Wikileaks and Watchdogs

30 Nov

Wikileaks, notorious for publishing secretive and sensitive government and high-profile organisation materials, has taken centre stage again this week with leaked US embassy cables. Its most reported postings include a snap-shot of Sarah Palin’s email inbox, the names and addresses of those belonging to the BNP and a video of a U.S. helicopter killing 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, in Baghdad in 2007.

All the attention being given to Wikileaks takes me back to my MA dissertation where I researched the representation of war by the media. I looked at whether citizens are provided with a fair and balanced view or if the media is controlled by Governments? Had Wikileaks, and indeed the strong blogging culture we have today, been around during my struggle with this topic, I think my conclusion would have been very different. In fact, I think there is a whole new dissertation topic here.

Wikileaks is at the heart of a massive shift in the way we receive our information/news. During my research (and I must just point out that it was a long time ago, when I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, perhaps a little more to the left of the centre (and then more again) and 100 per cent idealistic) I very much sided with Chomsky’s view of ‘media control’. I concluded that, rather than ‘watchdog’, the media was ‘lap-dog’. The concentration and globalisation of media ownership, the selection of staff and the need to write to the preferences of the audience are just a few reasons that watchdog journalism is not possible in the modern-day. It can be impossible to see where the news ends and where the spin begins. War reporting was my specific area of concern and an example of my point is that journalists at war are embedded with the military on ‘our’ side. They live, breath and experience everything the soldiers are going through. This surely makes it very difficult to remain impartial. They simply don’t get to see it from the other side.

The media is meant to be part of the system of ‘checks and balances’, but generally it is not set-up or run in a way that makes this plausible. Authorities need to be held to account and it’s great to see that Iceland is passing a law that makes it a libel-free haven for journalists. (Though as I write that sentence all kinds of problems with this law spring to mind). Wikileaks and the rise of citizen journalism in the blogosphere is good news. It is also incredibly fascinating to see how the Internet is shifting the way we receive our information. An eyewitness blogger in Iraq, Salam Pax, has been blogging about US propaganda leaflets and information on the war from another perspective. This allows us to see things from the other side.

This kind of reporting should hopefully make governments think a bit harder about whether torturing an individual really is in the national interest. It might even reduce the culture of spin and prevent documents with ludicrous ideas like the leaked U.S. memo ‘Why counting on apathy might not be enough’; a document which seeks to manipulate public opinion in Germany and France to ensure the continuation of the war in Afghanistan.

That is my idealistic view, now lets move to the other side of my brain. As the Huffington Post points out ‘There is a difference between holding government accountable for its decisions and holding government officials hostage to their words’. The information within these leaks needs to be seen in the wider context. By reading a few emails we can’t get that vital background understanding. It is also impossible to read the tone of your nearest and dearest’s emails, let alone that of a diplomat you’ve never met before. So, some of these leaks seem a bit petty and pointless, not to mention damaging to International Relations. Why would anyone want to be responsible for that?

Something else that alarms me; during an interview the man behind Wikileaks, Assange, was asked if he would publish information on the movement of US troops? His response was that he would be ‘totally happy to consider it’. Let’s think this one through. The Internet is global – anyone can read it – including those that may be seeking to do harm to troops. There is a line that needs to be drawn and never crossed. Putting people’s lives at risk is unacceptable and this information is classified for good reason. The other thing that worries me about Wikileaks is that allegedly this guy is a bit of a conspiracy theorist, moving from safe house to safe house, never staying put more than one night. If true, that to me seems a little paranoid and thus raises the question of how reliable Wikileaks is? What is Assange’s motivation? Who is this guy?

I’m a strong believer in transparency and holding Governments to account. I am in no doubt that putting journalism into the context of blogging, wikis and the Internet is a good thing. However, when reading blogs and wikis we must remember that these sources are even less likely to be objective than traditional media channels. They are being written and posted by people with passion fuelling their posts, not a pay slip (that’s not to say that journalists don’t have a passion, but that they need to make their bosses happy and they have legal frameworks). And while Wikileaks has exposed oodles more secrets since it began in 2006 than the traditional media, its sources are not verified…

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One Response to “Wikileaks and Watchdogs”

  1. Rachel-Jane December 8, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    Really interesting article Claire. Made me think of David Rowan’s take on the role of social media in times of conflict. Worth a read:

    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-09/17/social-media-journalists

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