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Jean-François Julliard

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The Odd Couple: Julian Assange, Rupert Murdoch and Freedom of Information

Posted: 07/20/11 11:17 AM ET

Both WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and media mogul Rupert Murdoch have come under fire linked to hacking scandals. Taken together these incidents raise interesting questions about what constitutes public knowledge and whether freedom of information can be taken too far.

WikiLeaks had been releasing confidential documents and has been threatened with lawsuits long before it became known for publicizing secret military information related to the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. These documents were allegedly obtained by WikiLeaks via the United States Army soldier Bradley Manning, who has still never been formally charged and has been detained for 14 months. Even though Julian Assange did not hack the information and did not even know where it was from, it is still seen as a crime to release these documents because of their nature. Many of them were never used by the U.S. media. But some national security-related documents were picked up by prominent news organizations, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. The New York Times explained why it ran documents such as the Afghanistan dispatches, saying that "there was no question [...] that the Afghanistan dispatches were genuine".

Here, public knowledge prevailed over ethical questions regarding the methods employed to attain that information.

After the publication of these documents, the White House ordered government agencies to tighten procedures on handling classified information, acknowledging by this move that there will be a "before" and an "after" Wikileaks. The Office of Management and Budget said it aimed to ensure "users do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs effectively." WikiLeaks will have consequences on the work of reporters. For example, as Kevin Smith from the Society of Professional Journalists said: "There's a guilt-by-association factor here", slowing down dramatically the passage of a Federal Shield Law to protect U.S. journalist's sources. But the good news is that this incident provides further evidence that "traditional media" and "new media" can cooperate to release information.

And then just this month, reports surfaced that the English paper News of the World (NOTW) has been involved in voicemail hacking cases once again, adding to the saga that originated in 2005. Certain staffers of NOTW resorted to breaking into a voicemail system and listening to messages and even deleting some of them in one case.

According to Ian Walden, who was called in 2009 as an expert by the Press Complaints Commission in the UK to investigate News of the World's responsibility in voicemail hacking and the impact of these behaviours in the 2005 case, there "has been evidence of inappropriate behaviour." However, "everybody involved in these activities was jailed," he said in an interview. According to him, the key in such cases is the failure of the police rather than the behavior of reporters: "In 2005, the police received intelligence about the hacking of voice mail accounts related to the Royal Family. They arrested a journalist and a private investigator and seized, from the latter, the key evidence detailing all the other victims. However, instead of pursuing that investigation, they essentially closed it down and told everyone, including the Press Complaints Commission, that there was nothing else to examine".

The original hacking scandal revolved around reports that Prince William injured his knee. No, this may not have the same significance as leaked cables on Afghanistan. But, as reporters for the most widely read tabloid in England, NOTW journalists knew what their public wanted. The stories were not wrong, but they were obtained illegally. Likewise, the documents Wikileaks released and the New York Times and other media outlets published were not wrong, but they too were obtained illegally. How do we decide what the public has a right to know? If the NOTW hacking revealed stories with a "greater impact," would the act have been condemned so severely?

Now, six years later, additional reports have surfaced of hacking by News of the World. Officials said that NOTW journalists possibly hacked into then-missing teenager Milly Dowler's voice mail and deleted messages to free space. This act reportedly caused her parents to falsely believe she was alive.

On July 11th, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused journalists from across Rupert Murdoch's News International media group of trying for more than 10 years to illegally obtain private information from his telephone and financial records. And on Sunday, July 17th, Rebekah Brooks, the former editor-in-chief, was arrested and questioned for 12 hours. Since June 23, six reporters were arrested in the phone hacking scandal. One was even not on the paycheck of the News Corp. group.

No, the good of public knowledge is not enough to justify the unacceptable behaviour of deleting messages and therefore obstructing justice. In fact, many telecom companies changed their data policies to provide more security to their clients because of it.

Journalists are faced with questions of ethics each and every day. Some try to legitimize their efforts in pursuit of public knowledge, and sometimes, making the less ethical choice leads to notable changes in policy or leadership. Sometimes, however, making the less ethical choice will weaken the public trust in that newspaper. NOTW is now no longer publishing because it lacks the trust of its advertisers. It shot itself in the foot and we hope lessons will be learned and the wrongdoings published.

But the damage will be bigger in this case too. Even if Reporters Without Borders defends freedom of information without endorsing some practices -- like potentially putting people in danger, as WikiLeaks did originally, and spying on people as NOTW journalists did -- we regret that good journalists can be associated with such practices. The consequences lie in the trust that the reader will put in the media. More and more, vigilance is required when opening a newspaper, turning on TV or listening to the radio. But how will be able to help and defend the credibility of reporters if the public does not trust them anymore?