A lot of attention has been paid to the legalities surrounding the avalanche of leaked diplomatic and security material by WikiLeaks, but not much to the ethical issues it raises for the media.

From what we know publicly, there appear to be five major ethical issues:

  • What should be done with material that is reasonably suspected of having been unlawfully obtained?
  • What can be done to verify the genuineness of the material?
  • What harms might be done by publication?
  • What can be done to minimise those harms?
  • What public interest is served by publication?

The verification question can be disposed of quickly: it is obvious from the reaction of many governments that the material is genuine.

What steps were taken before publication to verify the material, however, is something that ought to be disclosed by those publishing the material. There is a material public interest in knowing this, and anyway transparency demands it. Where transparency is given as a justification for publishing — as here — the media have a corresponding duty to be transparent about their own processes.

Dealing with material reasonably suspected of having been unlawfully obtained is an issue that confronts the media very often when leaks of material occur. Leaks of government material often involve a breach of official secrets law. Sometimes they involve more serious offences such as theft, and some — such as the leaking a couple of years ago of a footballer’s health records — involve gross breaches of privacy.

The balance to be struck here is between the nature and seriousness of the breach and the extent of the public interest served by publication. The more serious the breach, the more extensive the public interest in publication needs to be.

Given the high public interest value of the material, and the nature of the laws allegedly broken by the original leaker — which amount to breaches of security laws — the balance on this occasion is clear-cut: the duty to serve the public interest by publishing, clearly overrides the competing consideration.

Public interest is not the same as public curiosity. Public interest concerns the material stake that the public has in knowing the information, and exists in varying degrees. There is a public interest in knowing information about anything the public is asked to spend money on or pay attention to.  This can be relatively trivial, such as the quality of meals in a restaurant.

At the other end of the scale, there is also a public interest in holding the powerful to account, and in a liberal democracy the most important locus of power is the government.

It is a central duty of the media in a liberal democracy to hold governments to account. Tough ethical questions arise when this duty conflicts with other considerations, in particular the potential to cause harm by publication.

In the WikiLeaks case, the really important risk of harm arises from the fact that some of the leaked material will, by its nature or context, tend to give away the informants whose assessments, observations and reports are revealed. These people may well be placed in physical danger.

In recent days, the editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald, Peter Fray, stated on radio that this indeed is one of the filters he applies to the material. Whether the media did so, or did so effectively, in the early days when the material on Afghanistan was published is less clear.

This is another matter on which a public explanation by the media for their decisions is needed. What exactly did they do to try to minimise the risk of harm? How thorough were their assessments of likely harm? What advice did they seek? At what level of editorial seniority were these assessments made?

Most importantly, how did they strike the balance between risking harm and serving the public interest by publishing?

Clear thinking is needed here. The public interest in the material published to date is very great. The material reveals, for instance, that our government has not been honest with us about Afghanistan. That is appalling and we have every right to know and to judge.

But great though the public interest is, it does not absolve the media from its responsibility for any harm done. If the worst happens, people who are even suspected of being informants behind the material could be killed.

These are the ethical stakes. They don’t come much higher and they place on the media a responsibility to be accountable themselves for how they made these decisions.

As for squeals of embarrassment from governments and politicians, they are of no importance from the perspective of media ethics. Embarrassing the government is part of what the media does in its function of holding power to account.

What is truly alarming has been the hysterical reaction from politicians, including threats from the United States to the liberty of Julian Assange, the vigor of the Swedish authorities in pursuing him for alleged crimes that they have already assessed to be minor, his vindictive treatment at the hands of the British prison authorities, who held him in solitary confinement, and the baseless blustering of Julia Gillard about his breaches of unspecified laws.

All this takes us back more than 300 years to the Court of Star Chamber, flunkies of the king who, as the historian Henry Hallam reminds us, could send people to the Tower of London for publishing “scandalous reports of persons in power”.

The value we place today on freedom of expression — and specifically of the media — has its roots in the struggle to overthrow these barbarous prerogatives.

It is that freedom that in turn places on the media a responsibility to act ethically, act in the public interest and give an account of themselves for how they did so.

*Denis Muller is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, and a senior lecturer in media ethics at Swinburne University.