Responsible Journalism and National Security in the Age of Data

Andonis Marden writes:

Chancellor Chris Patten opened the panel with several personal reflections and questions on which this discussion is premised. Patten initially suggested that as a British citizen, he does not feel he has much to cover up and hide, which begs the question: "Do we really need to worry about surveillance?"

He nevertheless expressed regret that Google and CCTV have the capacity to collect troves of meta-data, which effectively allows governments to monitor his every action. Patten went on to question why the America and British governments are so fed up with the Guardian and bloggers when they themselves have so casually allowed many contractors and low-level military personnel access to stores of top-secret information.

Finally, he asks how we are meant to cope with digital journalism in the coming years and how we can impose constraints on editors who possess considerable discretion in determining the amount of sensitive information that is shared with the public. With these confounding circumstances in mind, Chancellor Patten introduced the moderator of the panel, John Lloyd, Director of Journalism for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Lloyd noted that this conversation is unfolding at a time when the amount of surveillance is at unprecedented heights. With specific reference to Edward Snowden’s release of confidential documents to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Le Monde, Lloyd emphasised that governments are understandably concerned with the information that journalists have chosen to publish.

Having framed several ethical considerations of this debate, Lloyd introduced panelists Iain Mathewson, a retired British foreign service officer and an associate fellow in the International Security Programme at Chatham House; Professor Michael Parks, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and current Professor of Journalism at University of Southern California; Sylvie Kauffmann, Editorial Director of Le Monde; and John Micklethwait, Editor-in-Chief of The Economist.

Mathewson began by acknowledging that his perspectives, informed by a long career as a government servant, would likely stand as outliers on the panel. Speaking in a personal capacity he said that he operated from the presumption that because the state is threatened by opponents who exploit confidentiality to do citizens harm, the state needs to carefully deploy secrecy in order to better protect itself.

The capacity to collect secret intelligence is a prudent insurance policy for states such as Britain, whose reach remains global and whose prosperity depends on the strength of its networks around the world. Clearly, however, that capacity needs to be accountable and command public trust. The public must understand that spies spy at the behest of elected ministers, and they do so in circumstances that governments can oversee and approve. Secret intelligence can and has been of great value.

Mathewson recognizes that notions of privacy, secrecy, and security are changing in the post-9/11 world, as exemplified by debates surrounding the Snowden affair. Considering the gravity of this security breach, Mathewson concluded that it is intellectually disingenuous to suggest that newspaper editors are well placed to assess the potential damage that can result from releasing sensitive data.

Professor Parks admits that over the course of thirty-eight years in daily journalism he has been told many secrets and has printed most of them. He has only withheld stories when he felt that their publication would endanger the lives of sources and American colleagues reporting from insecure locations.

For a long time, Parks has believed that secrets are publishable – that they are merely stories that confirm what spies do. However, recent disclosure that the CIA has been tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phone line caused his perceptions to shift. Parks feels that NSA, the CIA and other agencies are spinning out of control; they are collecting insurmountable amounts of data, not because they need to, but because they can. He insists that American journalists need to report on this trend, asking whether or not the public cares about violations of privacy in the name of increased security.

Kauffmann presented the French perspective in this debate. She said that the French public discuss many politically contentious topics, including taxes, immigration and energy policy, but that national security is seldom debated. There seems to be a consensus that the public are ready to tolerate a surveillance state if it is a means to guarantee their security.

Kauffmann said that it has been well worth it to publish Snowden's cache of classified NSA documents. She argued that previous publication of Wikileaks cables had minimal adverse consequences, markedly when compared to the democratic value ascribed to exposing states’ extensive and illegal collection of private information. Kauffman concluded by arguing that it is healthy for the public to become aware of leaked security documents so that they can engage in debate on the ethical implications underpinning this issue.

Micklethwait laid out three salient concerns that he has encountered at The Economist. First, he acknowledged that it is difficult to establish an appropriate balance between liberty and security. In light of 9/11 and in the general way that modern terrorism has evolved, there is reason to favor security interests in some situations. However, he suggested that indiscriminate collection of big data unjustifiably breaches individuals' right to liberty.

Second, Micklethwait suggested that there has been an undesirable degree of self-importance among journalists in this field who have occasionally raced to ill-informed conclusions in order to be the first to publish confidential information.

Finally, he pointed out that several superpowers have been hugely hypocritical in their responses to news that Washington has been eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel. Specifically, he claimed that, despite its professed outrage at the incident, France would have acted similarly if its security apparatus had been able. In order to address these issues, Micklethwait suggests that we need to go back to trusting editors to use their discretion and regard for legal boundaries when they are deciding whether or not sensitive information is to be published.

Following presentation of individual perspectives, John Lloyd facilitated a panel debate asking whether all large states would illegally collect confidential information from their citizens and other states if they were capable. The conversation was rounded out with questions fielded from the audience regarding the true costs and benefits of gathering meta-data, the complacency and corruption of security services, and whether online blogs will inevitably and indiscriminately publish information that editors choose to withhold.

Lloyd concluded the event by reaffirming the journalists' position that they have an obligation to inform the people; sometimes they get it wrong, but that is the price of liberty. He simultaneously acknowledged that those who protect our security must inevitably breach our rights to privacy; sometimes they go too far, but that is the price of security.