Clamping down on whistle-blowers a ‘retrograde’ step

Whistle-blowers should be aware of how politicians use their leaks, but governments must protect – not punish – them.

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a speech from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London [Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Journalism, and the media more generally, is under a lot of pressure.

The “fake news” furore rumbles on while traditional media is under a number of threats: struggling business models; loss of trust from many directions; journalists under surveillance and threatened by authoritarians; and an increasingly nervous dependency on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter.

Within this troubled environment, the role of whistle-blowers has been criticised.

Did WikiLeaks help US President Donald Trump get elected? Was Julian Assange working with Russia to undermine American democracy?

Are whistle-blowers, rather than being a positive force, breaking down the walls of secrecy that conceal the misdeeds of the powerful, allowing themselves to become the cat’s-paw of autocrats and authoritarians?

These important questions are part of a larger challenge for the whole of the media.

It is not only whistle-blowers that need to consider their responsibilities, but the media as a whole and governments.

Good journalism is needed right now more than ever.

And whistle-blowers are important at a time when the world – and politics in particular – is in turmoil.

Journalism’s role in helping people to understand what is happening is critical – from the catastrophe in Syria and the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to the prominence in the west of the far right.

When governments react to this turmoil by retrenching into a more authoritarian approach – as demonstrated from Trump to May, Erdogan to Putin and many more – that makes whistle-blowers vital if journalists are to be able to play their parts.

Snowden: A model whistle-blower?

Edward Snowden’s revelations of the mass surveillance activities of the NSA, GCHQ and others in 2013 demonstrated the immense value of whistle-blowers, but also the importance of thinking through and taking responsibility for your leaks.

Though British and American authorities remain staunchly critical of Snowden, what he revealed provided people with a far better understanding of what is happening.

In some ways, Snowden's case might be seen as a model of how whistle-blowing should work.


His leaks have led to more restrictions, legal challenges and legal developments in the governance of surveillance, and in some ways improved the way surveillance is managed, understood and overseen.

Snowden chose The Guardian to release his information to, and his documents slowly and carefully found their way into the public domain through a series of other responsible media outlets, from Der Spiegel and the Washington Post to the New York Times and Le Monde.

In some ways, Snowden’s case might be seen as a model of how whistle-blowing should work.

By contrast, the fact that the Trump campaign was able to use WikiLeaks’ revelations concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails might be evidence of a lesser strategy.

Fake narratives

It is not that the Clinton leaks were false or unimportant. They were true and they were important. But the timing and method through which they were released enabled information to be used in ways that were seen by many to be manipulative and in some ways highly misleading. Misleading not by being “fake news” but by helping others to create a “fake narrative”.

Whistle-blowers ‘should be thanked’ – The Listening Post

The tumult surrounding “fake news” should not be seen in isolation.

Media manipulation and failure does not just come by reporting things that aren’t true, nor by failing to report things that are true, but by allowing false narratives to be created.

Selective use of facts, failure to see things in context, failure to see the implications and impact of stories are all failures – and in some ways more dangerous failures than the more obvious “fake news”.

The media’s job is not just to report facts, but to put them in context and to help people to understand them.

In the UK, the media conspicuously failed to do this during the “Brexit” referendum. In the United States, the same could be said over the election of Donald Trump. Those failures have had significant consequences.

Whether without them these elections would have had different results is another question, and whether different results would have been better is yet another. But elections and referendum results determined on the basis of greater understanding of the issues and facts must be better for democracy, and for building trust.

‘More responsibility needed’

The big question is how to respond to these problems – or perhaps more importantly how not to respond.

It would be easy for the fear of “fake news” to be used as reason to clampdown on freedom of speech.

Registering “real” news sources or algorithmically blocking “fake” news sources is essentially nothing more than censorship.

Clamping down on whistle-blowers in general because Assange might have been effectively working for Putin would be a distinctly retrograde step.


Clamping down on whistle-blowers in general because Assange might have been effectively working for Putin would be a distinctly retrograde step: the spectre of the Russian Bear and fear of the far-right can be used to justify many authoritarian moves by exactly those “liberals” who should oppose them.

What is needed is more responsibility. Whistle-blowers need to be aware of how their leaks might be used. They are, however, only a small part of the picture.

Journalists need to stand up and be counted – and to help rebuild people’s trust. They need to emphasise their independence – moves such as the appointment of former Chancellor – and current Conservative MP – George Osborne as editor of London’s Evening Standard do exactly the opposite.

They need to be louder, clearer and more direct in calling out lies and challenging false narratives.

They need to be more aware when they are being used by politicians – and resist that, strongly and vocally.

They need to halt – or even better reverse – the growing reliance on Facebook and Twitter as routes to news.

Governments also need to take responsibility. They need to be brave enough not to tighten regulation.

They need to rein back surveillance of journalists, and try to protect rather than punish whistle-blowers.

Sadly there are precious few signs that any of this will happen.

Dr Paul Bernal is a lecturer in IT, IP and media law at the UEA Law School, and the author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy. His research includes the role of social media, government surveillance and the interactions between politics, society and technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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