The Obama administration is pursuing Wikileaks and its Australian founder Julian Assange for alleged criminal activity in releasing classified documents.
The US Department of Justice has ordered Twitter to hand over private messages sent by parties close to Wikileaks and the whistle-blower website says that even the more than 600,000 followers of its tweets may be investigated.
Barack Obama is more vigorously chasing leakers than the Bush administration. In early January a former CIA officer was charged with disclosing national security secrets about Iran to a New York Times journalist.
But Washington’s outrage is highly selective. Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced details of his memoir this year and acknowledged that never-before-seen governments, sourced without using traditional freedom of information methods, would be included. Nobody has called for Rumsfeld to be prosecuted and nobody will.
The legal wrangling over Wikileaks will continue for years but the relationship between journalists and governments and reporters and the general public is being transformed in ways that has been rarely examined.
Here’s why it matters so much.
The traditional form of investigative journalism has involved reporters digging around for material on business, government or individuals and then distilling this information into a readable and important story.
Sources are discovered and maintained. Unsuspecting leaks (as well as sanctioned ones) may occur that shed invaluable light.
But through it all, readers would rarely see the background to the news-gathering. All they saw was the final product and assess its worth accordingly.
This unhealthy secrecy is one of the key reasons Assange speaks about scientific journalism, the right of consumers to dig deeper into a yarn. As he wrote in the Australian in December:
“Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”
Despite the mainstream media’s reluctance to reveal its journalistic engine-room, corporate media has been central to launching Wikileaks into the stratosphere. Reporters from a carefully selected number of newspapers and television outlets dissected the cables and only released the angles they thought were important. Wikileaks was not in charge of this process and thus far little more than 3000 out of 250,000 cables have been published.
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