When does an investigative journalist become an accomplice?

Julian Assange, from Wikileaks, at the SKUP co...

Julian Assange, from Wikileaks, at the SKUP conference for investigative journalism, Norway, March 2010 (see http://www.skup.no/Info_in_Englishhttp://www.skup.no/Konferansen_2010/Programmet) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Investigative journalism faces an existential crisis because of social media. In some areas, it relies more on leaks or disgruntled employees to provide evidence than a traditional research to investigate a topic. When investigative journalism relies more on leaks than research, it depends on the powerful, the connected, or the disgruntled for its stories. Despite claims to independence, an investigative journalist relies on contacts, especially those with inside information, for their stories. Thus, the investigative journalist’s skill is less an ability to investigate so much as to access sources for information. The search for access means that they can become an instrument for the person on the inside and become a cover for criminal behaviour. In the Watergate story, Woodward and Bernstein appeared to work tirelessly to unpick the Watergate cover-up. What is less well known is that their source (Mark Felt) was leaking information to them as part of his bureaucratic warfare with the Nixon White House. The source was using the investigative journalists for their own ends.

The journalist’s interest, the source’s interest, or the public interest?

We can see this in the way that Snowden chose Greenwald. In that relationship, we see that Snowden had an agenda he wanted to promote by publicising the information he stole. Snowden and those who supported him understood that for the leaks to have maximum impact and to reduce any potential punishment, they had to have maximum exposure. The lessons from other leakers taught them that they needed the leaks published and promoted in such a way that would generate the greatest public interest, which would give them the veneer of respectability.

Are the Dark Arts simply criminal investigative reporting?

In the UK, journalism became a cover for criminal activity. The News of the World staff (owned by News International and in turn by News Corp) directed private detectives to hack into phone messages for stories. The means justified the ends. Although they attempted to justify the stories as being in the public interest, this failed when brought to court. For an adversarial journalist, the danger is increased. Their search for evidence means they become a partisan activist using journalism for political or personal interests. They may justify their work as being in the public interest, but they risk becoming a cover for criminal activity. Instead of the public interest, what justifies their work is their adversarial position and the public interest serves it. Such a view may have been protected by the public interest. However, if the behaviour is criminal, then who decides the public interest?

Is the public interest a cover for criminal behaviour?

In the past, journalists could rely on the public interest defence. Are they acting in the public interest or using the public interest to hide their source’s criminality? The search for the information may suggest that the ends justify the means. Is this approach healthy for a press that is supposed to serve democracy and follow the rule of law?


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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