Imagine you came to learn about a secret whose revelations might contribute to the debate on a major issue of public interest. Would you rush to make it public regardless of the consequences? What if the revelation could cost lives, including some on your own side?
Anyone engaged in the media business has faced, or is likely to face, such a conundrum at one point or another in his or her career.
I first faced it in the spring of 1973 when, as editor of Kayhan, Iran’s leading daily newspaper, I was presented with a news item about the pilot of a Soviet postal aircraft that had landed on a high road near Tabriz, in northwest Iran, and who was asking to meet some official person. The pilot told our reporter that he wanted to seek political asylum.
It seemed a good story complete with the picture of the Soviet aircraft. A few moments later, the presses started rolling and the news, soon picked up by all international agencies, was out before officials could reach the pilot and talk to him.
Two days later, the foreign ministry issues a statement announcing that the pilot had been interviewed and was being returned to the USSR in accordance with an agreement signed by Tehran and Moscow a few years earlier. A few months later, news came out that the pilot had been executed and more than a dozen of his friends imprisoned on charges of colluding in his abortive defection.
At that point, I had a vague sensation of remorse.
That turned into a full-scale sense of guilt when our foreign minister told me that publishing the news had been a mistake. He told me that dozens of Soviet citizens defected to Iran each year, often en route to the United States or Western Europe. All would be spirited out of the country before the Soviets could ask for their extradition.
“If you had not put that story in the newspaper he would be out of Iran by now, allowing us to tell the Soviets that he was not here,” the minister said.
Needless to say, for the past 35 years, that sense of guilt has remained with me. No story is worth a single human life.
Throughout all of these years, the ghost of the Soviet pilot has returned to prevent me from repeating the mistake. The price I have had to pay for this came in the form of scoops that could have pushed my reporting career into the stratosphere.
Last month, I was reminded of the Soviet pilot when an Internet website published thousands of supposedly leaked documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I have spent several days skimming through as many of the leaked documents as possible. Most of them offer nothing that is not already public knowledge.
The combined effect of the documents is to portray the United States as a rather undisciplined behemoth often turning every which way. It is clear that the US was not designed to act as an empire with clear goals and well established methods of achieving them. However, even that was no secret to those of us who have studied the pattern of American behaviour over several decades.
The effect of the leaks is certain to be marginal on the course of the war in Afghanistan and the current phase of post-war consolidation in Iraq.
However, the leaks contain the names of some 40 Afghans who, for whatever reason, had decided to inform NATO forces about the presence of Taliban groups in their area. Add to that a series of documents that could lead to the identification of over 100 other Afghans who provided analysis and opinion, and you realise that dozens of lives are now in danger.
The website that leaked the documents and the front-man for the leak have spent the past few weeks trying to justify their act in the name of freedom of information.
It took Western democracies more than 200 years to develop what one might call the canon of individual and collective freedoms. In that canon, the concept of freedom of information is among the most sacrosanct. That is justified on the grounds that, for people to make a responsible decision, especially when they have to choose their government in an election, they need to be properly informed.
However, the latest leaks cannot be justified even with reference to freedom of information. As already noted the only new information they provide is the identity of individual Afghans who will now be targeted by Taliban thugs. Beyond that, they reveal the chaos that reigned in parts of the Bush administration and the even bigger mess produced under President Barack Obama. That, however, was no secret to anyone who reads newspapers or browses the net.
Good journalists should always be wary of leaks. For no one in possession of a secret will leak it unless he or she has a secret agenda. I never believed in honest whistle-blowers motivated by their pure love of freedom, democracy and human rights.
The journalism of leaks deserves no plaudits. For a reporter who is presented with documents to leak has done nothing himself.
This is why I never regarded Ben Bradlee, a good friend for many years, as the sole model of journalism. The so-called “Deep Throat” who triggered the Watergate scandal that destroyed the Nixon presidency later confessed that he had acted out of partisan interests. He had not wanted Nixon to become president and was now determined to help bring him down.
I was never a fan of Nixon and shed no tears at his downfall.
However, he ended up a victim of lazy journalism, one based on something that someone has leaked to you, rather than punished by the voters, something he deserved.
In politics, one could do no better than always returning to the man who founded it in the first place: Aristotle. He warned that every system is corrupted by exaggerating its basic principle. Thus, a system with freedom of information as its basic principle is corrupted when freedom of information is exaggerated. In any case, those who betray a secret to you are likely to also betray your secret to others.