Last month I wanted to write a news feature about Jewish soldiers in Australia’s military. Naturally I wanted to interview some of those soldiers to add colour to the piece. I didn’t want to know military secrets or tactical information. I merely wanted to speak to them about their feelings as Australian soldiers and why they were inspired to enlist. Even though I was not seeking information that could be considered sensitive, I still had to follow proper procedure with the ADF.
As a journalist I was happy to do so. This involved contacting the public affairs department of the Defence Force to gain permission. I was required to tell them what kind of piece I was writing and the kinds of questions I planned to ask. Again, no problem. I accept that as a journalist there are procedures to follow and responsibilities to uphold.
All of a sudden however, with WikiLeaks journalistic professionalism seems to have gone out the window overnight. And scarily too, the very people who are training the next generation of journalists seem to be lining up behind it, as are many well-known journalists that this generation aspires to.
Procedures such as the one I had to follow with the ADF appear to be meaningless, now that anything and everything seems ripe for the public domain.
I’m not blanket anti-WikiLeaks. I agree some things should be known to the public. After all one of the pillars of democracy is transparency and a free press. But there are some things, such as national security matters, that are confidential for a reason. I don’t want to know them.
Furthermore the idea of a free press is meant to help, and not hinder, our society. Publishing leaks that harms relationships between nations or puts people in danger is in my view most definitely a hindrance.
The WikiLeaks fan club seems to hail Julian Assange as a hero. This is another thing I disagree with. Assange is ego-driven and clearly sympathetic to a particular viewpoint. Even if some of his leaks are useful, his motivation in releasing them has not been honourable. He has a clear agenda, as outlined in this article that tells of former colleagues who grew disillusioned with his direction.
It is not up to me to decide if WikiLeaks has broken any laws or not. It is not up to me to decide whether the Swedish rape charges against Assange are legitimate or not. And it’s not up to me to tell anyone what they should think.
But it’s not up to Assange and WikiLeaks to tell people what they should think, either.
You don’t need me to tell you that a free press is essential to the functioning of our democracy. To this end, the Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2010 sponsored by Andrew Wilkie MP is certainly worthy of vigorous debate by parliament.
However, Adam Bandt’s suggestion that the scope of the bill be widened to include bloggers and in particular, citizen journalists is a bad idea.
Professional journalists work to a code; I’m not saying every individual journalist displays 100 percent ethical behaviour according to this code, but for the most part we accept that we have a function to inform the public, to do so as objectively as possible and to facilitate informed debate in the wider community.
There are times when journalists happen across important information, and up till now there has been no protection for journalists who want to keep their sources a secret in the publicising of this information. In some circumstances such protection would certainly be useful.
But extending any such protection to citizen journalists would be akin to anarchy. One only needs to google just a few different blogs to see that there are zero checks and balances on the blogosphere as it is.
Wild opinions are presented as fact, media is used willy-nilly in breach of copyright and defamation is rife. My apologies go out to those bloggers and citizen journalists who do ensure their work conforms to legal and ethical standards, but for the most part the blogosphere does not.
To add to that chaos the freedom to say anything or accuse anyone with legal protection against accountability is a dangerous road indeed. Professional journalists learn as part of their training the responsibilities that go along with their position of influence. Bloggers do not.
We should be tightening the laws around blogging and citizen journalism, not relaxing them.
Online whistleblower WikiLeaks has made quite a splash making available various pieces of information that governments, corporations and mainstream media don’t want us to know.
It has attracted fierce critics from the right, supporters from the left and caused lively debate in both the traditional and social media. It’s been busy rewriting the rules on information sharing, while its eccentric founder, Julian Assange has become quite the mystery man.
But what is WikiLeaks’ real purpose? To release privileged information in its raw form, leaving it up to the consumer to make up his/her mind? Or do they have their own agenda?
In the video below, Assange explains that due to a lot of the source documents WikiLeaks gets being exceptionally long and difficult to understand, they are interpreted – and Assange admits this interpretation goes beyond a mere summary – to make them understandable and consumable for the general public.
But Assange’s admission raises new questions. The minute anyone interprets anything its meaning gets altered. There is not a journalist on Earth who can take thousands of pages of complicated source material and transform it into one page of plain English without affecting, and indeed influencing how its meaning will be perceived.
To his credit, Assange explains that the original material is always released alongside the interpretation. But he’s already said the source data is too long and complicated for most people to understand. So what are the chances of them going back to it to check that what they’ve just read/viewed is an accurate interpretation?
Assange adds that the material is edited for impact. Given that impact is an extremely subjective thing, this further complicates matters given that the perceived meaning of the material will then be firmly in the hands of the editor.
Assange also freely admits that WikiLeaks is indeed an activist organisation, with a goal. Yes, that stated goal is an honourable one – justice – but the mere existence of a goal at all means the organisation can’t be objective.
WikiLeaks finds itself in a position of immense power. It has done an enthusiastic job of keeping governments, organisations and the mainstream media in check, but who will keep it in check?