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The "Respectable Five" and the Journalism of Leaks - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“A grave crime!” This is how the White House in Washington describes it. In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offers a more colourful description: “a satanic plot!”

What has caused Washington and Tehran to sing from similar hymn sheets is the latest batch of stolen American diplomatic cables published on the Internet by the WikiLeak site.

To be frank, the episode would not have merited more than a yawn had it not been for the fact that four Western newspapers and one magazine known for their respectability decided to publish some of the stolen documents.

As it happens, over the years, I have written for all five publications concerned. This is why I feel more saddened by their decision to lend credibility to what is, at best, a lazy form of journalism and, at worst, the re-selling of stolen goods.

Publishing stolen documents is a lazy form of journalism because it does not involve any effort on the part of journalists. The editor is sitting in his office when the telephone rings. He picks up the telephone and listens to a man offering stolen documents at a low price.

This is a far cry from real journalism in which reporters spend days, if not weeks and months, digging and digging, interviewing, collecting information, checking each piece and, having put everything in proper context, produce a story based on what they judge to be the truth as best they could ascertain.

The journalism of leaks is different.

Here there is no need for interviews, diggings, checking facts and finding the proper context.

There is, in fact, no need for journalists.

The technical operator of a Website could do the job.

The entire flood of stolen cables came from a single 23-year old computer-hacker turned soldier who wanted to cure his boredom. There was no need for the editor-in-chief, assistant editors, news editors, sub-editors, copy editors, fact-checkers, legal advisors, and other members of staff in any newspaper worthy of the name.

Up till now leak-style journalism had been reserved for the tabloids or what the French call the yellow press. But even here, the yellow press does better than the five publications that decided to become outlets for WikiLeak.

In yellow press journalism reporters must at least persuade someone, a jilted lover, a disgruntled butler, or a vengeful curmudgeon, to spill the beans. At the same time, unlike the “respectable five”, the yellow press never claims to be acting on high principles. It likes leaks leading to scandal because it helps sell papers – that’s all.

Now imagine if you enter a premises that claims to be a restaurant. What would happen if, once you are at the table, instead of being served a proper meal prepared by a qualified chef, you were buried under an avalanche of raw meat, uncooked vegetable and countless unidentifiable substances?

And what if you went to what you thought was a concert only to have tonnes of sheets of music thrown in your face?

Worse still, suppose you enter a hospital only to be faced with a torrent of medical treatises unleashed by individuals wearing white who pretend to be doctors.

If “citizen journalism” is alright what about “citizen brain surgery?”

Why did the “respectable five” decide to deal in stolen property?

Their chief excuse is that it is the right of the public to know.

This is how one of the five, The New York Times, put the case:

“As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name.”

Well, well. This is news to those of us who thought that the United States was a representative democracy with separation of powers based on checks and balances. We thought that when the Americans want “to know what is being done in their name” they do not look to WikiLeak but to their House of Representatives and Senate that are elected precisely to enforce this right.

A press that arrogates to itself the right to replace institutions of a civilised society does a great disservice, not only to journalism but also to democracy.

In WikiLeak journalism there is no need for the Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court. There would also be no need for elections or, indeed, a constitution.

Now let us look at things from a different angle.

If transparency has the highest value why limit it to stolen diplomatic cables?

What about publishing the entire account of what goes on in the editorial meetings of all media outlets? Why shouldn’t we know every detail of the instructions that the editor of The New York Times, to name just one of the :”respectable five” gives to his secretary every day?

What if journalists had to reveal the names of all their sources and the full account of what transpired between them?

And, what about the golden rule of “off the record” confidences that some sources insist upon?

No profession could survive without a measure of privacy that is often referred to as confidentiality or secrecy. And diplomacy is no exception.

US foreign policy is monitored, debated, questioned and challenged by the Congress and the senate whose members could demand to be informed on confidential transactions with foreign powers on behalf the American people.

WikiLeak and its partners cannot even boast about having invented the art of leaking of stolen diplomatic cables.

In 1917, Leon Trotsky, just appointed Commissar for External Relations in the newly created Soviet government, ordered the publication of thousands of secret documents seized from the Tsarist foreign ministry.

At the time, Trotsky, too, cited transparency and the right of the people to know as an excuses for his act.

The regime that Trotsky and his partners created was to emerge as one of the most secretive in contemporary history. The reason was that Trotsky and his partners, like the “respectable five” believed in short-circuiting the institutions of democracy.

Trotsky had dubbed his act “a political earthquake to make Europe tremble.” There was no earthquake and, soon, Trotsky himself had to flee into exile where an agent of the regime he had helped create murdered him.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and his gang in Cuba imitated Trotsky and published documents seized from the Battista government.

As this did not reveal anything that the Cubans did not know already, the process was abruptly stopped.

In 1979, Khomeinist-Communist “students” who had occupied the United States’ embassy in Tehran started publishing confidential documents. Initially, this became a lucrative business and the “students” made some money by publishing over 100,000 documents in 130 volumes.

Soon, however, people began to yawn as the leaks offered no sensational information and failed to provide perspective on issues of interest. The “students” dispersed. Many died in the various internal and external wars provoked by the mullahs. Today, many are in exile, and some in prison. Their leaks have been long forgotten.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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