did not have the integrity to see a story of major concer actually happening in their own newsrooms and did not see it as their duty to bring it to the police.
    They have therefore doubly failed.
    Before going on to “new” issues, lets deal with the lawlessness already established.

  • While the Guardian is pursuing phone-hacking, it sees nothing wrong with its role as partner with Wikileaks. One is government (particularly USA) and one Murdoch. Yet both share a basic factor in that if the information had not been left open then no-one could have accessed so easily. In the case of the most recent Wikileaks it was wide access that meant open access far outside the diplomatic and policy sectors for which the info was intended. And in the case of ‘phone-hacking’ people too dumb or naive to change the pin on their mobile, it would seem even after the story first broke.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Or people too stupid to install aburglar alarm deserve to be burgled.?
    Or women wearing short skirts deserve to be raped?
    Or people who open the door to “Men from the Gas Board” deserve to be murdered?
    Even if you dont believe that to be true, I suspect youd want the full force of the law brought on joyrider who stole your car even if it was not fully immobilised.
    Or perhaps youd say to the police “its ok….not his fault….I should have been more careful.

  • So what is the line? Government is fair game, but individuals are not? Where is the moral stop point? Next time read the entire comment – maybe off your high horse.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The difference is that we are being spied upon by the newspapers who have no mandate or authority to so do.

    The difference is that Wikileaks is revealing it and other stuff the governments would rather not know.
    We should “own” the government not have the government and media owning us.

  • tuatha

    Government of Capital, by Capital, for Capital and any of you silly voters who hope otherwise are just collateral damage.
    Government should be afraid of the people but, as Lennon said “they keep you drugged withreligion, sex & TV..” and that was before the undreamt of wonders of digitalcomputerCGI games & porn & … whatever the next diversion.
    Coz there will be a new one,as long as we, the people, keep buying (with ‘money’ of diminishing value) the, made in China, toys proffered.

  • Munsterview

    FitzJ : “There would or should have been no doubt that phone hacking is wrong and illegal.”

    Had the late Billy Flynn not illegially obtained certain Garda Siochana members phone records, he would never have been able to prove that the harrasing calls to one of the Garda victims had a serving poliece sorce.

    When these ‘illegal’ records came to poliece notice Billy Flynn was prossecuted for having them while the gardai that they identified could not be prossecuted as the information was illegally obtained.

    Whatever of ‘offecial’ rules, we are now in a situation where the authorities can access most private citizens digital information transactions, and of course do, without leaving any trace of the intercepts. Most governments do not acknowledge the scale of their unlawfull intellegence gathering and are unlikely to allow legislation that will in any way curtail this.

    Leglisation is but a ninteen century concept applied to a twenty first century problem!

    As I see it, the hacking and leaking in general is but levelling the playing fields on behalf of the public. Individuals will have a violation of their rights but these violations are taking place unseen on a continual basis from Government and other authority sources.

    Brian Cowen is not going forward next election. RTE Nine O’Clock news !