Patrice Riemens on Sat, 23 Jul 2011 08:44:43 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Bret Stephens: News of the World vs. WikiLeaks (Wall Street Journal)

The WSJ article I posted on this ('Murdochalyps') was clearly a case of
"You've seen nuthin' yet!"  ...

bwo WLCentral
original to:

News of the World vs. WikiLeaks

Only one placed at risk 'the lives of countless innocent individuals.'
by Bret Stephens

How does this year's phone hacking scandal at the now-defunct British
tabloid News of the World?owned, I hardly need add, by News Corp., the
Journal's parent company?compare with last year's contretemps over the
release of classified information by Julian Assange's WikiLeaks and his
partners at the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers?

At bottom, they're largely the same story.

In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means,
was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of
the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal
interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases,
fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization
should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a
dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered
13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be
alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction;
Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by
WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.

Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for
which some kind of price ought to be paid. So why is one a scandal,
replete with arrests, resignations and parliamentary inquests, while the
other is merely a controversy, with Mr. Assange's name mooted in some
quarters for a Nobel Peace Prize?

The easy answer is that the news revealed by WikiLeaks was in the public
interest, whereas what was disclosed by News of the World was merely of
interest to the public. By this reckoning, if it's a great matter of
state, and especially if it's a government secret, it's fair game. Not so
if it's just so much tittle-tattle about essentially private affairs.

You can see the attraction of this argument?particularly if, like Mr.
Assange, you are trying to fight extradition to Sweden on pending rape
charges that you consider unworthy of public notice.

You can also see its attraction to anybody who claims to know what the
public interest ought to be and is in a position to do something about it.
In June 2006, the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had
a secret?and highly effective?program to monitor thousands of banking
transactions in an effort to stop terrorism financing. Several months
later, the Times' own public editor argued that the program was entirely
legal and that the article should never have been published. The Gray Lady
moved on.

But you can also see why the distinction between the Public Interest,
loftily defined, and what actually happens to interest the public,
not-so-loftily defined, is a piece of rhetorical legerdemain that masks a
raw assertion of privilege. Was it in the higher public interest to know,
as we learned from WikiLeaks, that Zimbabwe's prime minister and
opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was privately urging U.S. diplomats to
hold firm on sanctions even as he was saying the opposite in public? No.
Did the public want to know about it? No. What did this particular
WikiLeak achieve? Nothing, except to put Mr. Tsvangirai at material risk
of being charged with treason and hanged.

Seen in this light, the damage caused by WikiLeaks almost certainly
exceeded what was done by News of the World, precisely because Mr. Assange
and his media enablers were targeting bigger?if often more
vulnerable?game. The Obama administration went so far as to insist last
year that WikiLeaks "[placed] at risk the lives of countless innocent
individuals?from journalists to human rights activists to soldiers."
Shouldn't there be some accountability, or at least soul-searching, about
this, too?

Don't count on it: It would require too much introspection among people
whose primary emotional mode is furious, and perpetual,

As for News of the World, the media has alighted on one of its convenient
little narratives, this one about the all-powerful media mogul, his
lidless eyes gazing over every corner, closet and cellar of his empire,
his obedient minions debasing everything they touch. That this media
Sauron has now begged forgiveness of the Dowler family, shut the offending
paper down and accepted the resignations of his top lieutenants hardly
seems to have made an impression. But as someone noted recently in
connection to L'Affaire DSK, few things are as unstoppable?or as prone to
error?as a stupid media narrative.

It's probably inevitable that this column will be read in some quarters as
shilling for Rupert Murdoch. Not at all: I have nothing but contempt for
the hack journalism practiced by some of the Murdoch titles. But my
contempt goes double for the self-appointed media paragons who saw little
amiss with Mr. Assange and those who made common cause with him, and who
now hypocritically talk about decency and standards. Their day of
reckoning is yet to come.

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