The Stratfor Emails

By , 29 February, 2012, 2 Comments

On Sunday night, Wikileaks began releasing its latest cache of documents, this time a set of 5 million emails from Stratfor, the self-described ‘global intelligence’ company. The emails are the result of several Anonymous hacking attacks on Stratfor in December. Anonymous turned the emails over to Wikileaks, who subsequently shared them with 25 partners – a combination of news outlets and activist organizations.

My reaction was one of deep discomfort. These emails are the product of outright theft by Anonymous, and in publishing them, Wikileaks and its partners are taking ownership of stolen goods.

This comes as News International is under investigation for hacking the phones of celebrities, royals, and a murdered teenage girl. How can journalists justify accepting a cache of stolen emails, while calling for the heads of peers who did the same with voicemails?

Because news organizations believed there might be a vital public interest in accessing the Stratfor emails, whereas there was only harm to be done in accessing the voicemails.

But no news organization can know, before they commission a hack or agree to cooperate with one, whether there is going to be a public interest scoop on the other side. This kind of public interest defense can’t inform the ethical decision news organizations have to make, because that decision must be made at the outset.

Moreover, making the argument that news organizations should only break the law when they expect to find an important story assumes that, in the abstract, news organizations can ethically break laws for a scoop. And once that is conceded, News of the World can argue that it anticipated a public interest in hacking phones. The Sun can argue that it anticipated a public interest in bribing officials. Who knows, they could say, we might have found something valuable.

The rhetoric surrounding the phone-hacking scandal argues that News International was wrong to believe itself above the law. But the message sent by editors who accepted the Stratfor emails is different: that News International didn’t use its above-the-law status wisely, that they picked the wrong victim to hack. ‘Good’ journalists would have broken the law ‘better.’ The hypocrisy beggars belief at a time when the press has so egregiously violated its trust that the public is in favor of giving news organizations fewer legal liberties, not more.

The after-the-fact defenders misunderstand, and thereby undermine, the journalistic trust. It’s not about going outside the law to shine light on whatever entities reporters’ idiosyncratic biases cast as villains. It’s about rigorously measuring all powerful entities against both legal and ethical standards, on behalf of the general public. If the press is going to make the case that society needs us to expose powerful wrongdoers, if we are going to ask society to trust us to do that, then our own legal and ethical conduct must be irreproachable. The special status of the press isn’t one of a greater license, but of greater responsibility: that’s why there are whole fields of law devoted to regulating us.

I am willing to grant that there might be extreme exceptions, scenarios in which a reporter already knows of significant and life-threatening wrongdoing and can, by breaking into a home or sneaking across international borders, prevent or end it. That is a public interest defense, but one that has to be concretely in place before the decision to break laws is taken. It’s also a defense that doesn’t rely on any special dispensation for journalism: we do not jail a citizen who breaks down his neighbor’s door to rescue him from a fire.

In claiming rights beyond those held by all citizens, journalists align themselves with the wrongdoers we are meant to scrutinize, and alienate the public we are meant to serve.

2 Responses {+}
Leave a Reply