Tuesday, December 14, 2010
It is the news topic of the moment, and, although time is yet to prove it, it is most likely the news topic of our generation. We haven’t had a My Lai massacre or a Watergate, and I for one had long been of the opinion that we never would again. THAT was investigative journalism’s heyday, when one reporter’s resolve and sheer exploratory skill had the power to take down governments and change the course of history forever. But the times, oh how they have changed, and there are many possible reasons for journalism’s slow and steady decent into the colour yellow. Is it the fact that newspapers have become more concerned with sheltering the advertisers that fund them than exposing the government that said advertisers support? Or is it that journalists have become so deluded by the fact that their opinion actually matters, to the point where what they believe to be true is more important than the facts? Or is it the various censorship laws that have made “Freedom of Speech” an idealistic notion almost as ancient as the founding fathers who established it? Or, of course, is it the sensationalism of news today, a characteristic that very few papers in the world attempt to avoid to save their integrity? After all, the paycheque for integrity isn’t even close to what you get for creating drama – and most drama has a bit of fiction thrown in there for added value.
As someone who once called herself a “journalist” and actually believed that was where her career would lead (until it pissed her off so much she became rather violent about the subject), Wikileaks is the most fascinating, complex and loaded topic in the news today. Primarily because it says so much ABOUT the news which it is in, and a journalists’ role within the field and of course society at large. For the first time since perhaps Watergate, journalism is telling us things that aren’t shrouded in secrecy, opinion or censorship laws – things we actually SHOULD know about. After all, Assange himself has referred to Wikileaks as “scientific journalism”, where the stories are backed up by the documents that they’re based upon, allowing the readers to make up their own mind and “opinion” about the matter for themselves – a type of reportage that is by and large missing in the world today. I’m not saying that what the documents are revealing is or will be as important as Watergate (politically, at least), but it’s more the fact that they are revealing anything at all – that they EXIST – that is of importance. Granted, my experience with newspapers was in the crappy, conservative one that I worked at, so I am more than willing to admit that my understanding is perhaps a little bit biased and little bit jaded. And I am sure that I have continued to look for the trends that made me loathe journalism so much long after I left it, so its demise may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy in my own head. So there’s a grain of salt, if you will.
But whether it’s our choice of newspapers in this country (ahem, the lack thereof) or the state of journalism at large today that has brought about my long-standing and stubborn opinion (and it is just that, an opinion), one thing remains certain: Wikileaks is telling us things that are in the public interest. Other newspapers should have been digging this up themselves, but they either did not have the resources or the resolve to do it. Assange did, and for that, at least within the field itself, he should be given nothing but respect and protection. Any other crimes he may or may not have committed are entirely irrelevant to his “criminal standing” for heading up Wikileaks.
At the core of journalism is the public’s right to know, and that is of course where freedom of speech and freedom of the press come in. Both have been curtailed by many nations' (Australia’s included) “security threat” claims, which have managed to justify their censorship laws. And so at least since 9/11, we as the public have been told a mere fraction of what has actually been happening, and if knowledge is the foundation for both social and intellectual evolution, where can that possibly leave us? Sure, there are things some people are better off not knowing, but can it be any worse than the lies that have been fed to us since the Bush administration – be it about Iraq, the so called “war on terror” or actually being led by a “higher power”? (the vocabulary used by Mr Bush may have been slightly different.) Those stories, if anything, incited fear, which was exactly their purpose. Journalists misplaced facts with a clever manipulation of language (which were generally the exact words that politicians were using), leading readers and viewers everywhere to base their knowledge of current events on one side of the story. As we are all likely to be aware of, every story has not one or two but numerous angles, and to leave these out for the sake of readership or even government cooperation is a gross abuse of the very power journalists are afforded.
I don’t mean to cover all journalists with the same ugly tanning lotion – there are some remarkable (non-fiction) story tellers out there, and the world is a better, more informed place because of them. They risk their lives to report injustice, thereby empowering the perhaps less brave of us to do what we can with whatever power we withhold. But all too many write like tabloid reporters while calling themselves journalists, and put the world’s collective knowledge at risk. We as a society cannot change the world if we have no idea what it is that needs to be changed. We cannot overthrow a government that is not worthy of leading us if we have no Watergate to base the ousting upon.
In saying that, journalists do have a responsibility to protect both their sources and, if the information they have obtained is so earth-shattering, the security of the world if they can help it. Whether what Wikileaks has obtained is so profound remains to be seen, but it should be of serious concern to the citizens of any democracy that their government is so petrified by what’s about to come out. After all, what could they possibly be hiding? If it is indeed a threat to national security as the governments would lead us to believe, then we just have to hope Assange knows when to stay silent. The basic premise, however, of his reportage and the theory behind Wikileaks is nowhere even close to criminal behaviour. If it turns out that it's exposing the criminal behaviour of the world’s governments, however... well. I suppose all this ridiculous upheaval would make a lot more sense, then.
I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I for one sure as hell want to know about it.
words: Seema Duggal