How has WikiLeaks affected professional media? What does it mean for journalistic techniques? Representatives from three news organisations who have worked with WikiLeaks, plus two authors of books on the controversial whistle-blowing platform, discussed these issues today at The Media World after WikiLeaks and News of the World, a conference organized by the World Press Freedom Committee and UNESCO in Paris.
The original "great idea" behind WikiLeaks: to create a safe haven for whistleblowers, is "excellent and powerful," said Le Monde's former editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, but it has only partially succeeded in its goals. The haven wasn't completely safe - someone is in jail - and there hasn't been a flood of new big leaks.
"People imagined that WikiLeaks was going to cause an information revolution," said the Guardian's investigations editor David Leigh, and this didn't happen, but it did show that there is a new information landscape. As The New York Times' associate managing editor Ian Fisher commented, "in terms of scale and speed of information, WikiLeaks has had an impact, and there's no going back."
Heather Brooke, a UK-based freedom of information campaigner, pointed out that it was never possible to remain 100% anonymous when leaking to WikiLeaks. She regretted that WikiLeaks' original function, to take information from journalists that they couldn't publish anywhere else due to injunctions, is not operating any more.
The WikiLeaks exercise was on the whole journalistically successful, said Leigh. He emphasized how important it was to publish the information in multiple papers in different countries, as it meant that any attempts by individual countries to suppress the information wouldn't have worked. And the newspapers succeeded in both making sense of the data, and publishing it.
Journalists were faced with two technological problems, said Leigh: first, how to manipulate the data that they were faced with, and second, how to present the data in new ways. "We all worked quite hard to find ways to visualize the data," he said, noting that the Guardian employs a visualizer.
"We published the information due to sheer practicality - the information was coming out either way," said Fisher "and journalistically, because we wanted to present the story in the right way."
The relationship between mainstream media and WikiLeaks has been symbiotic in many ways, Kauffmann pointed out. "I don't think any of us alone could have got the documents, but WikiLeaks couldn't do anything with them without us," she said. WikiLeaks needed the reputation and expertise of mainstream media journalists to make the most of the information in its hands, she said.
In France there is a different attitude towards freedom of information, Kauffmann said, and the country has no freedom of information laws. "We have a powerful state which protects its secrets very efficiently," she said, and mentioned that some readers had reacted negatively to Le Monde's reporting on WikiLeaks cables, as there was a belief that it wasn't right to violate official secrets.
There is now a government data site, however (data.gouv.fr) and France is becoming more accustomed to data journalism. But to take full advantage of these opportunities, journalists need more training, she stressed, and a working relationship with computer technicians must develop. It's more of an economic obstacle than an ideological one, she added.
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, asked why Le Monde had not just redacted names from the cables, but had removed entire paragraphs, to which Kauffmann responded that the paper had not censored information, but it had redacted information from unconfirmed sources. Leigh explained that the Guardian's redaction had focused on removing identities of US informants and others, to protect them from harm. However, as WikiLeaks eventually released all the US embassy cables in full after a security breach made them available, this work ended up being fruitless.
"WikiLeaks and the Leveson Inquiry are beautiful dramatic examples" of the risks and potential harm of publishing information, said Beckett, "but actually every act of journalism can do harm, and I don't think it's worth worrying too much about the implications of exposure. We have to think much more about the sins of omission."
"We need to start grappling with the consequences for whistleblowers," said Justine Limpitlaw, a South African media lawyer in the audience. Leigh agreed, saying that in the struggle for moral highground between hackers and the mainstream media, it is easy to forget about the whistle blower.
The big story that came out of WikiLeaks' leaks were the incompetence of the US government in protecting its information and the existence of WikiLeaks itself, Paula Schriefer of Freedom House observed, and asked the panel if there were really any big stories that came out of the content of the leak themselves. Leigh agreed that the material wasn't a revelation of secret US policy, while Fisher believes that although there was no huge blockbuster, the confirmation of some things we already largely known, such as the isolation of Iran, were very interesting.