Promoting Excellence In Journalism?

Two weeks ago I sent to the Columbia Journalism Review a rebuttal to a defense written by the magazine’s managing editor Vanessa Gezari of Buzzfeed’s decision to post the so-called Steele dossier, the collection of un-vetted memos making lurid allegations about Donald Trump. The magazine accepted the submission but a fortnight on the editors still have not posted my response. So I have decide to post it here. I think the arguments I make are important in the debate underway among journalists about how we should be covering Trump. Please see another post of mine on this issue here.

Anyway here is a link to Vanessa Gezari’s article.

And here is my response:

Vanessa Gezari’s arguments supporting Buzzfeed’s publication of the questionable dossier on Donald Trump strike me as Jesuitical and they are a sad reflection of where we are as a profession these days. I find it troubling that they should be mounted by the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, which markets itself as “Encouraging excellence in journalism.”

I don’t see how CJR’s managing editor is promoting excellence in jo,urnalism by endorsing the publication of material of this huge scope that was not verified and that those who posted it apparently harbored doubts about as to its veracity.

Gezari seems to be arguing — in fact is — that it is okay to take a punt to see what happens, to see if any leads are generated — even if people are smeared as a result.

By that standard we should all shove up stuff on the internet to see what works or doesn’t, even if we have major doubts about the veracity of what we have just posted, just to see what gives. I sense underpinning her piece is a belief that the allegations must largely be true about Trump.

When something looks too good, it might well be the case that it is! In short, it might not be true. And as journalists we have a responsibility to try to get as close to the truth as possible, before we decide to publish.

Gezari argues: “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?” No, they didn’t, but it was Wikileaks — not a bona fide news organization — that published the material. Once in the public realm, news outlets had no choice but follow the story.

Gezari seems to think that media outlets were just sitting on the dossier. Many weren’t. They were working to try to prove the allegations or to knock them down. Yes, that takes time — as she notes investigations can take months and sometimes years. Although in this case I doubt it would have taken years. Premature publication has screwed up quite a lot of journalists who have been working on the dossier and complicated efforts to get the backstory on the dossier.

The dossier is full of contradictions and basic factual errors — as I noted in an opinion article for The Hill and as Andrei Soldatov did in a piece for the Guardian. Perversely, the Guardian chose to headline Andrei’s article a tad misleadingly, “The leaked Trump-Russia dossier rings frighteningly true.” In fact, he was casting grave doubts about the material.

Some errors in the dossier are so basic that they cast huge doubt on the skills of Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent responsible for preparing the memos. Let me give you a few instances. The misspelling of “Alpha” for “Alfa” in reference to one the most important banks in Russia. The wrong FSB department when it comes to eavesdropping or cyber investigations. The naming of an official as having been tasked to deal with the U.S. election who was actually tasked with the Russian elections and, anyway, moved from Vladimir Putin’s office to the State Duma in October.
Why didn’t Steele notice these errors? Why didn’t Buzzfeed? Or if they did, whey did they carry on and post the document in its entirety?

And then we have unexplained and troubling contradictions, such as the material on Trump’s business deals in Russia, or rather the lack of them. In one memo it is stated: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”

But in another memo we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”

So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed, or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up.

Such factual errors and contradictions should have stopped Buzzfeed from posting the dossier. They did discourage others.

But then the media world seems to be divided into three groups now.

One group comprises those who hate Trump so much, they can and will believe anything of him. They have relatives on the other side of the aisle — those who hate Hillary Clinton so much they can and will believe anything of her — even that she has been overseeing a human trafficking operation! Then we have the group whose members love Trump and so won’t believe anything bad about him, even when verified.

And then there are the poor sane souls in the middle, who might love or hate Trump, or even be indifferent to him, but who hold fast to professional standards and try to base their articles on facts.

Old Cold War Stuff

The Guardian’s Martin Kettle writes about the public release of official files (heavily redacted) of British intelligence’s surveillance of historians Christopher Hill, AJP Taylor and Eric Hobsbawm saying the monitoring of the academics shows how deeply penetrated academia was by the Cold War.

The penetration wasn’t all one way. He surely should have noted why Communist Party-linked Oxbridge academics prompted the concern (rightly) of the prosaic minds of MI5: and it can be summed up in four names, Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. Also, my own expose a decade ago with David Rose of the HVA Stasi’s recruitment targeting of UK academics provides some more context. Although it does strike me as a bit mad to target the three for so long.

On a side note: I remember literary scholar Q.D. Leavis hurling the door open to me for a tutorial at a her home in Cambridge the day after art historian Anthony Blunt was exposed as the “fourth man” and waving The Times in my face angrily and saying: “Of course, he was the fourth man. Look at his weak chin — a chin of a traitor.”

Here We Go Again

Reading today’s Daily Telegraph on the David Miranda detention and it is easy to be cast back to other misguided UK government efforts to stop leaks and block embarrassing information from seeing the light of day.

It is taking on digital echoes of the Peter Wright affair when the UK government and the security services opened themselves up to derision with farcical efforts to block the publication of Wright’s book detailing MI6 and MI5 dirty tricks, illegal surveillance and a plot to bring down the Wilson government. They couldn’t stop publication abroad and it was easy to purchase the book.

National security was claimed as the issue too back then but it quickly became clear what was at stake was the reputation of the British security services.

Now we have a Prime Minister sanctioning the destruction of hard drives held by the Guardian newspaper containing the material former NSA contractor Edward Snowden stole — as if that will stop the information leaking out. As the Guardian made clear they have duplicates and presumably Greenwald and Snowden do, too, (probably so have the Russians and Chinese by now!).  Possibly the NSA should destroy their hard drives as the information is so sensitive – after all Snowden has demonstrated the puzzle palace’s own computer system isn’t secure.

And then the Telegraph gets a UK government source today hazarding absurdly that David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Greenwald, was detained for his own good as he was carrying sensitive documents and could have been kidnapped by terrorists. Is security at Heathrow Airport so bad?

Presumably the Snowden material does contain information useful to terrorists but the information is also useful for the British and American publics to gauge what is being done in the name of the “war on terror” and for them to assess whether the politicians and the security services have got the balance right between security and civil liberties. Clearly President Obama doesn’t think so with the tweaks and the inquiry he has ordered. But then, of course, he would have done that without the Snowden revelations. Really?

Libya To Make Conflict Rape A War Crime

Interesting piece and a hopeful one from the London Guardian about an upcoming vote in the Libyan General National Congress to make rape carried out during war a war crime. But it might have been useful to put some stronger qualifiers in: the lack of counseling for women (and men) who suffered sexual violence during the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gaddafi; the pressure in the past and (have heard by word of mouth) now on women to marry their rapists; and the failure to mention that some rebels were also involved in inflicting sexual violence. The Guardian article is here.

DSK — Sarkozy Did It

Let’s get this right. The former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is arguing that “political enemies” linked to Nicolas Sarkozy and the French President’s ruling UMP party choreographed the scandal triggered by his alleged assault on a hotel maid.

The basis for his accusation? Evidence, he says, that his cell phone and text messages were being monitored by his political enemies and a “victory dance” two employees at New York’s Sofitel hotel were caught doing when the police were summoned.

He now says he doesn’t believe that the “incident” with Nafissatou Diallo was a setup but he argues that the subsequent “escalation of the events”, including his arrest and imprisonment were “orchestrated” by political opponents.

Let’s unpack some of that. According to journalist Edward Jay Epstein writing in The Guardian, DSK “accuses operatives linked to Sarkozy of intercepting phone calls and making sure Diallo went to the New York police, thus sparking an international scandal.”

The only evidence he provides for this is a warning from an unnamed friend that a copy of an email his wife, French broadcaster Anne Sinclair, had sent him had been found by a sympathizer inside the UMP party headquarters in Paris.

That’s the only evidence on the monitoring side of the accusation that he provides: an unnamed friend and one email (not a cell phone text message).

And the dance? What on earth could two male employees being doing a jig about? It could be anything at all and nothing connected with DSK, of course. One of them could have got laid the night before, got engaged or won the lottery! Got a great deal on a car! Secured promotion, got a new job. Anything. Or maybe they were celebrating the fact that the police were called in to investigate a nasty assault on a maid by a rich, powerful, arrogant SOB, who thinks women are just “material.” And they didn’t need to feel this way because they were in the service or pay of the French Secret Service.

None of what DSK says passes the laugh test. And what his attitude conveys is this: that there had to be foul play because the law doesn’t, or shouldn’t, apply to the powerful; the law is for the little people.

Sleight Of Hand Reporting On Murdoch

The Guardian is running a big story today on how U.S. shareholders are “deeply troubled” by the testimonies provided by Rupert and James Murdoch before the Leveson Inquiry.

“U.S. shareholders are said to be worried that the Murdochs’ testimony this week has raised new questions about the management of the company and posed potential threats to other areas of its media empire,” the report claims.

And then it goes on to quote from a “senior policy analyst with Change To Win (CtW), a U.S. advisory group that works with pension funds with over $200bn in assets.”

According to the analyst, Michael Pryce-Jones, the Murdochs’ testimony raised two immediate concerns for shareholders: the future of the firm’s control of broadcaster BSkyB and the ethics of top management.

I am sure some shareholders are nervous about what is unfolding in the UK vis-à-vis phone hacking, public inquiries and the on-going investigation by broadcast watchdog Ofcom. But are they the immediately relevant shareholders?

The Guardian should have explained who Change To Win is? It isn’t just some kind of neutral advisory group. It was founded in 2006 as the CtW Investment Group and, as the organization explains, it “works with pension funds sponsored by unions affiliated with Change to Win, a federation of unions representing nearly 5.5 million members, to enhance long-term shareholder returns through active ownership.”

The leadership council of the Change To Win federation consists of Joseph Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers; James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters; Geralyn Lutty of the United Food and Commercial Workers; Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union; Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers of America; Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees Union; and Tom Woodruff of the Service Employees International Union.

So, I think, we can take it that there is no love lost for Rupert M. from such an organization. Does that mean their views should be discounted? Of course not. If the union pension funds have investments in the Murdoch media empire, they have every right to voice their opinion and concerns. But it would have been more honest journalism for The Guardian to explain exactly who Change To Win is and where they might be coming from.

Of course, if the paper had done so, then the story would have been weakened. Maybe that explains the omission. And also why the report glides over as quickly as it can this bit of contradiction: “Nonetheless News Corp shares rose during the three days of testimony, rising 0.7% to $19.76 on Thursday.”

Hmm. In the end, the only important News Corp. shareholders are the top five in voting terms: the Murdoch family and Rupert Murdoch, who control 39.74 percent of the votes in News Corp.; Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud (7.04 percent); Invesco (1.8 percent); Bank of New York Mellon (1.19 percent); and Taube Hodson Stonex (1.07percent).

 

Bob Diamond Should Phone My Tax Accountant

I am very worried for Barclays’ CEO Bob Diamond. I don’t think he’s securing the best tax advice that’s out there, and would like to recommend my own excellent tax adviser, the Alexandria, Virginia-based Braxton Moncure of Ross & Moncure, the accountant of choice of many journalists, foreign and otherwise, plying their trade in Washington DC.

From what I can see in the current brouhaha that’s erupted in London over Barclays helping Bob out by paying his U.S. taxes, he appears to be oblivious, as does Barclays for that matter, to the double tax agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. that protects anyone – peon like me to a master of the universe like Bob – from having to pay tax on both sides of the Atlantic on the same income.

For those of you who have not followed Diamondgate, let me briefly recap. This week, Barclays revealed that Bob had to make do in 2011 on a mere £17m in pay, shares and perks.

Of course, his compensation package underlined for many the scale of multimillion-pound pay deals still being handed out to top bankers.

But what has triggered even more fury is that Barclays paid £5.7m to cover Diamond’s U.S. tax bill. That disclosure came hot foot on the recent news that Barclays has been mired in a row with HM Revenue and Customs over a couple of tax avoidance schemes that were designed to save the bank about £500m.

The news of Bob’s nice tax perk prompted Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott to remark: “The only tax Barclays pays seems to be for Bob on his bonus.”

And some institutional shareholders – including Standard Life, Aviva and Scottish Widows – are threatening to vote against Diamond’s remuneration package at the bank’s annual general meeting later this month.

Their disapproval has mounted since the Association of British Insurers announced that the package possibly breaches corporate governance codes. The ABI is concerned about the scale of the remuneration package given that Diamond himself acknowledges the bank’s performance last year was “unacceptable”. In February, Barclays reported a three percent fall in profits. The Daily Mail has a nice little graph here showing how Bob has profited while the bank’s share price has tumbled.

And the association suspects that the decision by Barclays to pay UK tax authorities £5.7m on behalf of Diamond may fall foul of their guidelines that companies “should not seek to make changes to any element of executive remuneration to compensate participants for changes in their personal status.” Whether anything comes from shareholder ire, who knows. Last year, the ABI and some institutional shareholders protested at the remuneration packages of top Barclays executives but nothing much came of it.

Bob’s UK tax bill was incurred when he relocated from New York to London on his promotion to CEO in January 2011. The bank has an agreement with Bob to compensate him, if he has to pay tax on the same income twice — in the UK and US.

And this is where it gets all very odd. Why did Bob have to pay tax to both the US and UK on the same income? Since 1975 there has been a double tax agreement between the US and UK to prevent double taxation on income and capital gains. That agreement has been added to over the years and with big changes in 2001.

Presumably, using this treaty Bob did not have to pay any US federal income tax. And that may well have happened. But state taxes are not covered by the double-tax treaty.

Barclays has not been clear about what taxes Bob incurred that required him to pay tax twice on the same income, but it is likely that they were New York state and city taxes. The top New York state tax rate is 8.97% and the New York City rate is 12.62%. Capital gains and dividends are taxed as ordinary income. But long-term capital gains may be taxed differently.

But why was Bob paying these taxes? He relocated in January 2011 – U.S. tax years run in calendar years, unlike the UK, which runs April to April.

Under New York state regulations: An individual is a New York resident if one (1) of two (2) conditions is met: 1) If an individual is ‘domiciled’  in New York, such individual is a New York resident. And domicile is defined thus: “Domicile in general, is the place an individual intends to be his permanent home – the place to which he intends to return whenever he may be absent NYCRR 105.20(d).”

2) “If an individual is not ‘domiciled’ in New York, such individual is a New York resident if s/he both ‘maintains a permanent place of abode for substantially all of the taxable year’ and spends in the aggregate more than 183 days of the taxable year in New York. New York Tax Law § 605(b)(1)(B), New York City Admin Code Section 11-705(b)(1).”

So the questions start to multiply. Did Bob spend more than 183 days in 2011 in New York when he had officially relocated to London?

Why has Bob not made a declaration via an efficient accountant to the New York tax authorities that while he maintains a home in New York he doesn’t consider this to be his permanent home? Hence my urging that Bob speaks with my accountant, Braxton Moncure.

As Bob – a dual UK-US citizen – has not apparently, according to Barclays, claimed non-dom status in the UK, which he could easily do, it would be simple, as long as he is not spending more than 183 days a tax year in New York, to prove that he is no longer domiciled in the Big Apple.

So why hasn’t he done so? And whatever the reason, why should Barclays be paying up when Bob could easily get out of the tax liability? And should a man who can’t seem to navigate efficiently an easy international tax thicket be the CEO of Barclays anyway? Or is there more than meets the eye here?

Phone Braxton, Bob!

 

 

In Defense of Hacking and Blagging

Forbes’ media blogger Jeff Bercovici today takes issue with a public interest defense for journalists to phone hack. The prompt for his post is a 2006 admission voluntarily made by The Guardian’s top investigative reporter David Leigh that he had listened to voicemails of people he was targeting and lied about his identity on phone calls to secure information. Lying about your identity is known in the trade as blagging.

Bercovici notes the irony in this considering that The Guardian was the newspaper most responsible for bringing to light the appalling phone hacking of celebrities and the bereaved by the News of the World. Although he doesn’t himself condemn Leigh or dismiss a public interest defense, he turns to the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, who apparently teaches media ethics. And she does the condemning for him.

He asked her whether Leigh’s public interest defense holds water? And she dismisses the defense pretty much out of hand. “The problem with that is he’s suggesting that the ends justify the means. In most ethical reasoning it doesn’t because it’s a subjective call. For him, it’s exposing bribery and corruption. For somebody else it might be exposing that some pop star lip synchs over his songs.”

He then paraphrases her, saying that “breaking the law in pursuit of a story — or committing a legal breach of journalistic ethics, such as misrepresenting one’s identity — is only excusable if it’s a story that’s not only in the public interest but impossible to get at through other means.” And that McBride is sure “almost never happens.”

Apparently, a “diligent enough reporter with good enough sources can always get the story with above-board methods.”

I suspect neither Bercovici nor McBride have much knowledge of David Leigh’s journalism. They seem also to have little understanding of the legal situation in the UK, where courts have upheld a public interest defense, or the ethics code of the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.

And I am pretty sure after researching the careers of both that neither has spent that much time investigating international gunrunners, spies, drug cartels or public corruption. On Poynter’s website there is mention that McBride, while a local reporter in Idaho, wrote some stories on white supremacists and the meth trade, but most of her reporting has been on religion.

First, to David Leigh’s journalism: His work back in the 1970s and 1980s did a lot to bring to light the attempts by some in British intelligence to destabilize the Wilson government. In the 1990s, his journalism led to the jailing for perjury of former UK Conservative defense minister Jonathan Aitken. In the 1990s, he wrote with Rob Evans a series of corruption articles on the international arms giant BAE Systems – articles that prompted prosecutions on both sides of the Atlantic and led the company to be fined more than $500 million. I don’t see anything from Bercovici or McBride that would compete with this quality of work — so some respect may be in order here.

Is McBride suggesting that none of these stories could be considered to be in the public interest? Could any intelligent judge for one moment fear that these kind of articles could be confused for a second with tabloid tittle-tattle about celebrities, or that even a tabloid journalist would not be red-faced in trying to suggest that there was an equal public interest in exposing the fact that some pop star lip synchs over his songs?

(On a broader ethical point, it is not always wrong to justify the means by the ends. In real life, it depends on the circumstances. And when it comes to formal philosophy I assume as an ethicist McBride is aware of the theory of consequentialism, a term coined by the Cambridge philosopher GEM Anscombe in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy to describe a central error in some moral theories put forward by JS Mill and Sidgwick. Consequentialism now refers to moral theories which hold that the consequences of actions are the true basis for judgments about the morality of conduct. So there is a debate about this for ethicists)

Second, McBride should be careful in assuming that the laws in the UK and the US are the same. David Leigh is right. There is a public interest defense contained in the UK’s Data Protection Act.

And there is also a public interest clause available in the journalism ethics code of the Press Complaints Commission. For example, the code says this: “Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.” So, Leigh has grounds for arguing that he broke no ethical guidelines of his profession.

For McBride subterfuge should only rarely be invoked — hell, if you are a half-decent journalist you should always be able to get the sources and the stories without subterfuge, she sniffed, remember. But it really does depend on what journalism you are doing.

Like David Leigh I have resorted in the past to subterfuge to secure information on Mexican drug cartels, Russian crime syndicates, terrorist groups, intelligence operations, human trafficking and public corruption. I don’t think it would have been a good idea, for example, to wander around Juarez or other Mexican border towns or in Colombia on various stories and be that open about my identity and what I was doing. Not only would I have failed to secure the information I was hoping to get but I would have also endangered my life and the lives of those who were assisting me.

Have I listened to voicemails? Yes, from tapes supplied (unofficially) to me by US law enforcement agents and Colombian police of intercepted conversations between drug traffickers. Was that questionable? No, there was a clear public interest in the journalism I was doing.

Have I ever hacked a phone myself? Yes, for a big investigation back in 1992 for The Times of London on how easy it was to hack cell phone conversations using a cheap scanner sold in British high street stores and costing then about $30. This was back in the analogue days of mobile telecommunications and the industry was claiming that you couldn’t hack cell phones and, maybe, if you could, only one side of the conversation could be eavesdropped on.

I spent a week listening to hundreds of conversations. You could only do this at random but the information I secure was deeply disturbing. I was able to secure credit card and bank details galore. I knew when the top civil servant in Northern Ireland was due to land at Heathrow airport and where he would be going and then his time of departure back to Belfast (this was when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still very much on). I discovered where police anti-terrorist checkpoints were planned for in London. I listened into several calls from MPs, and heard an extraordinary row between the lead singer of a major pop group and the band’s agent.

What did we do with all of this information? Of course, we didn’t publish the details of credit cards or bank accounts nor did we name the pop band, etc. We did indicate what kind of information we had received and played up the security aspect of the dangers of cell phone conversations.

In short, without hacking we could not illustrate our public interest point – use cell phones with care, you don’t know who might be listening and you could be giving away vital information. The BBC followed our expose, and the mobile telecommunications industry was left embarrassed. Sorry, Ms. McBride, we didn’t think getting sources to say how easy it was to hack would have quite the same impact as doing it.

On blagging, I could give several personal examples. But one may suffice. Back in the mid-1990s I was writing for the Washington Times Corp. a series of articles on organized crime in Germany and central Europe. One concerned human trafficking. To be more specific, it focused on the trafficking of young women from further east, especially Ukraine and Russia. To be able to secure interviews and to get around pimps and guards, I did not reveal my purpose or my job. Was that wrong?

What is curious — or maybe not — about Bercovici’s post is he doesn’t mention the examples David Leigh uses to illustate his point about public interest journalism and phone hacking and blagging.

Here they are:

“I, too, once listened to the mobile phone messages of a corrupt arms company executive.” And,

“I still treasure the moment when I rang up Mark Thatcher in Downing Street. Thatcher was secretly on the payroll of a firm trying to get a construction deal in Oman. But at the time, we could not yet prove a link between him and the Middle East fixer concerned, whose name was Jamil Amyuni. ‘Who’s calling?’ said the Downing Street switchboard. I said ‘Tell him it’s Jamil Amyuni’. In two seconds flat, Mark came on the line, and shouted cheerily ‘Hi, Jamil!’ We had our story. Was I wrong to do that? Surely not. We were successfully exposing what many people thought was misbehaviour by the then prime minister’s son, who was shamelessly exploiting his position.”

Of course, offering the detail David Leigh supplied would have weakened the Forbes’ post. I assume that is why the author chose to leave them out.

What the News of the World was up to in hacking the voicemail systems of celebrities and the bereaved parents of British soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan was outrageous. The paper had no public interest defense in hacking the voice mails left on the phone of a missing girl, either. It was illegal and ethically indefensible. But let’s take care not to throw the baby out with the dirty bath water. Public interest journalism can entail the need for hacking and blagging.

 

 

Blue Book Shenanigans — But Why Illegal?

The Independent on Sunday newspaper has a fascinating article that spells trouble for Rupert Murdoch’s News International. The article discloses that journalists at the News of the World and other NI titles paid a private detective to provide hundreds of pieces of confidential information, often using illegal means.

The article is based on a confidential document the paper calls the “Blue Book”, a ledger of work carried out by PI Steve Whittamore for News International titles, detailing a series of transactions including obtaining ex-directory (unlisted) phone numbers, telephone accounts, criminal records checks and withheld mobile numbers.

The report will add fuel to the political fire raging in the UK over a phone-hacking scandal involving the News of the World and may well add further embarrassment for Prime Minister David Cameron, who has so far supported Andy Coulson, now his chief spin-doctor. Coulson resigned from the NoW in 2007 after one of his reporters, Clive Goodman, was jailed for tapping into telephone voicemails. Coulson has consistently denied any knowledge of illegal methods being used to secure information during his term as editor.

Labour MPs – often the targets of NI probes – are on the war-path. And so, of course, are NI newspaper rivals, such as the Independent and the Guardian. They would be “outraged” wouldn’t they? For years they have been green with envy at the better scoops NI titles secure.

While not condoning in anyway NI using illegal methods to secure information, I have to ask why it should be illegal to secure half of the information NI journalists were obtaining. Why should it be illegal to find out to whom a telephone number is registered or whether someone has a criminal record?

And why should it be illegal in the U.K. to check the points on a driving licence or trying to establish ownership of a vehicle from its number plate?

On the whole these activties would not be illegal in the U.S.. In my state of Maryland the courts kindly allow anyone to do an online search on civil and criminal court cases. The argument in the U.K. is all about privacy. But how about some transparency! It is always said that justice should be seen to be done, for example. But if you hide information about criminal court cases, how is that justice being seen to be done?

The Irresponsibility of WikiLeaks

Until yesterday I was a strong supporter of the work of WikiLeaks: democratic governments are not transparent enough on the whole, and certainly in the “war on terror” there has been far too much empowering of the security services and far too many civil liberty abuses.  And both the Bush administration and Blair government lied to their publics – and the World – about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The disclosure recently by WikiLeaks of a video showing the killing of likely non-combatant Afghans was a public service.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been offensively cavalier with his uploading of 75,000 leaked battlefield reports and other secret and classified U.S. military material from the war in Afghanistan. As the New York Times among others has reported, the names of dozens of Afghans who have provided information to the U.S. military and NATO troops can be identified from many of the reports. A cursory search of some of the documents that I did today reveals informant family and village names: pinpointing them will not be that demanding for the Taliban.

Assange maintains that WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 reports to minimize the danger to informants. Asked on NBC’s Today show about whether he would view the killing of an informant by the Taliban as “collateral damage” in his bid the make public more of the details about the war, he responded: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take vey seriously.”

That isn’t good enough. Assange doesn’t describe himself as a journalist – he’s more of a transparency activist. But while he may not consider himself a journalist, he is engaging in journalism and, for the better sort of journalist, there are ethics and professional standards that are to be observed – that is if reputation is to be maintained. Journalists at the Guardian, New York Times and Der Speigel observed those standards at the beginning of the week when given by Assange exclusive access to documents ahead of their full online release. The three publications posted online documents but ensured informant information was redacted.

That is the approach I took when revealing for past stories and investigations the details of hundreds of leaked classified intelligence and law enforcement documents. And, yes, I engaged in self-censorship and erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t my job to assist narco-traffickers or terrorists or other spies to identify informants and to pull the trigger.

Assange has been highly irresponsible in what he has done. Both transparency and bringing home to Americans and Britons the futility and savagery of the war in Afghanistan could have been accomplished by more restraint – the kind of restraint shown by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.