WikiLeaks and 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.
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."