Are leaks to the media good for democracy?

by Jeremy Rose / 03 September, 2018

Chelsea Manning. Photo / RNZ

Leaks and leakers have been all over the news in recent weeks.

First, there was the leak of National Party leader Simon Bridges’ Crown limo bill – then there was the leak of the existence of a text from the leaker; and this week National’s Immigration spokesperson Michael Woodhouse hit the headlines when he said Chelsea Manning - of Cablegate fame  - should be barred from New Zealand.

And it's not just in New Zealand that the rights and wrongs of leaking have been hitting the headlines. Reality Winner - and NSA whistle-blower who revealed the Russian hacking of US electoral machines - was sentenced to five years in prison on 23 August.

The case highlighted the very real risks taken by public servants who leak material they believe to be in the public interest and just how critical it is for media outlets and journalists to do everything in their power to protect their sources.

The Intercept - the investigative news outlet that first broke the story - has carried out a review of its procedures and introduced tighter security requirements for its staff dealing with leaks. Jim Risen – the Intercept’s senior national security correspondent – told US radio programme Democracy Now that what Reality Winner did was a public service.

Reality Winner: Reuters screenshot. 

It’s hard to think of a higher stakes leak than what – inevitably – came to be called Cablegate. In 2010 Chelsea (then known as Bradley) Manning leaked more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to Wikileaks.

As Chelsea Manning told Kim Hill, last Saturday, she first approached the New York Times and Washington Post with the story but wasn't confident they would be able to protect her identity.

Some of the world’s most prestigious newspapers – including the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde and the Guardian – ended up working alongside Wikileaks in covering the story. But despite efforts to keep the identity of Chelsea Manning confidential she was caught and eventually sentenced to 35 years in a maximum security prison later commuted by then US President Barack Obama. Wikileaks editor in chief, Julian Assange, remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Reigniting the free speech debate

National Party immigration spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, last week, called on the government to bar Manning from entering New Zealand because of her criminal convictions.

And that reignited the free speech debate set off a few weeks back by the visit of Canadian right-wing provocateurs, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, although this time it was hard to find anyone in the media arguing against Chelsea Manning’s right to speak in New Zealand.

With the exception of ZB breakfast host Mike Hosking - who declared Chelsea Manning a criminal who shouldn’t be allowed to profit from her crimes.

A Stuff editorial was headlined: "An open and shut free speech case." And Gordon Campbell pointed out on the Scoop website that Chelsea Manning’s leak included a huge amount of information that was in the public interest.

Things like: the 2007 helicopter gunning down of a group of civilians – including two Reuters staff in Baghdad; American and British collusion to mislead the British parliament over the use of cluster bombs; and the failure to investigate thousands of cases of torture, rape and murder in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's hardly surprising that journalists should champion the right of a whistle-blower to speak – leaks are often the only way to find out about what’s really going on: whether it's skulduggery in government or corruption in the private sector. And as both the Reality Winner and Chelsea Manning cases show it’s not always easy to leak and the consequences can be severe.

If there’s an exception to that rule it’s Parliament.

In comparison to Cablegate, the leak by a still unknown parliamentary insider of opposition leader Simon Bridges’ Crown limo bill is insignificant.

Are leaks always in the public interest?

But are the same ethical issues at play? Should journalists treat political players – be they MPs, ministers of the Crown or press secretaries in the same way as they’d treat a public servant wanting to alert the public to something they think is untoward?

Former RNZ Political Editor Brent Edwards. Photo/ RNZ

Brent Edwards, who first began reporting from the press gallery back in 1989 and is now reporting for business paper NBR, told Mediawatch he isn't convinced they are.

"You get people who leak something for, I guess you might say, all the right reasons. They see something that alarms them that is hugely in the public interest and they give information to a journalist to expose it. And of course, they do potentially face all sorts of ramifications. And often it will be the politicians, up on the hill who spend all their time leaking who will be demanding that people be held to account for this, it's terrible etc. And yet they leak almost regularly all sorts of information which is for political advantage."

He said journalists have an obligation not to be used as political pawns. "More often than not the media is as much a player in the politics that happen up on the hill as the politicians are."

Edwards said when he first entered the press gallery in 1989 Mike Moore's office was actively undermining Geoffrey Palmer's prime ministership - but publicly Mike Moore was expressing his unconditional support for Palmer.

"I asked at the time... we ought to be reporting this. But no this was a source who had to be protected. In that sense it was the gallery being used for the political game playing and machinations of politics within that Labour government."

He said in 1996 he was approached by a National Party insider who was actively undermining the National Party candidate in Wellington Central in an attempt to get the ACT candidate elected. "I said, 'I'm really glad you've come, I'll name you then, I'll do the story.'"

The staffer then pleaded with him not to write the story because they would lose their job. "I thought about it for the night. But I didn't."

Edwards said, as a result, he doesn't get approached very often by politicians or their staff with leaks.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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