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US media navel-gazing after Swift revelations

The American Press is going in for a bout of navel-gazing after the New York Times revealed that the Government was monitoring world-wide financial transactions. Ten days ago below the headline “Bank Data Sifted in Secret by U.S. to Block Terror” the story started:

Under a secret Bush administration program initiated weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, counterterrorism officials have gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States, according to government and industry officials.

A great story under a typically dull American headline, and it started an almost immediate storm with the Times being accused of treason and worse while much of the rest of the press rallied to the flag of press freedom.

The organisation being monitored is known as Swift and Reuters explained the story succinctly as: “A secret program to uncover terror activity by tracking financial records of a Brussels-based consortium, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or SWIFT, a messaging system which is owned or controlled by nearly 8,000 commercial banks in 20 countries.”

That a few details of financial surveillance should cause such a furore is in some ways the biggest surprise. It was secret but in the British Press there have been articles about terrorists using methods of moving money which fall under the radar of the conventional banking system eg avoiding surveillance.

Yet on Thursday the House of Representatives condemned disclosure of the classified financial-tracking program and called on news organizations to keep secret the government’s efforts “to identify, disrupt, and capture terrorists.”

The latest Fox News poll finds “… the public thinks people who leak classified information — as well as news organizations that publish it — should face criminal charges.” Surprise!

Today Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine and with whom I tend to agree, weighs in with a long piece on The Huffinton Post. He comes up with a call for greater transparency by the media about how it makes decisions to publish. Fine words, but on examination as specious as the arguments of those who he calls specious in their defence of the NY Times.

He thinks it is important to set the context of the discussion in terms of journalistic principles and of an informed — and secure — society. So he puts forward his own code of practice (my phrase):

I will reveal a secret government program when I can show that it violates the law or abuses the power given under that law. I will reveal such a program when I can demonstrate that it is dangerously ineffective or incompetent in its design or execution. And I will not reveal such secrets unless I can show a compelling need to know and newsworthiness, and unless I can show that doing so will not put innocent lives and welfare at risk. If revealing secrets puts the nation, its agents, or soldiers at risk, I will not reveal them.

That puts the boot on the wrong foot. It is the job of the press to publish unless it can be convinced that publication would be dangerous to life or the state. It is not for the editor to show a compelling need to know. The public interest test is enough.
Having to pass the Jarvis test would severely damage the media’s ability to fulfil its duty to hold government’s to account. There is in the UK a channel for editors to discuss such issues before publication. It is called the D-notice system and it even has a web site. Is there not something similar in the US?

The problem with trying to be too precise is that it leads to absurdity. Jarvis suggests: “If revealing secrets puts the nation, its agents, or soldiers at risk, I will not reveal them.” But imagine the police had imposed a news black-out on the recent terrorist raid in London (innocent people raided as a result of bad intelligence) and then argued that nothing should be reported because Muslim opinion would be inflamed, putting the lives of troops Afghanistan at risk? Trying to codify the way we think does not work.

Jarvis is right in saying that what is going on in the US at the moment is an old-fashioned slanging match between the Press and the Government. That is how it will always be, so long as we have free and plural societies.

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