9 February 2011


The Guardian's instant book on the biggest news story de nos jours, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, is a great piece of work, and I'll be reviewing it shortly. In the meantime, a gem from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's introduction to the book, which I missed the week before last when it was published in the paper: the text of an email he received on WikiLeaks from the American media lawyer Max Frankel, who defended the New York Times in the Pentagon papers case 40 years ago:
1. My view has almost always been that information which wants to get out will get out; our job is to receive it responsibly and to publish or not by our own unvarying news standards.

2. If the source or informant violates his oath of office or the law, we should leave it to the authorities to try to enforce their law or oath, without our collaboration. We reject collaboration or revelation of our sources for the larger reason that ALL our sources deserve to know that they are protected with us. It is, however, part of our obligation to reveal the biases and apparent purposes of the people who leak or otherwise disclose information.

3. If certain information seems to defy the standards proclaimed by the supreme court in the Pentagon papers case ie that publication will cause direct, immediate and irreparable damage we have an obligation to limit our publication appropriately. If in doubt, we should give appropriate authority a chance to persuade us that such direct and immediate danger exists. (See our 24-hour delay of discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba as described in my autobiography, or our delay in reporting planes lost in combat until the pilots can perhaps be rescued.)

4. For all other information, I have always believed that no one can reliably predict the consequences of publication. The Pentagon papers, contrary to Ellsberg's wish, did not shorten the Vietnam war or stir significant additional protest. A given disclosure may embarrass government but improve a policy, or it may be a leak by the government itself and end up damaging policy. "Publish and be damned," as Scotty Reston used to say; it sounds terrible but as a journalistic motto it has served our society well through history.
Rusbridger says: "There have been many longer treatises on the ethics of journalism which have said less." And, apart from the use of "which" when it should be "that", I couldn't agree more.

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