The awarding of WikiLeaks with the prize for contribution to journalism in last night’s Walkey awards again raises the questions of what is a journalist and what is journalism?
That’s not surprising. Citizen journalism is with us, and so too is the global publication of pictures, news and information by people who would never think to call themselves journalists, but who find themselves caught up in events that people want to know about.
Locally, we have a media inquiry that is canvassing the issue of whether membership of the Australian Press Council should be a criteria for deciding who gets the special legal protections and access rights that are given to those organisations that claim to do journalism. Would WikiLeaks join the Australia Press Council? It is an interesting question to ponder.
The question of whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not has come up before. This is not the first award for journalism he has won — he got the Martha Gelhorn prize earlier this year.
Some of the newspapers who worked with Assange, then fell out with him, have claimed they treated him as “just another source”. Baloney. This source had the biggest and best leak in history.
Unlike the purveyor of the Pentagon Papers or other leakers of time past, he did not need mainstream media to get the information out there. He collaborated with mainstream media because it suited him, not because it was his only option.
On the other hand the US State Department has pronounced that Assange is not a journalist, in part because he is a “political actor”.
That is clearly a risible reason for saying he doesn’t qualify. If we disqualified people on the basis of being political actors, we would have to rule out all those journos who have worked as political staffers before returning to journalism. We would also have to rule out all those who engage in polemic as part of what they do — journalists from Greg Sheridan to John Pilger.
There has been a debate floating around in recent months about whether Andrew Bolt is a journalist. On one measure, he surely is. He trained in a newsroom, worked for mainstream media, and had a fairly conventional career path.
Yet now he writes mainly commentary. The recent court case in which he was involved found that, on at least two occasions, that commentary was built on a faulty factual base, and indeed that the facts were skewed to suit his polemical point. So is he no longer a journalist. Or were those columns merely instances of bad journalism?
We could go round and round like this. And that’s without even starting on the issue of whether or not journalism is a profession, analagous to law or medicine, or a craft — an issue I don’t intend to canvass here.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the question of “what is a journalist?” is potent in our own time. Journalism as a paid occupation was the byproduct of the invention of the printing press, and all that followed. Given that we are now living through at least the equivalent in technological innovation, we shouldn’t be surprised that the future of the occupation is in question, and that its boundaries are blurring.
As we live through this transition, I think it is more helpful to ask not “what is a journalist?”, but “what is journalism?”. That is, to see journalism as a practice that many people might engage in, not all of them identifying as journalists. Defining journalism as more of a practice than an occupation also allows us to say that not everything done by people who call themselves journalists qualifies as journalism.
So what is the core of the practice? First, it is finding things out and telling people about them. Assange qualifies, and then some.
Second, it is commitment to factual accuracy and verification. Again, Assange qualifies. Nobody has claimed that the material he released was not what he said it was.
Third, it is, at least sometimes, editing, curating and verifying. Assange has done some of this, and organised for more to be done through his relationship with media partners. Barbara Gunnell, the UK journalist, wrote in Griffith Review how WikiLeaks provided an edited movie — “Collateral Murder” — as part of its initial Iraqi related release and the raw footage, so viewers could assess the integrity of the editing.
Lastly, and certainly implied if ethical standards are to be taken as part of the accreditation of journalism, there is an ideology, or a vibe — a belief in transparency, and in the democratic effect of sharing information.
WikiLeaks qualifies. While one might argue about the extent to which it adequately fulfills its responsibilities (just as one might with any mainstream media organisation), WikiLeaks has a clearly described agenda of working for good governance. The mission outlined on its website is that leaking calls governments and corporations to account, and that “public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions … Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.”
Most serious journalists would have no trouble signing up to that mission, even if they want to argue that WikiLeaks has failed in areas of ethical responsibility (and which media outlet has not?).The main thing, surely, is that in the inevitably changing practice of journalism, WikiLeaks has been an enormous and highly significant leapfrog into the present and future. To quote Gunnell’s Griffith Review piece:
“Julian Assange has changed journalism. To debate the good or otherwise of organisations such as WikiLeaks, or to ask whether its staff are data thieves or real journalists, is to miss the point. Secure, anonymous leaking is now part of the media landscape, as is disseminating large amounts of leaked information through the mainstream media … even if the organisation were to close tomorrow, such data dumps for whistleblowers and secret sources are here to stay. As fast as governments encrypt and hide, whistleblowers and hackers will decode and seek places to publish. Phillip Knightley, a highly regarded journalist, has argued that the WikiLeaks saga represents ‘a sea-change in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect’.”
Undigested data dumps are not destined to be the main way in which journalism is done. Every new media experiment we know of has had, or found it necessary to reinvent, roles such as that of editor or verifier.
Last night’s award will be controversial for all the reasons Assange is controversial — the r-pe allegations, the issue of whether and how lives were put at risk, his personality, and so on and so forth. It is also notable that the award went not to the man, but to the organsiation, which raises a raft of other issues about the extent to which the two are divisible.
But then, the Walkleys have never been about whether or not someone is a nice person. Lots of shits have won Walkleys.
But greatest contribution to journalism? Whatever your concerns about how WikiLeaks understands and performs it responsibilities, the giving of this award to WikiLeaks is really inarguable.
WikiLeaks’ work has led to rafts of world-changing stories in the world’s best newspapers. It was arguably a spur for the Arab spring. It has changed the way journalism is practised forever.
No other piece of Australian journalism can claim more.