The lure of leaked information

The lure of leaked information

It was interesting to watch the WikiLeaks fallout and the resultant discourse dominating world media during my Europe travels over the last fortnight. In one bold stroke, the secrets-divulging group WikiLeaks has underscored just how easy technology has made it to both steal confidential information and disseminate it globally. Its online release of at least 250,000 US embassy cables on 28 November represents the largest set of confidential documents ever leaked to the public.

It was fascinating to follow the embarrassed reactions and rueful responses to these consecutive information leaks. On my return, however, it surprised me that these leaks had not been highlighted in the Indian media, probably because there has not yet been any India-related disclosure in these series of leaks of restricted records.

The interesting story in India was about another kind of leaks— of selected phone tap transcripts. These had been published by two mainstream English magazines. The ensuing clamour raised the role of lobbyists and even media professionals in influencing government decision-making to favour certain corporate interests. It immediately reminded me of a column I had written way back in August 2008, which had discussed the new gatekeepers in the media—the advertisers, the public relations agencies and the market researchers. The piece had illustrated how these information gatekeepers controlled and framed information in the mainstream media.

Obviously, since then, the balance of power has shifted further in favour of these gatekeepers. Increasingly, it is the providers of information—such as public relations consultants, agents for sportspeople and celebrities, political publicists, lobbyists, and so on—who are gaining the upper hand and extending their stranglehold over journalism.

In this competitive media scenario, with diminishing resources available for a journalist, filling ever expanding space and airtime and meeting tighter deadlines at the same time is often a difficult task. So it is that many newspapers, magazines, television, radio and news websites have become more dependent on these information gatekeepers.

The leaking of confidential information is one of the many methods used for influencing content. Clearly, leaks are the flavour of the season. But some of these should perhaps be called “fake leaks"—the deliberate disclosure of confidential information for political or commercial advantage. We often see examples of this in the calculated early release of data, and the advance trailing of government decisions and announcements.

The reported leaking of information to and by the media has both a long history and a high news value within the production cycle. A leak is one of the most elaborately planned ways of emitting information used by governments and other organizations to pre-announce information and possibly diminish or deflect criticism when the information or policy is officially released.

As a news genre, leaks are usually linked, directly or indirectly, to the issue of sourcing news, as leaks are a means of giving the authors access to privileged information. The relationship between the “sources" (i.e. powerful individuals in key institutions) and journalists is based on a delicate balance of power, trust and mutual benefits. Leaking is just one of the many means by which information is traded with journalists.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that we now see the emergence of some journalists who think there is nothing wrong in manufacturing anonymous quotes: an onlooker said this, an insider hinted at that, a friend revealed this, another anonymous source disclosed that. Increasingly, for “leak" we should read “plant", because political spin doctors and the assorted ranks of public relations practitioners have become extremely adept at taking advantage of the competitive pressures that determine so much of the output of newspapers, television, radio and the Web.

It is interesting to note that despite some leaks being planned and some unplanned, they all depend on “secrecy" for their newsworthiness. The value of a leak lies in its supposed guarantee that the information is sufficiently significant—so much so that certain stakeholders might not want it released to the public domain.

Some of the well-recognized functions of leaks are disclosing social and political problems, mobilizing reaction in support of a common cause, discrediting political opponents, shaping interpretations of public events, enhancing media relations, working up expectations, being ahead of temporally bound news, and so on.

Obviously, who leaks the information is equally important. Even WikiLeaks failed to be noticed when they revealed Sarah Palin’s emails, 9/11 pager messages, and a classified footage showing two Reuters journalists killed by a US Apache helicopter in Iraq. So now, a new collaboration model between prominent publications and WikiLeaks is a tactical strategy. WikiLeaks needs the press so that its leaks can rise to the top of public conversation. The press can use WikiLeaks for its unparalleled scoops. Furthermore, because WikiLeaks isn’t entirely understood or trusted by the public, a partnership with established news sources such as The New York Times gives its leaks legitimacy. Even in India, the release of these phone conversation transcripts through an emerging magazine and a prominent one is a significant indication of the lure of leaks.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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