Newspaper Editor: If The Gov't Tells Me Publishing NSA Secrets Is Not In The Public Interest, Who Am I To Disbelieve Them?

from the apparently,-you're-not-a-journalist dept

We’ve already discussed why it makes sense for journalists to make a reasonable determination about whether or not leaked intelligence documents are newsworthy, but apparently some journalists feel differently about their own judgment. Chris Blackhurst, who until recently was the editor of The Independent (and is now “group content director” — whatever that means) has published an absolutely incredible article that’s basically a total and complete abdication of his role as a journalist stating directly: “If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?”

As the title suggests, Blackhurst makes it quite clear that he believes the role of a journalist is to be a stenographer of the government, to simply amplify their position on things, rather than to hold them accountable:

If the security services insist something is contrary to the public interest, and might harm their operations, who am I (despite my grounding from Watergate onwards) to disbelieve them?

In August, this paper also received information from the Snowden files. We did not publish much of the information we were given because the Government, in the shape of a Defence Advisory Notice or “DA” notice, asked us to desist, in the interests of national security. Several times in my career, I’ve been served with a DA notice. On each occasion, I confess, I’ve not published. Does that make me a coward and an establishment lackey? Or responsible and sensible?

He later defends this by arguing that there’s nothing that interesting in the Snowden leaks anyway.

First, try as I might, I cannot get that excited about it. With the Snowden leaks I find myself speculating – as I did with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks – as to whether I am getting too old and losing the plot as a journalist. But, as with WikiLeaks, will someone please put the boasts about size and volume on one side and tell me: where is the story?

If it’s that the security services monitor emails and phone calls, and use internet searches to track down terrorists and would-be terrorists – including, I now read, something called the “dark net” – I cannot get wound up about it. At Kings Place, home of The Guardian, they will say my judgement is a mess. Never had any, they will probably sneer. Far too cosy to the powers-that-be, they might add.

In which case, guys, uncurl your lips and explain what it is, exactly, that the NSA and GCHQ, are doing that is so profoundly terrible? What justifies all the posturing we’ve been subjected to these past months? I watched The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who obtained the Snowden scoop, on Newsnight the other evening and was nonplussed. I wanted him to say what the real scandal was that he had uncovered. But he did not.

Apparently collecting data on every phone call, as well as scooping up a ridiculous amount of everyone’s communications data, despite previous claims of not doing that, isn’t a concern to Blackhurst. He simply believes — because the government tells him — that they need this information to “stop terrorists.” And yet, the evidence has shown that these efforts haven’t actually done much to stop terrorists and that this information has been abused for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, it’s not as if we need to reach very far back in history to find examples of governments abusing this kind of information to destroy people’s lives — including reporters. But, Blackhurst seems to think that if his buddies in the government say it’s okay, it must be okay. Because.

I don’t want my civil liberties infringed, and as a taxpayer I’d like to know as much as possible about what the Government and its agents are doing with my money. But I also want the security services to do their jobs properly, to make the world safer. I know they will make mistakes; I know that occasionally they will stray. I hope I’m not complacent. Others, doubtless, will disagree.

Again, this seems to be totally ignoring his role as a journalist to be the one to help people understand what the government is doing with his and their money — and to make sure that the security services are actually doing their jobs properly and not abusing the system (which goes way beyond merely making “mistakes.”) If this is the way The Independent views its journalism role these days, it really ought to change its title to “the Government’s Mouthpiece” or something more appropriate.

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Comments on “Newspaper Editor: If The Gov't Tells Me Publishing NSA Secrets Is Not In The Public Interest, Who Am I To Disbelieve Them?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

seems to me that instead of changing his role from editor to group content director, twhoever made this change should have made it a little further, like right out the door! i think that 99% of people expect journalists to write about what they have found. they may write their opinion of what they found or what they believe to be the truth about what they found. what people dont expect from journalists is someone who only writes what he/she is told by the person(s)/body(ies) concerned, thereby writing what is best for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

“If MI5 warns that this is not in the public interest who am I to disbelieve them?”

A thinking human being who has the capacity to judge for themselves whether publishing information is truly not in the public interest, or whether the agency telling you not to publish it is merely trying to keep their dirty laundry from being aired in public, and their sins exposed to the light of day. That’s who you are.

At least that’s the theory. In practice you seem incapable of the logical and critical thinking necessary to even grasp why people would object to the actions of the NSA and it’s cohorts, even though it’s not necessary to agree with their objections to understand what the objections are.

Anonymous Coward says:

Glenn Greenwald has a nice response to this up on the Guardian. His views are exactly like mine.

I’m so very, very irritated with media just playing the role of the government’s obedient lapdog. I want the media to hit these jokers HARD. And constantly.

This is the only way to keep the government in check. If journalists aren’t willing to do this, the government starts behaving badly because they know they can get away with it.

Our founding fathers saw this problem and decided to counteract it with the 1st amendment. As another article I read said it best; “There’s a reason the 1st amendment is 1st.”

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Lost in the manure pile

Is actually a reasonably good point about the “who should do the filtering?” debate. Blackhurst makes a point of criticizing massive document dumps as not being a form of whistle-blowing we should praise (though it has unfortunately become the only viable form).

So who should make the judgement call? The whistle-blower.

This is someone who knows the context and therefore what information is dangerous and can be trusted to weigh in the public interest when deciding what information should be released (or they wouldn’t be a whistle-blower).

Of course, for the whistle-blower to go through all the documents and carefully select what is safe, they need a secure location where those documents won’t be seized by a foreign government.

It is the persecution of whistle-blowers by the government that causes journalists to be in the position of deciding what is and is not safe to release.

Bengie says:

Re: Lost in the manure pile

If you stick with abstracts, you’re probably good.

example: NSA is tapping citizen phones without warrants and doing a wholesale dragnet

This is different from say “So-and-so is currently being spied on by this undercover person and they got an emergency authorizing to tap their lines because of possible terrorist connections”

out_of_the_blue says:

Greenwald already called it "The Epitaph Of Journalism".

Journalism, if means writing against the crimes of The Rich and their Establishment, IS dead. Corporate interests and declining morals have killed it. The Corporate State doesn’t tolerate dissent and has unlimited money and pressure to stifle. Not only are all major outlets controlled, but the heavy-handed techniques of the past are replaced with modern management to deflect and distract — with pieces about so-called journalists, rather than the crimes of The State.

All that remains is shadow-play: “bloggers” re-writing the obituary instead of doing their own reporting, then fanboys attack dissenters with ad hom and try to drive them away.

In no area do you find more than empty complaints, and even mention of historically proven fixes to bring The Rich under control again are the most not wanted. You is doomed, kids.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Greenwald already called it "The Epitaph Of Journalism".

…. then fanboys attack dissenters with ad hom…

Are you really so dimwitted that you don’t see your own cognitive dissonance in that simple sentence fragment?

…mention of historically proven fixes to bring The Rich under control again…

Oh you’ve mentioned them before, but you’ve yet to provide any details on how you would actually implement them. All we ever get from you is rallying cries that lack substance.

jack says:

Re: Greenwald already called it "The Epitaph Of Journalism".

Its great to see children interested in wordly affairs.

I salute your effort.

But remember, sometimes its best to listen to the adults when you don’t know what you’re talking about. With this method, you will learn and eventually, become a smart and productive adult.

uRspqF7L (profile) says:

now we are back to usual disagreements

governments are not merely allowed to, but must have secrets.

those secrets mean that people not in possession of them cannot in principle judge whether certain forms of information will or will not cause harm to certain programs or initiatives.

has this gotten out of control? yes.
is the national security state much larger than it probably needs to be? yes.

but the solution to this is representative oversight, via elected representatives. it may be to pass laws severely limiting the scope of what can be kept secret.

but that does not change the basic facts: items legally kept secret (as these issues, by the way, currently are) for reasons of national security are not items the consequences of whose distribution anyone outside of the security apparatus can truly judge.

let’s take just a slightly different headline: “If Govt tells me publishing troop movements is not in public interest, who am I to judge?” Would you really mock that too? Because that issue has been litigated several times and journalists actually aren’t supposed to publish information like that.

I don’t like war. But this particular issue has been legislated several times. Unless direct, clear, immediate violation of law is alleged, journalists are supposed to defer to governmental judgments about national security. The NSA claims are almost entirely about Constitutionality, not legality (part of the problem is that the programs that clearly are currently legal are abhorrent, and the law that underwrites them can’t be checked by usual means). They are not immediate.

I am not saying Blackhurst is right, but I tend to think Gellman has been more judicious than the Guardian in deciding what to publish, and your general point just seems wrong to me. Until and unless we abolish the national security state and all secrets (which I don’t think there is any coherent argument for, by the way), journalists do need to work closely with government to ensure they don’t publish inadvertently damaging information.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: now we are back to usual disagreements

Someone who was inside the apparatus made the judgement call to dump all these documents on Greenwald. Condition met.

As far as the troop movements argument, care to link to any document published by Greenwald that actually references a specific server that information was culled from?

That we fought a battle, who we fought it against, when it was fought, who won and the closest city/town is generally considered publishable. Weapons systems that are actively being deployed may be named and the gross capabilities listed, just not which regiment happens to have one, or the exact specifications (although specs still get released all the time).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: now we are back to usual disagreements

The NSA claims are almost entirely about Constitutionality, not legality”

If something is unconstitutional it IS illegal. If a police officer starts secretly entering random homes without a warrant, the issue may be one of “Constitutionality” but it would still be appropriate to blow the whistle. The same thing applies when the NSA is searching everyone’s emails.

(part of the problem is that the programs that clearly are currently legal are abhorrent, and the law that underwrites them can’t be checked by usual means)

And that’s a big part of why the whistleblowing is justified, as well. There’s no other way to get the information out, especially when the NSA lies during congressional hearings. If you are an organization like the NSA, lying to the organization that is supposed to be your oversight is PLENTY of justification for people to whistleblow. Otherwise what’s the check on their power?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: now we are back to usual disagreements

let’s take just a slightly different headline: “If Govt tells me publishing troop movements is not in public interest, who am I to judge?” Would you really mock that too? Because that issue has been litigated several times and journalists actually aren’t supposed to publish information like that.

Yes, that statement would be mockable. You are conflating two separate things: (1) the press determining for themselves what is in the public interest and (2) the press just accepting what the government says.

In most cases, the press would agree that troop movements should be kept secret — and that’s a decision they can make, including with some input from the government — but it is still THE JOB OF THE PRESS to question the government. Any journalist who says “who am I to question” isn’t a journalist any more, they’re a stenographer.

That doesn’t mean they should publish everything, but that they shouldn’t just take the government’s word on things, no matter what it’s about.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: now we are back to usual disagreements

Dude… Just go South Africa and the Apartheid. Racism was fully legal. It doesn’t make it right and the press is also responsibly for calling on it. Even if these damned surveillance programs were legal or if the government said “shut up, it’s a secret” you still have the DUTY of discussing and exposing if it is wrong. If the government starts killing immigrants because they take local jobs and tell you to shut up because it’s a matter of national security are you going to shut up? It’s as Mike said. Supposedly journalists are adults capable of critical thinking that can identify whether it should or should not be published.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: now we are back to usual disagreements

but the solution to this is representative oversight, via elected representatives. it may be to pass laws severely limiting the scope of what can be kept secret.

This is the problem–there is no representative oversight–they are keeping what they are doing a secret even from their most ardent supporters in the elected government.

Crusty the Ex-Clown says:

Retirement beckons.....

….Mr. Blackhurst, with its siren song of peace. Who am I to dissuade him if he follows it? On the other hand, if he simply lacks the cognitive skills to assess conflicting claims and the backbone to stand firm rather than kneel to government interference, then to hell with him. Dog in the manger, indeed. Get out of the way of the real journalists, please.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is precisely this attitude that has allowed the spy mentality to exist and explode in both size and mission. Mr. Blackhurst, totally misses one of the main purposes of journalism and perhaps that is because investigative journalism is just about non-existent in today’s news. There are a few that call themselves investigative but when you get down to it, it’s not the really vital core stuff that should be being looked at.

The lack of this calling to accounting of serious errors and lapses of judgement along with misdeeds is why politicians get away with lying and BS. This is the main method we have had for a very long time to keep the politicians in check along with the vote. But the vote is a limited time experience and not as effective in between voting events.

That this reporter is claiming to trust the government’s word, is exactly what the public went through before it’s realizations were so suddenly dashed. The Snowden revelations were the one thing that turned unproven suspicions into known facts. The public was willing to give benefit of doubt as long as doubt remained.

So my last question in the acts of Mr. Blackhurst, is to question what he expects to gain out of this? What reason is he toting their water for them, after being shown all is not as is claimed?


Re: No historical perspective.

> You know what would help Britain not being targeted by Al-Qa’ida?

> Not being America’s bitch.

The only thing that will keep England from being attacked by AlQueda is being Muslim. Not only that, but England would have to be the “correct” flavor of Muslim. A non-secular government would also be required.

AlQueda are religious extremists that want to create a theocracy and relive the heyday of the Islamic Empires. They want to bring back the days when Islam ruled Spain and Greece.

Merely minding your own business isn’t going to cut it. You are a fool if you think otherwise.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: No historical perspective.

Are they, or is that propaganda simply necessary to give their radical suicide bombers hope that their mission has any meaning? What makes you think the leaders of Al-Queda, trained by CIA operatives to fight against Russians, are actually honest with their own people?

Al-Queda are a squirrel in a corner lashing out in whatever way they can in the desperate hope that the powerful countries will leave them alone. They could potentially go about the process of empire building if left alone long enough, but they would also have to give up sufficient amounts of their radical agendas in order to maintain control of their populace. Additionally, the moment they gain control of Middle Eastern countries, they also become subject to the MAD doctrine.

vastrightwing (profile) says:

Are there any journalists left?

1 Governments lie
2 Journalists are supposed to discover lies.
3 Lying usually mean there is something bad going on.
4 We are supposed to rely on journalists to keep our governments honest.

There lies the problem: journalists no longer have the need or desire to uncover the truth and keep our government honest. Now journalists lie too. They lie by being accomplices in covering up the truth and they are lied to about why they are being lied to. It’s not important to them why. They simply re-publish what they’re told.

What are journalists today? Entertainers and propagandists. Journalism today is nearly extinct. It has been replaced by info-tainment. I predict the end of “news” in a very short time. There will be no journalists left. The posers will be official spokespeople like Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf who speak for the government. After all, why hire a journalist? They need to be paid and they could say something damaging to our government and then no more plane rides and parties.

By the way, can we agree to drop the term newspaper? It no longer exists. First, there aren’t many newspapers left. And I hardly call the stories they print news worthy: its entertainment, sports columns, opinions, gossip, advertisements, coupons, iPhone announcements, etc. There’s not much in there you can seriously call news. The little news that is published is incomplete and mostly opinion. The news part of the paper is left out.

Julian Assange is one of the few people with the guts to report real news. His character has been maligned, but he is a real journalist. He takes the personal risk by exposing lies, cover ups and the perps that need to be accountable for their actions. While I don’t consider Snowden a journalist, he is doing what a real journalist used to do. This man is risking his life exposing lies and the systematic destruction of our country by hiding the truth from us.

Anyone care to point out any real journalists left? I frankly don’t know of many.

FM HIlton (profile) says:

A little difference

Now, mind you, we don’t have many good journalists left in this country, either-but you must remember that the British government does have the power to literally shut down any paper or media company using their ‘terrorism’ laws that have been in place since 2001.

The same laws that had Greenwald’s partner detained for about 12 hours without a lawyer or access to one.

So he’s being honest-by admitting that he can’t be a real journalist because that’s against the rules of the establishment in Britain.

And that’s why Snowden is particularly wanted by them for dumping all that info about their hitching rides with the NSA for a partnership.

Or as one government official put it to the editor of the Guardian: “You’ve had your fun, now it’s time to stop.”

That’s the mindset they’re working with over there. Not much better than here, but our Constitution guarantees we’ll see/read things the British never do.

Thank goodness.

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