It was not Journalists’ Day in the rest of the world this week but the rest of the world is following a trial that might set the 21st century tone to the ever-thorny relationship between governments, sources and journalists. Its outcome, by transition, will define the type and quality of information the public gets.
Bradley Manning, the young US army private who starred the largest leak of information in the history of the largest superpower ever, will be battling for his life over the next few weeks, but other potential sources and its press contacts should be aware their fate will also be at stake when the martial court delivers a ruling on the 22 charges presented against him.
The main difference between Manning and Mark Felt, the now legendary Deep Throat source that helped two Washington Post reporters produce arguably the greatest work of journalistic investigation in history, is that Manning was caught. Felt managed to remain anonymous for decades, only to own up to his deeds near the end of his life in a 2005 Vanity Fair interview. Besides their short-term political intentions, sources also have egos.
The other stark difference is that reporters Woodward and Bernstein were the representatives of an established news outlet that used traditional editing/political techniques to present the information to the public. Manning instead chose to pass the three quarters of a million classified State Department documents and a few compromising videos to Julian Assange, a man who calls himself a journalist but many refer to as a hacker.
The typical good guy/bad guy narrative surrounding both the stories of Manning and Assange misses the complexity of the historical role they are playing. The question whether Manning is a lunatic weirdo seeking to overthrow the government or a hero fighting windmills of secrecy is irrelevant in the light of the dilemma about how any entity — gubernatorial or private — handles important information affecting citizens and whether and how this information would be made available to the public.
Thomas Friedman would be happy to see how flat the world is becoming, at least when it comes to governments’ handling of citizens data and privacy. But the coin did not fall on the Don’t Be Evil side of things as Friedman’s now classic 2005 book indicated.
All the fret about countries like China keeping a tight grip on their netizens loses some credibility at the sight of the (leaked) news this week that the US National Security Agency is running a well-established programme called PRISM that allowed officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats. How? By having direct (yes, direct) access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US Internet giants.
The story broke through the Washington Post and the Guardian, who had access to secret NSA documents. Assange was quick to bolster his defence of Manning saying the leaker of this big story could — if caught — face the same prosecution fate. The US Department of Justice Department investigations on AP and Fox News reporters revealed recently justifies Assange’s concern.
The odd Manning-Assange relationship now under the magnifying glass of a US military court generated an unprecedented access to information for the people of almost every nation of the world covered by a batch of cables that otherwise had a strong focus on the US post 9/11 Middle Eastern wars. The short-lived marriage of convenience between Assange and some of the most traditional and prestigious newspapers in the Western world produced, for a moment, good information for the public at a time abundance goes against quality. It was a positive vision of a public information future that stubbornly seems geared toward dystopia instead.
The relationship between a journalist and the sources is one of the defining aspects in the way the information fed on the public gets shaped. Another is that of the journalists with their jobs. No wonder the first thing the US government did in its crusade to kill the messenger Assange after having caught the leaker Manning was to severe all sources of online financing to WikiLeaks via US-based global companies like Visa, Paypal and MasterCard.
Journalists need resources and a back-up structure to do their jobs independently and service the interests of the public against those of the governments or big corporations. The press labour market globally is not going through rosy days. In the US, newspapers have eliminated about 30 per cent of their full-time professional employees since 2000, according to a report this year by the Pew Research Centre on the state of the news media (Full report here http://stateofthemedia.org/ ).
Many journalists in Argentina went on strike yesterday, which was Journalists’ Day here in memory of the foundation of the first newspaper in 1810. The journalists are engaged in difficult wage talks with newspaper owners. Beyond the talks, a critical mass of journalists seem to have come to the conclusion that the media war between the government and the mainstream press outlets had placed them in the uncomfortable position of being the pawn in somebody else’s game.