There is a lot of discussion about the destroyed computers in the Guardian’s basement and the encrypted documents carried by Greenwald’s partner and assistant David Miranda, and in this post I try to understand why the discussion is so heated. I think Richard Sambrook, Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University and former Director of BBC News, cut to the heart of the issue in his tweet:
Snowden docs – “leaked” or “stolen”?
— Richard Sambrook (@sambrook) August 21, 2013
At first I was tempted in making a stand – I had involved myself in several exchanges with Benedict Evans and Andrew Rhomberg before, and continued the well argued twitter-discussion later around our dinner table. Then I thought there is more to this statement. It seems to me that it points to a rather historic shift. Isn’t it that things have profoundly changed since the Watergate scandal and “Deep Throat”?
While a source is still the witness of a reporter, in the era of digitalization those sources have become more and more documents instead of persons.
Correct me when I am wrong, but if Edward Snowden had simply testified to Glenn Greenwald that the NSA has set up the data mining program Prism including participants as among others Facebook and Google (from 2009), Skype (from 2011) and Apple (from 2012), we would have noticed but he could have been easily ignored. It was the ugly designed Power Point Presentation which made the difference.
In the information age, it is more and more important the case that the material speaks for itself. This point has already fascinated me when writing my book on the structural transformation of the public sphere in the era of digitalization (it will be published with Palgrave Macmillan this autumn):
“After Wikileaks, the term journalists traditionally use to denote a human witness is likewise applied to files. As the source material gets that comprehensive, it obviously starts to ‘speak’ for itself. Instead of a human claiming to speak the truth the material claims to be authentic. It isn’t just by chance that the file is often published as a digital facsimile or an identical copy of the original digital file, but content and form congruently bear witness of a past moment.”
Now of course documents have been sources before – the Pentagon Papers published 1971 by the New York Times have been an often quoted example and their role for truth claiming have already fascinated the brilliant Hannah Arendt in her essay “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers” (it can be read here, thanks New York Review of Books for your excellent archive. But so far this was rather an exception. So what I am asking myself is what we need to consider when sources are not persons anymore, but become more and more documents or digital files.
If we think sources are important for a democracy’s checks and balances, and if we think they are relevant for a open-eyed journalism that fulfills his critical role, we will have to live with the fact that leaked material might be stolen, or non-disclosure agreements might be broken. That something can be called “criminal” isn’t the only truth at play, and this exactly the reason why a “source” is acknowledge by law, precisely Section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
No court may require a person to disclose, nor is any person guilty of contempt of court for failing to disclose, the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible unless it be established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime. (Quoted from The Law Society Gazette)
Of course, the Act also mentions another controversial subject, if the disclosure (of the files Miranda was carrying or on the computers of the Guardian) were necessary in the interests of “national security”. For sure, there are different opinions about this point. However, we shouldn’t forget that governments may not lie but follow interests, and this is legitimate, even though it isn’t fashionable anymore to admit this.
As Hannah Arendt reminds us from an era in which this was still allowed and an open secret: “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” (Truth and Politics, 545). Politicians follow their agenda. Newspapers, in this case The Guardian, follow different interests when investigating. Courts pass judgments. The world is a clashing of wills. In this world, material can’t claim it must clear its conscience, but it has the important role of a witness.
In the digital era we often embrace the fact that the intermediaries disappear, but sometimes things are more complicated. Digital sources can’t claim to be conscience-stricken, still they play a new role in our information environment.