WikiLeaks: Holding up a mirror to journalism?

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By Will Spens

The Frontline Club’s first ‘On The Media’ event of 2011 was a fascinating discussion focusing on the changing and sometimes wrought relationship between the worlds media and WikiLeaks. The controversial whistle-blowing website has attracted intense worldwide interest following the massive releases of leaked US military and diplomatic files and the controversy surrounding its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange. In this event, chaired by presenter of The Listening Post on Al Jazeera English, Richard Gizbert, this thoroughly modern relationship was dissected and argued over passionately by an expert panel.

On the nature of the relationship between WikiLeaks and its media partners during publication of the leaked US embassy files around the world, Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian – the only UK paper working with WikiLeaks – was clear in his assessment:

“There was really a rather remarkable collaboration that held for several months and produced some really remarkable journalism. People may not quite understand the sheer scale of the journalistic effort that went into the publication of the cables”

As to the shift in focus by the media from WikiLeaks to Julian Assange, author and columnist David Aaronovitch acknowledged that this was almost inevitable and is more than just media appetite for personality stories:

Julian Assange is an absolute phenomenon of the modern era. He represents what we think of as the uncertain coming world.”

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer who is Julian Assange’s solicitor, thought that WikiLeaks is itself holding a mirror up to journalism:

“The public see a very crisp image, but what they don’t see is how journalists get that information. They don’t like the way WikiLeaks or journalists get their material and this is an interesting area for concern.”

Gavin MacFayden, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, agreed with this but suggested that some media organisations have acted more reprehensibly than others, adding: ‘a lot of media responded to the worlds greatest power saying to them “you must not publish this”. I think we’ve seen that [in the New York Times] and it’s disgraceful’.

When the question of whether news organisations were equipped to deal with such massive quantities of data to investigate was raised, Ian Katz asserted that “we are nowhere near ready to deal with this kind of data. We need a whole new breed of data journalists’. David Aaronovitch however took a more acerbic view that these releases were “creating a sort of analyst caste of journalists… but the real question is this: do existing media organisations have the economic ability to deal with it?”

One fascinating hypothetical scenario was raised at the end of the extended talk: the question of whether, assuming WikiLeaks had been operational before the war in Iraq, would the US and the UK populations have had access to material which may have prevented the invasion of Iraq from occurring?

Watch the video here:

This event was in association with the BBC College of Journalism.