Nobody can accuse Wikileaks of being afraid of the spotlight. The whistleblower organization hit the headlines again this month as the un-redacted US Embassy cables became available online, and old arguments about its status as an institution resurfaced. Many have scrambled to have their say, but few have given the matter as much thought as Charlie Beckett.
Beckett is founding director of POLIS, the journalism think-tank in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. An award-winning journalist, he is currently writing a book about Wikileaks to be published by Polity in the autumn. He talks here about how we shouldn't see WikiLeaks as an 'aberration' but as part of the changing landscape of modern journalism.
Beckett will be chairing a panel at the 18th World Editors Forum in Vienna this October about journalism "after WikiLeaks" and how newspapers should respond.
WAN-IFRA: You've described WikiLeaks as an example of "the new forms of journalism that are emerging from and reshaping the news ecology and the nature of news itself". How has news media changed in response to WikiLeaks?
BECKETT: In the past journalism was done by journalists who worked for institutions like newspapers. But increasingly everyone is doing journalism. We saw that in Tunisia and Egypt, but we also see it every day with people writing stuff on social media. And WikiLeaks, in a sense, is just another example of this. My point is that we shouldn't see WikiLeaks as an aberration. It's quite an extreme example of non-traditional journalism but in many ways I think it's symptomatic of a trend that is going to accelerate. I think we're going to see more of these irregular journalistic producers.
WAN-IFRA: How has WikiLeaks evolved as an organisation since it was founded?
BECKETT: In a sense, the history of WikiLeaks is the history of Julian Assange. It started off in Australia as a computer-hacking, politically active platform for whistleblowers. The idea was people would upload their leaks and Wikileaks wouldn't even choose the leaks: if you sent it something, it would put it up. And that evolved when they started to choose what they would leak and they started to work with mainstream newspapers like Der Spiegel, The Guardian... They did that because they wanted access to those audiences but it meant that their journalism changed. It meant that they had to edit what they were doing, share information. And so in a sense they became more like a traditional investigative journalism outfit. Of course that's all been brought into question because WikiLeaks has, generally speaking, fallen out with a lot of the people that it worked with. With the latest unrestricted release of the information about the Embassy Cables in a sense they've gone back to their founding principles of just releasing information regardless of the consequences.
WAN-IFRA: Do you think that WikiLeaks, as an intermediary between a whistleblower and a news organisation that publishes leaked material, has fundamentally changed the way that journalists approach their sources?
BECKETT: No, I don't think it has. There is a fundamental change, which is that in the past journalists were, generally speaking, the only way that you could get your information out of the public. The internet has changed all that and it means that whistleblowers can do it themselves if they want. What has changed has not been the journalists so much as what's happening around them.
What's interesting about WikiLeaks is that people went to WikiLeaks because they weren't journalists. Traditional journalists have to observe the law of the land, they have libel problems, they have codes of ethics, etc. and so they had to be more careful. And WikiLeaks was seen as a place which was, in a sense, braver or, some would say, foolhardy. Journalists, in a way, can't compete with that.
WAN-IFRA: Now that they have the option of going to WikiLeaks, do you think that whistleblowers will approach traditional news organizations differently?
BECKETT: If you feel that you're in an authoritarian situation, you want to go to somebody who is anti-establishment. WikiLeaks plays exactly that role.
The big question that WikiLeaks poses for traditional journalism is: have you done your job properly? Have you been tough enough on authority? WikiLeaks is a challenge to say; is your journalism really holding power to account? Regardless of whether you think WikiLeaks has done this rightly or wrongly, that's what they've done.
WAN-IFRA: WikiLeaks has published sensitive material about governments around the world. As a result, is there is a risk of increased government secrecy?
BECKETT: Yes, definitely. I've spoken to diplomats in the State Department and what they will say off the record is that this was a huge screw up. The specific leak that led to the most famous WikiLeaks publications was all from one particular incident. They screwed up.
Officials say, yes of course we're going to change out security processes to make sure this doesn't happen again, but the American system can't operate without the flow of information so there is always going to be the risk that material is leaked. So yes, they're going to try to patrol information, but they realize that, in a world where there is so much data that is necessary for something like diplomacy or a military operation, it's very difficult to restrict that information.
I don't think you can say that WikiLeaks is going to bring upon us some sort of clampdown. Whenever journalists leak documents governments always say, oh this is terrible, we're never going to work again. But of course they always do.
WAN-IFRA: WikiLeaks describes itself on its website as a "not-for-profit media organisation". How far is it a journalistic entity and how far is it in conflict with traditional journalism?
BECKETT: I don't think it's entirely in conflict with traditional journalism. It does a lot of the things that journalists like to do. It reveals information that's important to know. At times it's even done things like edit films and so on. But generally I think it's best to see it as part of journalism and part of this new networked-in environment where if you're a so-called traditional journalist on Sky News or for The Times, you're quite likely to get your information now from Facebook or Twitter. It's now part of a new ecology and I think it's a pointless discussion whether WikiLeaks is journalism or not. It's part of journalism.
WAN-IFRA: How do you think the recent release of un-redacted documents has affected WikiLeaks's relationship with the news media?
BECKETT: Well I think it's going to make it much harder. Some people are going to feel uncomfortable about releasing information to Wikileaks because their systems aren't perfect and they're seen to behave erratically at times. I think that if you're a traditional mainstream news organization you'll be much more wary about dealing with Wikileaks because they're unpredictable.
WAN-IFRA: Wikileaks wrote that it "has been releasing US diplomatic cables according to a carefully laid out plan to stimulate profound changes". What effect does or should this political agenda have on the way that traditional news organizations approach WikiLeaks material?
BECKETT: No effect at all. It's entirely normal. 99% of leaks in politics are about people trying to get their agenda forwarded: you leak a document to try and attack the Labour Party or you leak a document to try and embarrass the Conservative government. It doesn't mean that it's not an important leak. The same thing applies to news organisations. Look at Rupert Mudoch, look at the Guardian: they all have political agendas. WikiLeaks has been very, very clear that they are what they call a justice orgainisation, and they're against the abuse of power and they want to expose wrong-doing by governments and so on. They've not been dishonest, they've been very clear that that what they're trying to do.
WAN-IFRA: Do you think that news organisations should create their own mechanism for the leaking of documents?
BECKETT: I think that's what they should do anyway. News organisations should be places that people can come to because they want to reveal things. This is as old as journalism itself. People come up to you and say, "don't use my name, but..."
I think the trouble has been that with a lot of journalism the public doesn't see the journalists as on their side. Take the phone hacking scandal. The phone hacking was illegal in the same way that WikiLeaks was illegal. But that wasn't done for any public interest, it was purely to embarrass people and to create sensationalist stories. So I don't think it's that traditional journalism has to invent a new model for itself, it just has to do what it's supposed to do properly.
WAN-IFRA: In an extract you published in June from your upcoming book you wrote "Instead of asking whether WikiLeaks is journalism or not, we should ask 'what kind of journalism is WikiLeaks creating?'" Do you have an answer to that question?
BECKETT: Yes, I do actually! I'm afraid it's not a simple answer. We're moving into a phase where journalism is much more complicated. It used to be nice and simple: there were newspapers and radio programs and TV programs and they were run by people called journalists, who were subject to a very narrow set of rules. Now people like WikiLeaks are creating much greater diversity in journalism, some of which is dangerous, some of which is incompetent, but lots of which is incredibly informative and, this is an important point, it's incredibly popular. This is a period of transition and anybody that tells you they know where we're going to end up is lying.