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Sunday 31 October 2010

Freedom of information can be a tarnished weapon of truth

We're in an age where any and all news is published, whatever the consequences, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I may be a hack myself, but I'm as prone as the next person to savage the media for inaccuracy, irresponsibility, vulgarity, unwarranted intrusiveness, sensationalism and various other deplorable failings. Yet I also believe passionately in a free press that stands up to vested interests and tells the truth to power.

Without the scrutiny of curious outsiders, institutions can do what they like. Child abuse in Ireland went unchecked because the Church, politicians and the law made it impossible for investigative journalists to do their job. So of course there were celebrations over the passing in 1997 of the Freedom of Information Act. Henceforward, secrecy would give way to transparency and our world would be a better place.

Well, up to a point.

In his memoirs, Tony Blair -- who as prime minister had enthusiastically ushered in the happy new dawn in which the public could exercise their right to know -- emitted a cry of guilty pain. "Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. . . I quake at the imbecility of it."

What Blair had discovered the hard way was that organisations can't make good decisions unless they can have internal honest and uninhibited debate. He saw his ministers and civil servants afraid to commit anything to paper that might look bad in the press next week. For historians, this is a nightmare. Honest records are becoming a thing of the past.

All this is exacerbated by the explosion of the internet, which has changed everything, for better and worse. On the good side, quite apart from FoI Acts in democracies, the blogosphere makes it much harder these days for totalitarian regimes, corrupt corporations and selfish institutions to keep their secrets hidden.

It can also, however, intrude on the legitimate privacy of good people, spread vicious rumours and, by churning out ill-digested partial material, make it almost impossible for many decent people in the public service to do their jobs.

The recent controversy about Wikileaks brings these issues into sharp relief. Believing that 'Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people', Wikileaks disseminates material provided by leakers and hackers. Most recently, it released almost 400,000 secret documents known as the Iraq War Logs which reveal all manner of horrible things done by Iraqis and private US contractors, allegedly with the US military turning a blind eye.

The Arab League is among those demanding that those involved in these 'crimes against humanity' should be brought to justice. Yep, that's the Arab League, whose members include such hideous regimes as Saudi Arabia and the Sudan.

Here's the dilemma: it is right that evil be unmasked, but do we really want to destabilise Iraq further? Are we happy that these and earlier leaks have put many individuals at risk of being murdered? Is it right that only totalitarian states have any chance of waging a war without having their secret plans exposed? What about double standards? Russia can get away with savagery in Chechnya; the US, which has a conscience and a free society, is under perpetual scrutiny. Closer to home, the British government is under pressure to release documents relating to collusion with paramilitaries. Does anyone think FOI requests would extract anything from the UVF or IRA?

As a generation we are struggling with monumental issues, and this is one of them. There has been too much secrecy, but is there now too much transparency? Julian Assange, the face of Wikileaks, is the standard-bearer for those who think responsible journalism is about publishing whatever you can get your hands on. Had he been around, presumably he'd have leaked the plans for the Normandy landings in 1944.

Courtesy of the net, we now have millions of ignoramuses who call themselves citizen journalists. Although some are good, quite a lot are conspiracy theorists, and most have no idea how to evaluate, analyse or responsibly use information. Professional journalists have training, experience and colleagues from whom to learn, and are reminded of the ethical dimension. We still need them.

Last month, Tyler Clementi's roommate at a New Jersey university tweeted: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." The film was posted on the net: Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards