Soon after the Panama Papers went live - making headlines and leading news bulletins around the world - Gerard Ryle, the director of the Washington DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, planted a flag in our understanding of journalism in an era of informational insecurity.
"We're not WikiLeaks. We're trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly."
That Ryle should wield such a hefty word as "responsibly" evokes a tired, media-hyped caricature of creepy Julian Assange and his amoral pirate band. Shame on us if our collective memory has been more swayed by scriptwriters and trial-by-media than a frank assessment of the stand that WikiLeaks has taken for an information commons.
The story that paints Assange as an "irresponsible" actor began in 2010 when he approached the United States Department of Defense to invite help in redacting information from the "Afghan War Diaries" that may have put innocent people in danger.
While it was the Pentagon that rebuffed this approach, Assange's media partners cast doubt on the sincerity of his offer, which simultaneously and rather awkwardly gave the lie to US denials that it had ever been made. WikiLeaks even gave US officials access to documents that they had held back from publication, inviting further cooperation to maintain secrecy in cases where lives were at risk.
Even if more could have been done to filter data sets before making them available online, much of the suspicion of the WikiLeaks methodology trades on the never substantiated claim that Assange has "blood on his hands". It is disappointing that Ryle feels the need to trade on this too.
Elaborating in an interview with The Listening Post:
"I'm not criticising WikiLeaks for what they do. They do a different thing … If we were to release 11.5 million documents, most people would fall asleep … we are journalists and we're doing journalism. We're not just publishing everything we see as we get them."
WikiLeaks again, along with another argument in support of the journalistic class - professional ability.
The parsing of source material and the drawing out of narratives is "what journalists do" and the ICIJ has brought together more than 300 of them to do it on our behalf.
True, the media consuming masses lack the time or patience to engage with raw source material but organisations such as WikiLeaks, activists, lawyers, independent and even non-corporate media would probably take an interest. Most importantly, opening up the collaboration would shine light on the leaks from across the political spectrum not just the newsrooms of commercial news outlets.
Some mainstream media have already exhibited a crowd-pleasing tendency to spotlight individual villains such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad and gorge on the discomfort of Gunnlaugsson and Cameron. Focusing on individuals may win audiences, but searching for the names of public figures is neither the only way, nor the most important way, to approach the data contained in the Panama Papers.
Ryle's claim to represent "responsible" journalism needs more than the bogeyman of Assange to back it up. High talk of standards and practices must be tempered by attention to journalism's limitations too. Under-resourced, competitive, and jealous of their scoops, journalists do not live by ethics alone. As a consequence, their handling of the Panama Papers may end up being shaped more by their interests than ours.
Source: Al Jazeera