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

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