01
Oct 10

Assange of Wikileaks, reflections on “truth”

Yesterday was bracketed by discussions on the nature of truth. The flux of events and ideas in journalism is sending people back to first principles to blunder around in the domain of philosophers.

In the morning I was on an oversize panel convened by Editorial Intelligence to discuss “Where Truth Lies” in the media (video here). In the evening Julian Assange, founder and frontman of Wikileaks returned to City University to be questioned on his contributions to the world’s knowledge.

The single most striking thing to emerge from both debates was the vast distance between “journalism” (and all the controversies over its value, competence and conduct) on the one hand and the radically different position of the data and document leakers on the other.

In the morning’s debate, there was lively discussion of the circumstances in which it is justifiable to publish particular stories. Paul Staines, aka blogger Guido Fawkes, defended his story which led to the resignation of a special adviser to Foreign Secretary William Hague, including a refreshingly frank pitch that his aims include mischief-making gossip. Blogger Iain Dale disagreed and said the story should never have run. The distinguished investigative reporter John Ware defined his aim as building a “case which can stand up to scrutiny.” Whatever their other differences, all the speakers (me included) shared a common assumption that journalists, acting as intermediaries, select particular stories, facts and judgements for the consumption of their audience.

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07
Sep 10

Hackgate and Coulson: privacy law comes closer

Just as it would be hard to explain why some fires start slow and some blaze immediately, predicting which stories will catch on and be replayed and expanded and which don’t is not an exact science. Some stories spread, well, like wildfire and others splutter and crackle without really catching and then, suddenly, woomph…they’re fully alight.

So it has been with the allegations of widespread phone-tapping at the News of the World. A story has entered the nation’s saloon bar and water cooler conversation when it provides the joke for a Matt’s daily cartoon.

Because Andy Coulson, the NoW’s editor at the relevant time, is now the Prime Minister’s spokesman, much of the coverage has been fitted to one of the iron templates of political reporting: will he stay or will he be forced to resign?

This isn’t exactly a distraction, but it isn’t quite the big long-term issue either. For all the diligence of the reporters of The Guardian and New York Times who have been driving this story, the single widest revelation of phone interception (and “blagging” confidential information) commissioned by journalists came the Information Commissioner in 2006 and derived from discoveries made during a police investigation into a private detective, Operation Motorman (see para 27 here). The staff of the News of the World may yet be revealed to have done more phone “screwing” than any other paper; but they were hardly alone.

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