Journalists need to tool up

Published in the Huffington Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indignation has cascaded forth from the US media, spilling into the European news, about the American government and the Associated Press spying scandal.

Last week it emerged that the US Department of Justice monitored the telephones of, gasp, journalists working at AP. Apparently this was done to try to investigate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen. However, the dragnet seems to have widened to cover almost 100 journalists and potentially threatened governmental leakers and whistleblowers who, in these days of systematic security crackdowns in the US, are fast becoming Public Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been reading the emails of a senior Fox News reporter. And this has got the US hacks into a frightful tizz. What about the First Amendment?

Well, what about the fact that the Patriot Act shredded most of the US Constitution a decade ago?

Also, who is actually facing the security crackdown here? The US journalists are bleating that their sources are drying up in the face of a systematic witch hunt by the US administration. That must be hard for the journalists – hard at least to get the stories and by-lines that ensure their continued employment and the ability to pay the mortgage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the potential whistleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of professional reputation and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increasingly facing draconian prison sentences under the recently reanimated and currently much-deployed US 1917 Espionage Act for exposing issues in the public interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced decades in prison for exposing corruption and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is currently languishing in prison for exposing the use of torture.

The US government has learned well from the example of the UK’s Official Secrets Acts – laws that never actually seem to be wielded against real establishment traitors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used frequently and effectively to stifle dissent, cover up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Establishment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new model that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset stripping the organisation for information, while abandoning the alleged source, Bradley Manning, and the founder, Julian Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and morally should campaign for them. The issues of the free flow of information, democracy and justice are bigger than petty arguments about personality traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times editor and Wikileaks collaborator Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a publisher – it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be protected at all costs – that is the media’s prime directive. Journalists have historically gone to prison rather than give away their sources.

However, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a publisher and can be persecuted this way, then all the old media are equally vulnerable. And indeed that is what we are witnessing now with these spying scandals.

Secondly, these so-called investigative journalists are surprised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing proper, worthwhile journalism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Patriot Act, surveillance-state world. Why on earth are they not taking their own and their sources’ security seriously? Is it amateur night?

In this day and age, any serious journalist (and there are still a few honourable examples) will be taking steps to protect the security of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have attended Crypto-parties to learn security skills. They will also be painfully aware that a whistleblower is a person potentially facing prison, rather than just the source of a career-making story.

If mainstream journalists are serious about exposing corruption, holding power to account, and fighting for justice they need to get serious about source protection too and get teched-up. Help is widely available to those who are interested. Indeed, this summer the Centre for Investigative Journalism is hosting talks in London on this subject, and many other international journalism conferences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and awareness remains relatively low – many journalists retain a naive trust in the general legality of their government’s actions: the authorities may bend the rules a little for “terrorists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media…..

….or not. Watergate now looks rather quaint in comparison.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit version for grown-ups) from an encrypted solid state hard drive. I have long and different passwords for every online service I use. My mail and web server are in Switzerland and I encrypt as much of my email as possible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journalists should think about these issues and how they can protect both themselves and their sources: Opening keynote “The Big Dig Conference” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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