By David Watts
For once the ‘perfect storm’ cliché was apposite when members and guests of the Commonwealth Journalists Association gathered on 13 January 2011 to debate the merits and demerits of the WikiLeaks revelations.
For red-blooded journalists who imbibed their mission of exposing malfeasance with their mother’s milk, the exposure of the perpetrators of the cold-blooded murder of Reuters colleagues in Iraq was enough to have us rallying to WikiLeaks’ colours.
But, of course, it was never that simple and for many of the attendees the evening revealed layers of complication and unsuspected blow-back that might be overlooked in the quick-fire making of newsroom decisions.
Chairman William Horsley, International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media, wisely elected to exclude discussion of Julian Assange’s extra-curricular activities and to focus on what are two distinct tracts of the material: the war logs and the subsequent string of leaked US diplomatic cables which caused many people more reservations than the former.
The war logs had, after all, largely been a record of times past with less future impact and, for many, had adequate justification in the revelation of casualty figures and other useful data which could arguably be designated as being in the public interest.
Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and a former US deputy Assistant Secretary of State, had a lonely role on the panel for much of the evening with the mood verging on the anti-American at times.
But he brought perspective for any overenthusiastic champions of leaking, noting the incontrovertible fact that these were stolen goods that were not in the public domain, despite their presence on internet sites, and the disregard of both Assange and editors for the future health, safety and business prospects of many of the unsuspecting sources for American diplomats who suddenly found themselves named despite giving information in confidence.
Defining public interest
Further, he compelled his listeners to examine what precisely was the definition of public interest in the Assange saga. Who would confide in American diplomacy and what State Department employee would feel free to name sources in future? What would be the effect of any future revelations on the diplomacy of such matters as confronting the re-establishment of the former Soviet sphere of influence?
An indirect compliment to the quality, range and sophistication of American diplomacy came from a Ugandan journalist Henry Gombya, Editor of Str8talk Chronicle, who recorded how the leaks had revealed details of African corruption and the previously unknown fate of a villager murdered by troops in his country. The public interest in that revelation might be well-founded in a case such as this but it became clear throughout the evening that the public interest was not only a movable feast but also subject, in the first instance, to non expert selection by the WikiLeaks team.
That made some speakers uneasy—the notion that journalists themselves were subject to a selection process purveyed by non-expert sources on whom they were dependent and over whom they had no control. That opened the process to further manipulation by the timely release of material to have a calculated political impact, panellist Nick Jones, the former BBC political journalist, noting that revelations about News International were being threatened should anything untoward happen to Assange.
There could have been no more graphic indicator of the value of the evening’s exchanges than the straw poll at the conclusion on whether or not the Wikileaks revelations had been a valid, justifiable exercise. The large number of abstentions among one of society’s more self-opinionated tribes gave a hint of how carefully the profession is considering the most far-reaching changes since Caxton. – David Watts is Editor of Asian Affairs and Night Foreign Editor, The Sunday Times.
Note: The panel discussion was chaired by William Horsley, International Director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media.
The panellists were:
Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, International Institute for Strategic Studies and former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State;
Nicholas Jones, former BBC Political Correspoondent and author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip offs;
Ashis Ray, London correspondent, Times of India; and
Jon Williams, BBC World News Editor.