A press fit for the purpose?: Finding a new model for press and public service broadcasting
by Judith Vidal-Hall
Millions of words and a good deal of hot air have been spent on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, some, more illuminating than many, on this website. Opinion runs the gamut of emotions: in the USA it stops little short of outright panic and calls for the execution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on a charge of "treason" – though even Fox TV also takes full advantage of the leaks to sex up its evening broadcasts. Others concentrate on securing his arrest and extradition on what appear to be spurious charges of rape in Sweden. Among more rational voices there seems to be a consensus that Assange and his team have taken freedom of expression and transparency to an unprecedented level. Not since the darkest days of glavlit and censorship in the Soviet Union has free speech been so fashionable a cause.
Others, however, argue that the link between press and Internet has been irrevocably changed for the worse; yet others that the symbiosis demonstrated between the print media and the new technology has given the latter a new lease of life at a moment it needed it most. As Marc-Olivier Padis, editor of the journal Esprit, points out in a forthcoming issue, opinions have an inconvenient habit of dividing along the lines of that small and happy band chosen for the publication of the WikiLeaks data – New York Times, Guardian, Le/ Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel – and their rivals, who could only look on with envy.
Extreme political reactions are not our business here, more the impact of the leaks on the future of the press. Are we being blinded by the scale of the revelations – 251,287 separate cables amounting to some 13,000 pages – to the fact that we have been here before? Is this the way of the future or simply the past come to life? Isn't it more or less what journalists have always done, particularly that supposedly endangered species, the investigative journalist? Is WikiLeaks more than simply a provider, the source mediated to the page, much as Woodward and Bernstein did for "Deep Throat", the anonymous source who spilled the beans on the Watergate affair that eventually brought down Richard Nixon? Or is it a breakthrough in a new and very different construct of democracy?
As Henry Porter, commenting in the Observer, reminds us, "Nothing is new."
In the 1770s in Britain, a libertine, wit and radical journalist fought parliament and succeeded in forcing it to allow the daily publication of each day's proceedings in the House, something that had been denied previously by those in power on the grounds that it would endanger national security and prevent the smooth running of the nation's affairs. The name of this reprobate, John Wilkes MP, became synonymous with liberty and a free press. He was prosecuted for "seditious libel" against the person of King George III and forced to flee to France – not then synonymous with freedom of any kind. On his return, he was imprisoned in the Kings Bench Prison in south London, despite the protests of an unruly mob of supporters at the prison gates. Assange's incarceration in Wandsworth Prison would have made him something of a neighbour.
"It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society," says Porter. The government fought him with the legal instruments at its disposal and some that were not. Attempts to destroy his credibility by sexual entrapment failed, as did his expulsion from parliament. The government was finally forced to climb down. The kingdom continued to function much as before, the people were the wiser on the doings of their representatives – and today a statue of the man stands at the heart of London's Fleet Street, onetime centre of the UK newspaper industry.
So far so good; the parallels are almost too obvious. But what of the nature of the information supplied by WikiLeaks and the manner in which it has been served up to the papers involved?
The answer is probably yes: size does matter. The sheer volume and scope of the material and the threat it poses to the security systems of those who are the victims of its exposures – diplomats, kings and politicians, bureaucrats and bankers, and, no doubt, more to come – have changed the game. These are not the one-off revelations on Iraq and Afghanistan: this source will continue to drip feed the press for months yet and change the relationship between newspapers and the Internet as it does. The future of information looks very different from the past.
In the meantime, the besieged print media has been given a shot in the arm when it most needed it. Though the Internet is a powerful vehicle for freedom of expression and opinion, it has not usurped the traditional media's role as "Fourth Estate" – a phrase also coined in the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke, a passionate rival of Wilkes. The press will remain for some time the visible face of the watchdog on power and guardian of the people's interest – though if Julian Petley is right, it has already forfeited that role. How else than through the journalists and front pages of Europe's more serious newspapers could Assange have got the stories out? Who, other than the men and women trained to do it, is going to wade through the sheer volume of raw data and make sense of it for the reader?
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