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Spooks and hacks: Can journalism and the secret services forge a new relationship?

The publication by BuzzFeed of an unverified dossier containing incendiary allegations about US President Elect Donald Trump has highlighted the tension that defines the relationship between journalism and intelligence agencies in Western democracies.

The balance between secrecy, scrutiny and trust is examined in a new Reuters Institute book, Journalism in an Age of Terror, by John Lloyd.

“Journalism claims to hold power to account, it’s its most often-stated purpose, or reason for existence and access to attention and privilege,” explained John Lloyd, at the launch of his new publication at the Institute for Government.

“However it can’t hold intelligence to account as they must remain secret if they are to operate efficiently. It’s a particular dilemma.”

The book examines this relationship, focussed on the British, US and French intelligence services, and the Snowden revelations, asking how profound the damage was to the activities of the secret services, and to trust in government from journalists and the public.

Speaking at the launch event, Lloyd described how both journalism and the secret services have suffered body blows in recent years that have left them profoundly challenged in different ways. While journalism faces a battle for valuable advertising revenue against the draw of Google and Facebook, at a time when high-quality fact-checking and reliable information is more valuable than ever, secret services have faced a dip in trust following the mistaken belief of the major agencies in the West of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the consequent invasion – the consequences of which we are still seeing now.

“Thus both institutions are damaged,” said Lloyd. “Newspapers, as physical products, are unlikely to recover. The services have: the terrorist threat has prompted fear in the west, and fear has at times tuned to anger: more commonly, it is reflected in increased trust in the agencies, the trust an index of hope that they will protect the citizens from attack.”

As the threat of terrorism and the increasing power of terrorist groups prompts rapid growth of the security services and changes in legislation permitting collection of communications data, how can journalists navigate the tension in the relationship, and can there be more openness between the secret services and journalists?

“Should the press have published the Snowden material – given that the enmity to the West of Russia is quite clear?” asked Lloyd.

“If it should, should it not have asked harder questions about why Snowden took so much, why he so easily slipped into Russia, why he remains there?

“And on the agencies side: should there not have been a more public act of contrition, especially by the CIA, for the actions it took under the George W Bush presidency? And can there not now be a renewed effort not just to assert that they are necessary for the preservation of democratic government – I believe they are – but to take a larger part in the debate and in the commentary on the threats which now face the society.”

The question of openness was addressed by panel members Sir David Omand, former Director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and Stephen Grey, security correspondent for Reuters.

“If you are going to, as a society, feel it appropriate to try and improve your decision making, then you are going to need intelligence,” said Omand.

“If you want any kind of secret intelligence to help keep us safe, then firstly, an ethical risk has to be run, including at times an intrusion on privacy. Secondly, the way it’s done is always going to have to be secret, otherwise the person with the secret simply knows how you’re going to get it and dodges. There’s no way out of that dilemma. “

He said that robust public debate and changes in public policy addressed was the appropriate way to address the ethical question, but that the balance of secrecy and public trust was more complex.

“It has to be managed by redefining the boundary,” he said. “A distinction must be made between the type of method parliament has authorised, and actual application of that to an individual target, which by definition has to remain very secret.”

Grey argued that the fast-changing world we live in, and the complex advances in threats to security meant more engagement was needed between security services and journalists.

“Getting the balance right between the role the secret services play and the kind of exposure we do is the reason there needs to be engagement between the intelligence services and those writing about it,” he said.

“We do need to be critically equipped to be able to have a conversation with an intelligence officer. The world has changed; big data, globalisation and opportunities for self-publication mean there are more opportunities for intelligence collection. But the flipside is there’s more opportunity for leaks. There’s need for greater thought on what should get out there, and greater engagement on what’s the core interests of the state to preserve.”

John Lloyd was speaking at the launch of Journalism in an Age of Terror at the Institute for Government on January 11, 2017. It included panel discussion by Sir David Omand, Stephen Grey and Professor Andrew Dorman. The panel was chaired by RISJ Director of Research, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.

Journalism in an Age of Terror by John Lloyd is published by IB Tauris. Purchase a copy of the book from IB Tauris or Amazon

Download a free chapter here.