Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks - the salient point?

Pretty well everything that could be said about the Wikileaks diplodocudump has been said. Everyone's made up their mind about whether it's good or bad for the world/diplomatic communication/good government etc etc.

But here's something else to think about: what does it do to journalism?

It's an important question because, as I wrote earlier, we really do have to take care we don't lose investigative journalism and all it entails because we believe ersatz, hollowed out versions are the real thing.

We have to keep in focus, too, Wikileaks' agenda as set out by its oddly self-regarding founder Julian Assange. It and he are not friendly to journalism as we know it - and it wouldn't take too much conspiratorial insanity to construct a theory that this is all about busting traditional journalism.

Here's what Assange told an audience in London back in the summer, as reported by City University's Journalism Professor, George Brock.

Wikileaks, George Brock reports, started with a focus on places where government was least transparent:

"Then they moved on to places where 'the power structure is so sewn up that the press doesn't matter much' ... 'It's all bankrupt' he said ... 'All current political theory is bankrupt, all political thought, because we don't know what the hell is going on'.

You might have guessed by now that the established media are part of the problem. Journalists, he argues, are creating unreasonable public expectations. Their 'original sin' is to enjoy the imbalance of power. Why does someone want to read what a journalist has written? 'They're ignorant and you're not. You know more ... You can't lie but the opportunity to distort is large and prevalent.'

The reader can't see the whole picture so Wikileaks has to fill the gap. Once 'primary source material' is up on the web, the 'lying opportunities' shrink."

In essence, it's the journalism bypass theory, as popular with new media gurus as it was with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the decade 1994-2004.

The diplodocudump was underwhelming - but that doesn't mean it was a Bad Thing; no journalist should argue that revelation itself doesn't serve the public interest. At the very least, it's about a partial correction of the information asymmetry between power and people.

But it wasn't and couldn't ever be an end in itself. Without the attentions and mediation of the very journalism he's declared broken, Assange may as well have fed the leaked diplomatic telegrams straight into the shredder (and, yes, I know they weren't actually on paper - cut me some figurative slack here) or indeed re-recorded Lady Gaga back onto the CD.

Journalism - especially investigative journalism - has many shortcomings. There's no science about what gets investigated and what doesn't; no guarantee that it's the biggest scandals - for want of a better word - that get nailed, nor that some lesser 'scandals' don't get a place in the public sphere they don't quite deserve.

No guarantee, either, that the evidence stacks up or that the 'truth' revealed is incontestable.

But because of the way most investigative journalism comes about - through a whistleblower who rightly or wrongly senses some kind of moral violation - it has that magic thing we call salience.

And it's salience that leaking on an industrial scale lacks. Leaking for the sake of leaking or in the hope of overwhelming both power and journalism as we know it.

Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest - if we mean capturing the public's attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material.

And the risk is this: that we persuade ourselves that Wikileaks-style transparency is a substitute for investigative journalism rather than the precursor of journalistic possibilities.

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