Wikileaks, The Stalker Affair and the Press

August 2, 2010

Book: “The Stalker Affair and the Press” by David Murphy (I picked it up second hand).

It made me think about: my work and social media, even though the book was published well before there was any such thing.

Murphy sets out to challenge the conventional left view that the press reflect a pro estabishment view of events. If this is the case he asks why did every single newspaper (including those traditionally on the right of the spectrum) come to the same conclusion: that there was some kind of establishment conspiracy and cover up to prevent Stalker completing his enquries in Northern Ireland.

My thoughts:

News is a machine that needs raw material to work. The machine itself is not particularly ideological, but the simplest and quickest way for it to work is to rely on trusted sources – press releases or statements from official spokespeople.

If these sources are silent the machine will turn to other sources because it needs to construct a narrative. If you say nothing the outcome will always be something and that something may not be favourable to your point of view. Silence implies assent and the days when there is “no news today” are long gone.

Rather than being in conflict (as portrayed in “The Thick Of It”) the PR industry, official and unofficial spokepeople need each other and have a mutually dependent relationship (“flacks and hacks”). And it’s the spokespeople who have the upper hand – without them journalists would have to do a lot more work to actually find things out.

Which brings me to Wikileaks and in particular this article in the Guardian: “Why Wikileaks Turned to the Press”. by Dan Kennedy. Dan says:

The lesson: shocking material and a flair for public relations may be enough to get you noticed. But if it’s credibility you want, then old-fashioned news organisations still have something to offer.

But where does this “credibility” come from?

The job of journalists is to package up information is a way that people find easy to understand. Most of the time they’re not digging out or analysing information they are repackaging it.

When Wikileaks did the packaging itself (“Collateral Murder”) it was criticised for being too emotional and provocative in tone. The next time it did it it outsourced the job to Newspapers resulting in stories which were acceptable in terms of their tone and language, if not to some in content.

But this doesn’t mean Wikileaks somehow “needs” the mainstream media. Rather like Guido Fawkes they’ve worked out the way to get maximum impact and to get what they want.

They were already sifting through the material they had and thinking about what it meant.

They could have simply hired some journalists to do the rest of the job: turning it into acceptable copy.

Imagine if Wikileaks had packaged up their own material on a website and then sold adverts around it. I think they would be turning a tidy profit very quickly.

And to bring it back to Stalker, why is it that an emotional approach to a story is less acceptable than a more rational one?

I like to put myself (rather pompously) on the side of reason (although I can be pretty unreasonable and emotional). Being rational feels to me like a good thing in the context of politics and public policy (the more irrational a poltician, the more likely people might get killed).

But you could equally make the argument that the rational, factual approach hides the real horror of whatever’s happening. Murphy ends his book by pointing out that despite the fact that all the papers took a pro Stalker anti establishment line, no one really seemed to care. Or perhaps not enough people cared.

The question then is: who cares? and what do they care about?

How much do journalists really care about the job they do and the society they live in?

Do PRs care about the work they do or are all clients interchangeable? Is it all just a game or a function?

And does the non paid blogger armed with nothing but a publishing tool, Freedom of Information legistation and a cause to fight have one big advantage: he or she really cares?

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