Oct 10

Wikileaks at City: last footnotes

The twitterstream arguing about Julian Assange’s appearance at City University is still active I see. So here are two footnote links, one from an Assange supporter GeorgieBC on the “new journalism“. That very phrase has of course been around a bit before now. I’m still not in sympathy in the least with the hacker outlook, but this is a calmer insight into a quite, entirely different philiosophy from journalism.

Second and last a post from Padraig Reidy of Index On Censorship on the the dilemmas which arranging Assange’s debate posed for an organisation devoted to open access. Even leakers want some media control.

Update 6/10/10: good post by Paul Prentice, one of the City University students who listened to Assange.


Oct 10

Assange fans and the supercilious weasel

In my last post, I was drawing attention to the gulf which separates the core Wikileaks philosophy and its roots in computer hacking and the set of assumptions which have driven journalism for the last couple of centuries or so. It was this vast gap which struck me most forcibly when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke London earlier this week.

I could not have looked for a better illustration of the distance between the two positions than the post-debate reaction of a couple of Assange’s fans. For Rixstep (“a constellation of programmers”), Assange is the Robin Hood who will help to dethrone the established media. It therefore follows that all that the established media write must be manipulative lies. Worse, as Rixstep wrote in a separate post, I’m defending “yesterday’s media” and don’t realise that its time is over. I am, “wittingly or not” an oppressor and part of a “power establishment”. (In real life, I’m a professor: see here).

A twitterer who enthusiastically agreed with Rixstep called me a “supercilious weasel” – I’m tempted to use that as the new name for this blog – and seemed very angry that some City University students didn’t think much of Julian Assange’s answers and had the temerity to say so. Naturally, they are dupes of The Establishment (me).

I rest my case.

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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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Sep 10

Panorama/BIJ: data journalism is scoopy

Delighted to say that last night’s BBC TV Panorama on top public service salaries has caused plenty of ripples. The programme was a co-production with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University. (Declaration of interest: I’m a BIJ trustee). The programme can be seen for six days here, some of the coverage is here and here and commentary here.

There will be more high-profile work from the BIJ before long, but  this is probably the largest stone this new outfit has yet thrown in the pond. Its journalists only began work at the start of this year. Investigative reporting is never quick. The raw material for this inquiry is 38,000 lines of data and it was obtained by 2,400 freedom of information requests.

Much of the coverage has focussed on the BBC salaries – and it must have required some nerve for Panorama to have devoted so much airtime to yet more detail of how much top people at the Beeb earn. But the really interesting stuff seems to me to lie not with the outliers at the top, but with the mass in the middle. Leaving the special case of the BBC aside, does the public service really need thosee thousands of salaries lying somewhere between £100,ooo and £300,000? It’s hard to imagine that a ruthless audit would give them all a value-for-money clearance.


Jul 10

Julian Assange and the Wikileaks agenda

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange came to the Centre for Investigative Journalism weekend school at City University last Friday to speak to a public audience. Assange is clearly making many more of these appearances in what might be called the Phase Two of the Wikileaks story.

Julian Assange

In Phase One, Assange barely gave any interviews at all and was secretive about himself and his organisation. Phase Two began when Wikileaks had put more than a million documents into the public domain which organisations and governments had never intended to release and when the US government arrested one of Wikileaks alleged leakers in the American military. (Earlier posts on this here and here; whole Wikileaks story here). That phase has seen Assange come out his shell and switch from defence to attack.

Here’s a summary of what he said in opening. Wikileaks has focussed from the start, he said, on revealing documents which will have the largest effect when disclosed. Borrowing the language of economists, documents kept secret create value by defining what will have impact when revealed.

But from the start, Wikileaks saw itself in quite a different perspective from mainstream media, or from all other news media. Assange intended, he said, to set up a “real free press” for the first time – in the sense that sensitive revelations at that scale which could not be shut down have never been done before. Wikileaks invested effort, time and money from the start in setting up servers which cannot be interrupted or attacked. He also saw Wikileaks as an “advocacy group for sources.”

He indirectly justified Wikileaks refusal to discuss its personnel, operations or security methods by saying that he has a “duty” to maintain “institutional integrity”. He went further: he has “a duty to history.”

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Jun 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism lifts off

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s answer to the American ProPublica and working out of City University, hit the ground running this weekend with the publication of its first story, a joint investigation with the British Medical Journal. The story revealed that a number of scientists who have advised the World Health Organisation on a possible flu pandemic have done paid work for drug firms who stood to benefit from WHO plans to deal with a major outbreak.

Harvey Fineberg, President of the Institute of Medicine in Washington and who chairs the WHO committee which reviews plans for the H1N1 virus, quickly released a statement saying that his commitee would be looking at this question when it next meets.

The story ran early on Al-Jazeera and was picked up quickly by The Guardian and dozens of others. A small milestone in the efforts to rebuild the strength of investigative journalism beyond mainstream new organisations. More scoops to follow. (Declaration: I’m a BIJ trustee.)


Apr 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Yesterday saw the launch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s counterpart to the philanthropically-funded outfits in the US which are attempting to supply the difficult, expensive long-form reporting which is in increasingly short supply in mainstream newspapers and broadcasting. (Disclosure: I’m a Bureau trustee).

The Pulitzer Prize awarded to the American investigative team ProPublica this month was a watershed in revealing to the world at large that cutting-edge journalism has moved outside the places where you’re accustomed to find it.

The Bureau has been made possible by a generous donation from David and Elaine Potter, but will stand or fall by its stories. Last night’s launch at City University London, where the Bureau is based, was a “soft launch” to mark the fact that the Bureau has begun work. Coverage here and here.  The real launch of course will be the publication or broadcast of its first stories.