Investigative journalism and the secret state are natural enemies. Even with an enlightened government and relatively untroubled times, their relationship will be uneasy at best.
Today, they’re in a state of undeclared war. Surveillance states and most of their fellow travellers are in too deep to pull back voluntarily. Some will be uneasy about how far things have gone but changing one’s mind is never a comfortable business, particularly if it has to be done in public.
Those opposed to overly intrusive and secret surveillance need to figure out the best ways to increase that uneasiness and offer palatable means for players to defect. The playing field needs to once again be tilted towards openness as the primary operating principle. To do that, unearthing secrets, valuable though it may be, is not enough.
It’s exactly these issues that Jay Rosen takes up in this recent piece at Pressthink.
A conspiracy to commit journalism has to operate in the open. Its methods go beyond investigation, careful editing, truth and accuracy, telling a good story that brings complex issues home. There is inescapably a political element. Release-the-information coalitions can only form around broadly shared goals. People who disagree on other things are likely to agree on the need for sunlight. Those who would expose the misdeeds of an agency like the NSA need good arguments, not just good sources and good lawyers. Not the reach but the overreach of the surveillance state should be the object of their critique. It’s not enough that your story be right on the facts. Your thinking has to be right on the money. It has to speak to ends that are almost as universal as the emotion of fear, an always-on power source for the “collect it all” consortium.
Those who would expose and oppose the security state also need good judgment. What to hold back, when not to publish, how not to react when provoked, what not to say in your own defense: alongside the forensic, the demands of the prudential.
The Guardian’s delayed reporting of a heavy-handed approach from the UK government well over a month ago is an example of exercising good political judgement, of knowing when “to hold back”.
Rosen: “All day today, people have been asking me: why did The Guardian wait a month to tell us about, ”You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back?” Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post asked Rusbridger [editor of the Guardian] about that. His answer:
“Having been through this and not written about it on the day for operational reasons, I was sort of waiting for a moment when the government’s attitude to journalism –- when there was an issue that made this relevant,” Rusbridger said.
That moment came after Sunday’s nine-hour airport detainment of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist at the center of the NSA surveillance story.
“The fact that David Miranda had been detained under this slightly obscure schedule of the terrorism act seemed a useful moment to write about the background to the government’s attitude to this in general,” Rusbridger said.
Rosen continues: “Hear it? The holding back. The sensation of a political opening, through which the story can be driven. The alignment of argument with information. The clear contrast between a terror anyone can identify with — being detained for nine hours while transiting through a foreign country — and the state’s obscure use of terrorism law. These are political skills, indistinguishable from editorial acumen. In a conspiracy to commit journalism we must persuade as well as inform.”