City Perspectives: Whistleblowers, Wikileaks and the future of investigative journalism
By Gavin MacFadyen, Visiting Professor and Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ)
The huge media disclosures of the past 30 months have begun to transform the public's relation to mainstream media and led to the launch of new platforms, the sharply increasing importance of whistle-blowing, and a new kind of government push-back.
The power of one
What a newspaper would pride itself in publishing in the public interest only a few years ago has been swamped by mass release of often powerful evidence of corporate and governmental corruption.
One dedicated whistleblower can produce more important evidence of wrong-doing than an entire newspaper might amass in ten years, or more. Whistleblowers from care homes, the NHS, the British Army, NSA, the FBI, the CIA or GCHQ can shine more light on illegal practice and wrong doing than armies of dedicated reporters.
Following the disclosures from people like Assange, Manning and Snowden, the public now knows more about government lies, multi-billion pound corruption in Saudi arms deals, the misery and abuse of the elderly, medical incompetence, parliamentary sleaze and, perhaps more importantly, the huge covert spying on UK and US citizens by the security services than any small group of reporters could unearth.
Protecting whistleblowers as authority pushes back
The high-profile whistleblowers have been accompanied by smaller, but no-less important, releases of critical and statistical information that has flowed from successful Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. In most cases these disclosures have been protected by the anonymity of the whistleblower and the effective drop box technology initiated by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. There are 38 new WikiLeaks-style dropboxes ready to launch, or already in operation. WikiLeaks itself is preparing a new highly secure submission system.
But the push-back has begun. Shortly after the initial release of the gun-camera video of a helicopter attacking civilians and journalists and hundreds of thousands of military reports, Assange was hounded by critical accusations, senior US politicians called for WikiLeaks to be hunted down and killed, reports that described Assange as a terrorist, called for him to be treated as an "enemy combatant". A significant PR campaign to discredit the messenger is well under way, while a secret grand jury is hearing accusations against Assange and the conscientious objector, Bradley Manning.
The impact of Snowden
Only in the last few weeks a new and powerful whistle-blower from inside the super-secret NSA delivered evidence of a vast and almost certainly unconstitutional programme of mass surveillance on a scale never seen before. What transformed this information from an exclusively American issue to an international one, was the revelation that private spying on UK citizens was being provided by the NSA to British security services.
Journalists are now learning quickly how to protect their sources their stories and often themselves from illegal government surveillance; new techniques designed to protect the anonymity of sources and sensitive journalistic information are available from CIJ at City.