Hard News by Russell Brown


Wikileaks: had things gone differently

Millions of words have been spent on secrets, lies and Wikileaks in the past three years, but we have had to wait a long time to hear from the quiet man at the centre of it all: Pfc Bradley Manning.

In pre-trial testimony as part of the case being brought against him by the US government, Manning not only confirmed himself as the source of the massive trove of US military and diplomatic information that has kept Wikileaks in the headlines since, but explained his motivations. He also, sensationally, revealed that he had tried to take his story to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Politico website before going to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

 I think this revelation warrants some caution. Manning has pled guilty to 10 charges, some minor, but not to the odious charge of "aiding the enemy" that the government has seen fit to bring against him. His case will rest strongly on depicting himself as a conventional whistleblower, not as a man in cahoots with Assange from the outset. It is in his interest to emphasise his attempts to interest other journalists. I think Janet Reitman's analysis in Rolling Stone is pretty good:

While Wikileaks and the Times are different animals, they do have this in common: Both use their sources, as all journalists do, and they both used Bradley Manning, to maximum effect. The Times may have ignored Manning's initial call, but it ultimately profited greatly from his leaks by "partnering" with Wikileaks on both the war logs and the cables, which the Times' managing editor at the time, Bill Keller, referred to as a "treasure" that "contained the makings of many dozens of stories." Julian Assange, the far greater profiteer, became a celebrity while his source, who has never betrayed any personal knowledge of him, languished in prison. Today, at the close of this round of hearings, the government announced that it intends to push ahead with its robust prosecution of Manning, His court martial is slated to begin in June. If convicted, he faces life in prison. The judge, however, can always opt for the death penalty.

But Reitman doesn't go one step further and speculate on what might have happened had Manning found his Seymour Hersh, or at least got someone to answer the phone at the Times. A key part of investigative journalism is pastoral: looking after sources, keeping them safe, not least from themselves. It seems possible that with better guidance Manning might not have been moved to blab in those fateful chats with Adrian Lamo.

Would the US government have deployed the same heavy tactics had this been purely a New York Times story? The answer may be "yes". As that paper's Public Editor columnist Margaret Sullivan has observed:

Whatever one’s view, one fact is clear: Leakers are being prosecuted and punished like never before. Consider that the federal Espionage Act, passed in 1917, was used only three times in its first 92 years to prosecute government officials for press leaks. But the Obama administration, in the president’s first term alone, used it six times to go after leakers. Now some of them have gone to jail.

The crackdown sends a loud message. Scott Shane, who covers national security for The Times, says that message is being heard — and heeded.

“There’s definitely a chilling effect,” he told me. “Government officials who might otherwise discuss sensitive topics will refer to these cases in rebuffing a request for background information.”

We'll look at this trend and potential perils for both leakers and and journalists on Media3 this week, in discussion with Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, who have both experienced the consequences of reporting what the establishment does not want reported.


Also on this week's show: Peter Griffin joins us off the back of his Fulbright-sponsored trip to the US to study new developments in public-interest journalism (he has documented his experience on his Future News blog).

 And a chat with Jim Egan, chief operating officer of BBC Global News, the entity formed in the recent merger of the BBC's two commercial news businesses, about the future of TV news services.

You can come along to tomorrow evening's recording if you'd like the early scoop. We'll need you at the ballroom of the Villa Dalmacija, 10 New North Road, at 5.30pm.

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