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Spies and journalists: the impossible relationship

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

By Anne MoilanenThe secret services of the most western countries have significantly grown in the recent decades, and journalists – and the citizens of these countries – face serious difficulties in finding out what they are doing.
This was the core argument of the long-standing Financial Times journalist John Lloyd, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute.  For the last six to twelve months, John Lloyd has been working on a book about the subject, in which he focuses on the growth of the secret services in France, the UK and the USA.
According to Lloyd, these three countries have traditionally had powerful secret services. "France was the first country to form a spy centre. In the US, nearly a million people work with confidential documents. There are about 70 offices all over the country, which belong to the secret services. Also in the UK they have been large”, Lloyd said.
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy in 2015 has increased the investment in the French secret services. The budgets of the secret services are nowadays more public, Lloyd pointed out, at least in terms of the known total sum of tax money spent on them. But what the secret services are doing exactly, stays secret.
"It is this impossible relationship between spies and journalists, that the nature of the secret services is secret. The secret services are a problem to journalists and will remain so. In democratic countries, the openness ends more or less at the door – if you know where the door is – of a secret service.”
In his talk, Lloyd concentrated on two examples of individuals who have brought classified information into the public domain. Wikileaks, the digital information leak platform founded by Julian Assange, was exposing some severe wrongdoings by several countries, including the US, in the first decade of the 2000s. The other individual who has become globally famous by leaking confidential information in 2013 is Edward Snowden.
"The basic argument behind everything is, that the UK and US have bulks of data about their own citizens. They have secrets, which they want to hide from the audience. Most journalists agree on this, that there is some information which needs to be hidden. But where are the limits?” Lloyd asked.
Lloyd stated that journalists should be able to examine even retrospectively, what the national secret services have done.
In the US, journalists’ interest in the secret services such as the CIA grew after the Iraq War. "The journalists' experience was that they were misled about the reasons for the war. They believed too much what the state was telling them, and now they feel professional shame. US journalists nowadays pay more attention than before to the CIA, and for example the torture claims”, said Lloyd.
According to Lloyd, in France the journalists don’t trust the secret service. In the UK, the existence of the secret service MI6 has been widely known, but the issue has been surrounded by silence. "In the UK, you just would not speak about it. Never. The budgets of the secret service were secret. If you worked for the MI6, it had to be hidden.”
What can be done about improving the secret services public image?
The answer is to increase openness, suggested Lloyd. He pointed out that the secret services in the US and in the UK have already changed much:
"The openness and transparency have increased, especially when it comes to their budgets. Also good public relations, PR, is important to the secret services. They should do more to keep improving their relationship with the press.”
Also, John Lloyd sees that the secret services should be monitored. There should be some kind of surveillance authored civil servant or "ombudsman”, as he proposed, who would supervise the secret service and report the findings regularly, for example once a year.
"The most important question is: how can we maintain trust? The trust between the states and their citizens, and the trust between the secret services and journalists,” he asked.
John Lloyd, Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism spoke at the Business and Practice of Journalism seminar at Green Templeton College on Wednesday 9 March 2016.