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Saturday, 26 January 2008

Investigating Politics

When a reporter went to prison in 2005 for refusing to give up the name of her source, it could have been a triumph for journalistic integrity. It's a given that reporters – especially investigative ones – often need to protect vulnerable sources from potential recrimination by keeping their anonymity safe. But Judith Miller's source was a senior U.S. government official, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, while the information he was accused of leaking to her (and a number of other journalists) happened to have done significant damage to a government detractor, the former American ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson. Just who was vulnerable here, and who needed protection?

Certainly not Libby, nor the Bush administration in general, although it had shown itself to be remarkably thin-skinned. In 2003, Joseph Wilson had written a series of open editorials in The New York Times, challenging the Bush administration's justification for war ( In what looked a lot like retribution, the White House subsequently leaked Wilson's wife Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent to a selection of political commentators, including Miller. The first outing came in a July 2003 column by Robert Novak in the Washington Post, which included the seemingly throwaway phrase: "
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." ( Plame had been undercover; her career was now over. Thus Bush's lackeys harnessed the supposedly independent media to punish one of their critics and his family.
Valerie Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson

The journalist Judith Miller had met with Libby on the 23rd of June, to discuss Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. She met with Libby again on July 8, two days after Wilson's op-ed in the NY Times. Her notebook from that day included the mispelled scribble 'Valerie Flame'. But she afterwards claimed that name came from "another source, whom I could not recall." Miller didn't write an article naming Ms. Plame, but a week later, Novak's column came out. In the ensuing controversy, when the CIA asked for a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity, Miller received a subpoena to testify about the nature of her conversations with Libby. She refused on the basis of protecting her sources, and was sent to prison. Her bosses at the NYT outwardly supported her decision to go to prison, although Executive Editor Bill Keller later said: "I wish it had been a clear-cut whistle-blower case." [1] The problem was, Miller was already under fire for swallowing and regurgitating Bush's justification for the Iraq war in a series of articles, a fact she would retrospectively admit: "W.M.D. – I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them – we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong." [2] The last sentence underlines the frankly terrifying question raised by the Plame affair: how vulnerable had Miller and the other reporters allowed themselves to be, and for that matter, how vulnerable are any political reporters to the machinations of government officials with an axe to grind?

On one level, the answer is simple: journalists are intensely vulnerable. Quality reporting requires backing-up a source's every claim, but when you're investigating government, and the only information available is owned and disseminated by the government, how can you double-source? While Valerie Plame's outing showed the readiness with which wily officials would quash criticism through timely 'leaks', the general reporting of the run-up to war with Iraq painted a damning portrait of the entire media's gullibility. In May 2004, a New York Times Editor's Note reviewed the paper's reporting: "We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." The editorial did share out some of the blame: "Complicating matters for journalists, accounts… were often eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq." [3] In other words, spin; an increasingly professional operation amongst government departments. Journalists are no less vulnerable in the UK. At a conference in November, Guardian journalist Nick Davies remarked: "Journalists used to make news judgements, but now these decisions are made by the world of PR, government, NGOs and so on. Military and intelligence organisations manipulate journalists into running stories that are fiction." It would seem that politicians, now they have a handle on the media, have wrested back all the power that a free press is there to protect. For modern government, effective media relations seem to aim to "take the risk out of democracy" (to poach social scientist Alex Carey's definition of corporate PR) [4].

What is additionally worrying is that spin is continually becoming more covert. Only in its early days would it fail to disguise itself adequately, as exemplified by the Labour aide who rashly sent the infamous memo on September 11, 2001: "It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?" Such brazen Machiavellian plotting is unlikely to be caught on email again, and the length of Libby's eventual trial reflected the way the White House and Downing Street spin machines cover their tracks more effectively these days. Of course the phenomenon of spin is completely at odds with the principal of an accountable democracy, thus seeming to justify the most cynical media attacks on government. Yet it results from a dilemma that has yet to be definitively solved: how should a government best communicate with its electorate?

This is where journalists could retain some power. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued: "As Force is always on the side of the governed, the governers have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded" [5]. Public opinion is still the preoccupation of politicians worldwide. The power of journalism lies in its function as conduit and meaning-maker. Labour MP Graham Allen says: "It is now the media not the party who are crucial to securing electoral victory, they must therefore be kept onside and serviced at all times." [6] Today's British politician cannot simply stand and shout his policies from a rooftop; he requires Sky News, BBC 24, Guardian Unlimited and the rest of the media to grant him air-time, print-space, web pages.
Tony Blair courted this early in his career, but by 2007 felt it had gone too far, complaining: "a vast aspect of our jobs today… as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms."[7]
Blair's speech, mauled by many media commentators as utterly hypocritical, nevertheless made an important point, and one that John Lloyd had developed in his 2002 polemic, "What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics". Lloyd argues that the ability of the media to make or break a politician and his party desperately requires a renewed sense of responsibility in journalists. He claims that the vitriolic destructiveness of Britain's press not only makes a politician's life hell, but turns public interest in politics to zero. In investigative journalism, it is perhaps especially true that the reporter's aim is almost always to undermine and criticize. Kovach and Rosenstiel point out: "an expose is in effect a prosecutor's brief and the case it sets forth must be unambiguous… that is why investigative journalism has been called advocacy reporting." [8] Indeed, very few journalists would bother following up an investigation that showed the government was actually doing their job; it just wouldn't be enough of a story. Media critics say this is why spin came into being. As Blair memorably put it: " Not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear".

The balance of power between the politician and the journalist has inevitably shifted since Prime Minister Gladstone stepped on a train in 1880 to conduct Britain's first ever national pre-election tour, stopping at Grantham, Newcastle and Edinburgh to talk politics to bemused but appreciative crowds. Until then, as historian Martin Pugh says, "Leaders had usually avoided speaking in other men's constituencies… lest they be seen to interfere in a community's private affairs." [9] Gladstone realized that mass emancipation meant the party needed to start communicating with the general public, not just Parliament. He changed the job description of the politician forever. As Lord Salisbury complained to Queen Victoria in 1887, "This duty of making political speeches is an aggravation of the labours of your Majesty's servants which we owe entirely to Mr. Gladstone."
A hundred and twenty years on, we have mass media, satellite communication, press officers and 24-hour news; with Downing Street on youtube (, the symbiotic relationship between the media and government has never seemed more firmly rooted. And never has the need for objective, considered and above all, double or even triple-checked reporting been more necessary. On the 19 th of July 2007, Joseph and Valerie Wilson's civil suit against Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove and other White House officials was dismissed. Judge John D. Bates said: "The alleged means by which defendants chose to rebut Mr. Wilson's comments and attack his credibility may have been highly unsavoury. But there can be no serious dispute that the act of rebutting public criticism… by speaking with members of the press is within the scope of defendants' duties as high-level Executive Branch officials. Thus the alleged tortuous conduct, namely the disclosure of Mrs. Wilson's status… was incidental to the kind of conduct that defendants were employed to perform." [10] That judgement is deeply disquieting, as it effectively sanctions stealth manipulation of the press as a government weapon, not only against military enemies, (in the form of wartime propaganda) but also against its own citizens when they simply exercise their right to freedom of speech. Perhaps it is only with Judge Bates' words ringing in their ears that investigative reporters should listen to government sources.

[1] Bill Keller, quoted in "The Miller Case: A Notebook, a Cause, a Jail Cell and a Deal", by Don van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, October 16, 2005.

[2] Judith Miller, ibid.

[3] Editor's Note, The New York Times, May 26, 2004.

[4] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom, University of Illinois Press, 1995 .

[5] David Hume, from Essays Moral, Political, Literary (1741-2; 1748), Essay 2: Of the Liberty of the Press,

[6] Graham Allen, "The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest about the UK Presidency", 2002,

[7] Tony Blair, Our Nation's Future: Public Life,, June 12 2007.

[8] Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Atlantic Books 2003 (2001).

[9] 'The Making of Modern British Politics 1867 – 1945', Martin Pugh, Blackwell, 2002.

[10] John D. Bates, "Memorandum Order", United States District Court for the District of Columbia, July 19, 2007.

1 comment:

the lineman said...

Love it. Really good. See you soon hopefully! xxx