Francis Shennan: Is WikiLeaks journalism?

SO, now we have a Scottish angle to the Julian Assange case.

To London, it is a breach of bail conditions. To Stockholm, it is an investigation into allegations of sexual offences. To Washington, it is a breach of national security. To Quito, it is the right to offer political asylum in its embassy.

Now, we have Scots MP, George Galloway – who has created a firestorm with the words, “bad sexual etiquette”.

But, as he later tweeted: “It’s about WikiLeaks, stupid.”

That much is true. Along with his ability to command attention, attract supporters and repel critics, Assange has raised almost as many questions as answers. Underlying them all is: What is WikiLeaks?

Is it a news organisation? Is Assange a journalist? Is WikiLeaks journalism?

In the interests of freedom of expression, journalism – unlike law or medicine – is an inclusive profession, if it is a profession at all. We do not have the right to ‘strike off’ those who fail to live up to our professional standards, one of the definitions of a profession.

Similarly, anyone can call him or herself a ‘journalist’ and what they do ‘journalism’. Others may or may not agree.

Daily Mail columnists may have a field day attacking Assange but WikiLeaks passes a test laid down by the paper’s founder. “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising,” said Lord Northcliffe.

Assange himself was already a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the Australian trade union which since 1992 has incorporated the Australian Journalists Association, when he was made an honorary member last year.

Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, told Der Spiegel last year: “He is a journalist, a new kind of journalist.”

Spectator columnist, Alex Massie, wrote that Assange is a journalist, or at least a newsman. And Assange himself told The Guardian he is primarily “a publisher and editor-in-chief who organises and directs other journalists”.

So if WikiLeaks is a news organisation, and Assange is a journalist, surely what they do must be journalism? Certainly when Assange was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism last year, the judges said WikiLeaks’ goal of transparency was “in the oldest and finest tradition of journalism”.

There is, though, a difference in the approach between WiliLeaks and conventional media, one that is not explained by the technological limits of newspapers and broadcasters. After all, conventional media outlets can have servers supporting large websites too.

Assange and The Guardian fell out after initially co-operating on the publication of Afghanistan war logs, partly precipitated by disagreements over the redaction of names.

The real difference in approach, though, was in the amount of explanation and interpretation provided by The Guardian, and the New York Times and Der Spiegel who worked with them. This is clearly a key function of journalism, which is more than the channelling of facts but includes conveying the significance of those facts.

This leads to its own problems: for even where we agree on the facts we might disagree on what they mean. It may even lead to an unconscious self-censorship: now that technological limits on space are largely removed, why don’t we simply publish everything?

However, it does mean that journalism is more than dumping documents on the internet.

Being a journalist requires exercising editorial judgement – perhaps a bit more than shown by… George Galloway?

Francis Shennan is a lecturer in Media Policy and Regulation at Stirling University and director of MediaFaculty.com

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