How should the media report on an organisation that is, by
its nature, secret? This is the question at the heart of John Lloyd’s compelling
new book Journalism in an Age of Terror. Lloyd is a contributing editor to
the Financial Times as well as director of journalism at the Reuters Institute
for the Study of Journalism. His book is a response to the increasing scope and
power of the intelligence services. Focusing on services in the US, UK, and
France, Lloyd asks how journalism ought to respond to that power.
His concern is that, just as intelligence services have
expanded their purview, journalism is less able to respond. Lloyd also argues
that journalists often fail to understand the internal culture of intelligence
agencies. In an age of terror, it’s clear the media can’t afford to fall
behind. But there are also real questions about the ethics of reporting
classified documents when lives are at stake.
An unavoidable part of this is addressing the culture of leaks.
Leaking has provided the most obvious and sensational reportage on the intelligence community over the past decade. Lloyd casts a critical, if measured, eye over the issue.
Leaking, he writes, has always been a part of journalism. The change is the way
that it is validated by journalism and, more broadly, liberal opinion. Lloyd’s
critique comes in two parts. The first he links with digital journalism and
what he understands as its often irresponsible use of leaked information.
He quotes Assange’s vision of a ‘positive trajectory’ for the future: “the inability of neo-totalitarian states to arise in practice because of the free movement of information, the ability for people to speak to each other privately and conspire against such tendencies, and the ability of micro-capital to move without control away from such places which are inhospitable to human beings.” Lloyd doubts whether this kind of open digital community is, in and of
itself, a moral and political good. In a world where violence is commonplace,
he suggests, some state secrets are necessary.
The second part of his critique centres on the role of state
authority. Glen Greenwald comes in for particular criticism. Greenwald, Lloyd argues, sees the state as having forfeited its moral authority through mass
data collection. In other words, by spying on its own citizens the government
has lost any claim to democratic representation. The logical outcome of this
position is that that journalists must not collude with government. Editors,
Lloyd points out, sometimes agree to kill stories that could undermine
intelligence operations. If the government is immoral, then surely the editors
are at fault. But for Lloyd, this is too easy. He argues that the ‘publish or
be damned’ approach disregards the often violent world that we live in.
It’s an open question as to whether journalists should risk
lives for a theoretical political good. But it’s also uncomfortable to imagine
government departments interfering with the press. For many people, not just
journalists, this is unconscionable. Isn’t the purpose of journalism to expose
stories, no matter what? Greenwald could also easily point to the other abuses committed by intelligence services. A government that tortures, it could
very well be argued, has abandoned its mandate for moral rule.
A government that tortures, it could very well be argued, has abandoned its mandate for moral rule.
However, Lloyd is no apologist for intelligence agencies. He dwells
at length on the services’ catalogue of failures, from bureaucratic inefficiency
to torture and extraordinary rendition. Journalists, he writes, are bound by
the ethics of their profession to uncover these abuses. In this capacity, he
finds common ground with more radical defenders of the free press. However, the
value of Lloyd’s critique is its focus on responsibility rather than
censorship. Not all freedom of speech issues centre around legality. Often as
not, what’s at stake is what should
rather than what can be said.
Even for those who disagree with Lloyd’s assessment of recent
leaks, there is still value in his approach. He asks pointed questions that are all too often pushed aside.
One of the most obvious is: do we derive value from our intelligence services?
If the answer is yes, then state secrets are permissible and ought to be
defended. The difficulty lies in determining whether the content of those
secrets is morally sound.
As Lloyd himself points out, intelligence services have often
failed in their duty to self-police. This begs the question of how to find the
right measure of transparency. There is clearly a very real need for the intelligence services to be monitored.
Assuming that state secrets are necessary, however, how can that be possible? There
strong resistance, particularly among British intelligence services, in sharing
information with the press. Lloyd argues that building long term relationships between
journalists and intelligence agencies is one way forward. Journalists need to
understand the services they report upon. In turn, the services need to
recognise that public trust is built on accountability.
Lloyd points out that the nature of public trust is also
complex. It’s certainly true that many people have concerns about the existence
of government spying and state secrets. However, intelligence services have
been remarkably undamaged by bad press. Despite disturbing revelations about
the NSA and GCHQ, opinion polls have largely been favourable to the services. Lloyd
makes the excellent point that public perception of the services affects how they are allowed to operate. Much of the book is devoted to a cultural history of
the intelligence agencies, from Bond to John Le Carre. The positive
representations of the services in films and books have lent them a measure of
resilience in the court of public opinion. One that often may not be deserved.
This is yet another reason why good reporting is so necessary.
What’s needed is a measured account of the services, including both their successes
and failures. The issue, as always, is where to draw the line between public safety and public knowledge. Lloyd’s conclusion is that there’s an unavoidable
tension between secrecy and accountability; it’s the job of journalists and
intelligence agencies to negotiate a responsible middle-ground. By staking a
claim about where to begin, John Lloyd fine-tunes a debate that has been
neglected for too long.