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Monday, November 28, 2011

Walkleys for WikiLeaks and outstanding investigative journalists

Congratulations to all winners of 2011 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism. The award for Most outstanding contribution to journalism to WikiLeaks (and the response from Julian Assange via video bucketing the Prime Minister) is attracting plenty of attention here and around the world as debate continues about whether what WikiLeaks does is journalism.The Gold to Sarah Ferguson and colleagues at ABC Four Corners for the program "A bloody business" recognises the big impact of this story. The award for Investigative journalism to Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie of The Age who utilised Freedom of Information among other means to expose an international network of corruption involving a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia deserves special mention. 

WikiLeaks and journalism
The Walkley Foundation and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have no doubt that WikiLeaks is journalism:
This year’s winner has shown a courageous and controversial commitment to the finest traditions of journalism: justice through transparency... This innovation could just as easily have been developed and nurtured by any of the world’s major publishers – but it wasn’t. Yet so many eagerly took advantage of the secret cables to create more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime. While not without flaws, the Walkley Trustees believe that by designing and constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world. And in the process, they have triggered a robust debate inside and outside the media about official secrecy, the public’s right to know, and the future of journalism.
This is likely to play into the current debate in Australia about a range of media related. issues. NSW Attorney General Greg Smith who showed himself to be an old media man in recently questioning whether even Crikey is engaged in journalism may have choked on his rice bubbles when he saw this. His NSW shield law (nor that proposed by WA) doesn't define "journalism" thus leaving it to the courts the testing of meaning in the contemporary context.

Commonwealth shield law defines journalism and journalist in broad terms likely to cover WikiLeaks and Assange in the event of interest in an Australian source. (Correction 1 December 2011: it defines journalist and news medium but not journalism.) Whether this law would enable him protect a source of the kind of information published is perhaps moot if the sources are truly anonymous.There is a public interest exception unlikely to protect identity where information of national security significance is involved. And plenty of criminal law relevant to such a source but virtually no whistleblower protection at the Commonwealth level despite years of promises.

On the broader front all sorts of other words have been used to describe WikiLeaks. After initial over the top and prejudicial comments by the Prime Minister and Federal Attorney General McClelland referred to by Assange last night, the attorney confirmed no crime had been committed at that stage but “the Government remains extremely concerned about the unauthorised and irresponsible distribution of classified material.” 

Further afield US Vice President Joe Biden last year called Assange a "high tech terrorist" while Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich preferred "enemy combatant."

However even in the US where differences prevail the weight of considered opinion seems to be that WikiLeaks is a journalistic entity or an instrument of journalism and part of the reality of the media these days. John Naughton writing recently in The (UK) Observer cites a paper by Professor Benkler of Harvard that supports this view, criticising denial by some that "in the end, WikiLeaks and traditional news organisations are in the same business – namely publishing, in the public interest, information that powerful agencies in society wish to keep secret."

Investigative journalism
Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie of The Age were rewarded with the Walkley for producing "more than 60 exclusive reports on Australia’s first case of foreign bribery, a story they originally broke in May 2009 when they revealed that Securency, a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), had paid million-dollar commissions to win global banknote contracts.. Baker and McKenzie’s investigation has involved extensive source cultivation, Freedom of Information requests and the painstaking uncovering of a complex money trail which spans Asia, Europe and Africa. Their reporting has sparked raids, arrests and contributed to charges."

FOI may have been a friend but was also a frustration at some stages of their journey.

Commiserations to those nominees who missed out in this category including last year's winner Linton Besser of the Sydney Morning Herald who continues to use FOI to advantage.

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