By Nicholas Jones
Having been a journalist for fifty years, I am in no doubt about my own position. I support and applaud principled individuals who are prepared to leak information which they believe should be in the public domain.
They invariably put their own jobs on the line and often face the threat of a criminal prosecution. Yes, many in public life might think such principled leakers are misguided; that they are deliberately breaching their conditions of work; and letting their down their own colleagues, their employers and perhaps the state.
But although leakers have my support, I think journalists do have responsibilities when deciding whether to print or broadcast information and data which has obviously been gained by illicit means. I have spent my career working within codes of practice and guidelines which were designed to ensure that I was accountable for what I wrote and said. And that is my worry about WikiLeaks.
Thanks to the revolution in information technology, it has become a publishing house for leaking on an industrial scale. But it lacks the checks and balances under which most journalists have always had to operate.
Whatever our criticisms of media standards – and bearing in mind Rupert Murdoch’s agenda-setting media empire and the biased reporting of Fox News – British newspapers and broadcasters can, at least to some degree, be held to account.
There has to be transparency about the ownership of media organisations. Only by knowing who own or finances them can we make sense of the agendas they pursue. That is my worry about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
My concerns are compounded by the news that Assange has some ‘killer’ secret files about Murdoch which WikiLeaks would release if anything happened to Julian or WikiLeaks itself. Some might say that attack is perhaps the only line of defence against the often underhand tactics of News Corporation.
Let my first explain why journalists of my generation have some concerns. As a sixteen-year-old trainee reporter, I studied L.C.J. McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. The local newspapers I worked for had to respect the rulings of what was then known as the Press Council. I also had to remember the code of the National Union of Journalists; once I joined Radio Leicester, I was subject to the BBC’s editorial guidelines.
Now it is the Press Complaints Commission and the broadcasting regulator Ofcom which try to enforce that same sense of sense of responsibility. But we know very little about the forces behind WikiLeaks. Are there hidden motives? WikiLeaks amasses and distributes confidential and secret information which has been obtained from states and agencies around the world.
Yet WikiLeaks policy is to work hand in glove with less than a handful of its chosen collaborators such as the The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel. I realise I am beginning to sound like a dinosaur from a pre-internet age. WikiLeaks’ information is all available on line and there for all to access.
Obviously the rules have changed and the established media proprietors and their friends the state broadcasters no longer have the monopoly they once did. I accept that.
But I also am old enough to have experienced a buzz of excitement on receiving and leaked document sent to me through the post in a brown paper envelope. I can’t tell you the thrill of seeing and holding what was obviously a confidential and sometimes secret document. I can only marvel at the prospect now of having access to the vast treasure trove of confidential information which are being supplied to newspapers like the Guardian and then being made available on the WikiLeaks website.
Here you can see masses of secret data which was compressed perhaps into a single compact disc – or perhaps a DVD – and then disseminated on line. A leaker of yesteryear would have needed access to a massive photocopier, reams and reams of paper, and tractor trailer to tow away the gigantic stash of leaked documents which WikiLeaks have now dumped into the public domain.
Another perhaps worrying aspect of the WikiLeaks phenomenon – especially bearing in mind the media firestorm around Julian Assange – is that many commentators are overlooking the role of Private Bradley Manning.
He is the US Army intelligence analyst who is facing trial in America for supplying hundreds of thousands of documents to Assange. Manning has been accused of downloading classified information over an eight- to nine-month period while serving in Iraq. He is being credited with the largest leak of confidential material in US
Pre-trial accounts suggested his pattern of behaviour chimes with that of recent notable leaks in the UK. What we tend to find is that a young, hitherto trusted employee, often in a lowly grade, becomes deeply troubled by evident contradictions and deceptions.
They feel it is their duty whatever the risk to alert the public. Where Manning’s conduct differed from that of Sarah Tisdall and Katherine Gun was that he became a serial leaker. Both Sarah and Katherine acted on the spur of the moment. Sarah Tisdall, a young civil servant in the Foreign Office, was sentenced to six months in prison in 1984 for breaching the Official Secrets Act by supplying documents to The Guardian detailing the delivery of Cruise missiles to the US Air Force base at Greenham Common.
Katherine Gun, a translator at the GCHQ spy centre, was so shocked by an email from US National Security Agency about an American plan to bug phones ahead of the UN vote in the lead-up to the Iraq War that she copied and pasted the email, printed off a copy and it was leaked to The Observer. Five days before her trial, the Crown dropped the case.
My only hope is that Bradley Manning’s courage in downloading the material doesn’t get overlooked in the media firestorm over Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
As journalists we must not lose sight of the fact that out there, there are individuals who do take inordinate risks to expose wrongdoing and they need our support and encouragement when they inevitably have to face the music.
– Nicholas Jones was a BBC correspondent for thirty years. He is the author Trading Information:
Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (Politico’s, 2006)