“We don’t go into that level of detail in the story; we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment” – Tom Harper (lead reporter on latest Sunday Times Edward Snowden article)
Controversy has arisen around a recent Sunday Times story on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The article claims that the NSA documents leaked by Snowden have been hacked by Russia and China, putting the lives of agents in the field at risk. It is also a mixture of serious errors, outright falsehoods and unfounded claims made by anonymous sources. One source is quoted as saying that Snowden has ‘blood on his hands’, not the first time that such a claim has been mendaciously deployed for dramatic effect.
One also needs to ask why, if it is true that UK intelligence knew that there was a possibility that the files could be hacked (and momentarily putting aside Craig Murray’s note that names of agents would never be written down) potentially compromised agents were not withdrawn immediately and replaced where possible. If they really were so concerned about the threat to the lives of their agents, why wait until after the documents were hacked (if they were as claimed). The obvious course of action in such a scenario would be to withdraw any such agents from the field as soon as possible in order to minimize the damage.
The focus of this analysis, however, is on the widespread use of anonymous sources, especially within newspapers of record. The Snowden furor is the tip of the iceberg. One recent example of the use of anonymous sources is the repeated evidence-free assertions of build-ups of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine, usually accompanied by a strong implication that Russia is about to invade. When such assertions are published on Reuters or the other major ‘wires’, the financial and methodological realities of modern media ensure that the stories will be republished word-for-word everywhere, not only on internet news sites like Yahoo and Google, but also on major blogs and in low-quality independent media. [Aside: High-quality independent media would only print such claims with strong disclaimers while pointing out similar instances in the past].
In other words millions will read and ingest parts of the story and, when the next drama in the news cycle comes along, will forget everything apart from the few soundbites they vaguely recall: ‘blood on his hands’, for instance. As the vast majority of casual news readers have no familiarity with or serious interest in the details of the Snowden case (with some falsely believing, for example, that he gave the documents to WikiLeaks) or indeed in most other serious political or social issues, the damage will have already been done. This, in a nutshell, is why soundbites are so prized and ubiquitously used by PR and advertising firms.
Anonymous sources have been used in several important stories over the years and the most instructive example of how devastating such irresponsible media reporting can be is the destruction wrought upon Iraq. The New York Times and other newspapers relied on anonymous sources to allege the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The term WMD itself is one of the most successful soundbites of all time, with the acronym widely used at the time and even now in casual discourse.
The claims were reported uncritically and little or no questioning of the official government position could be found as the drums beat relentlessly for war. We now know that these claims were fed to the media in full knowledge that they were false or amplified, and history tells us that no WMDs were there.
Fast forward to 2015. Nobel Prize recipient Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) released a report entitled ‘Body Count’ this year that concluded that over a million people had been killed in Iraq since 2003 as a result of the invasion. Sectarian violence continues to rip the nation apart and the outlook is bleak with the ascendance of IS in the nation. The city of Fallujah lives with the legacy of US chemical warfare, with hideous genetic deformities and other serious health issues out of control. Meanwhile Judith Miller, the star New York Times reporter, recently embarked on a media tour to promote her book explaining how she really believed what she was writing at the time, employing classic tactics of obfuscation to defuse questioning on her culpability.
The dangers of using anonymous sources are clear:
1. They allow governments, institutions and major corporations to selectively leak information that benefits their agenda.
2. They lead to a situation where no one can be meaningfully challenged on the claims. Spokesmen can plead ‘national security’ and other excuses to avoid addressing questions.
3. A claim without evidence is just that: a claim – only a starting point for a journalistic investigation; not a green light for an explosive, defamatory headline piece that will grab instant worldwide attention.
Nonetheless, there are many cases where the use of anonymous sources is unavoidable, though given the above hazards, great care must be taken. There are several types of anonymous source. A credible source could be someone with whom a journalist has cultivated a long relationship, one whose credibility has been proven time and again on the basis of accurate past stories. A first-time source, perhaps an idealistic employee like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, can also be credible if they provide genuine evidence for their claims and are or have also been in a position to obtain such information.
Acting on information from first-time or even known sources – even with evidence (which may be fabricated) – is risky as Newsweek discovered in 2005 when a story (now retracted) it ran about a US Guantanamo interrogator flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet turned out to be baseless. The story sparked violent riots in Afghanistan and other nations and at least 16 people were killed.
This is where journalistic instinct and experience all come into play. A good journalist will try to corroborate a story and name as many informants as possible, while at the same time appreciating that many sources have extremely good reasons for not being named. This, of course, damages the credibility of the story and makes it only a claim. A reporter and his/her editors must bear in mind the level of credibility when presenting the story to the public, considering factors such as the availability of publishable evidence (like pictures) and the extent of credibility of sources and corroboration and give an appropriate level of prominence to any article published based on this information.
There are, however, cases when it would be irresponsible to publish; namely when a source or even multiple sources have a track record of providing false information or when a source or sources have something to gain financially or politically from the story.
In the case of the Snowden article and the UK government, it’s two for two. The UK government has lied to or misled the public in the past on numerous occasions and its assertions therefore can not be reported uncritically. Further, GCHQ has been greatly embarrassed by the exposure of its Stasi-like operations thanks to Snowden, meaning the government would therefore benefit from discrediting or smearing him.
The Sunday Times responded to criticisms of its article in the form of a ‘has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed’ interview on CNN with the lead reporter on the story, Tom Harper, taking questions from host George Howell.
Gist (significant comments in bold):
Howell: How do senior officials at 10 Downing Street know that these files were breached?
Harper: Well, uhh, I don’t know the answer to that George. All we know is that this is effectively the official position of the British government.
Howell: How do they know what was in them [the files], if they were encrypted? Has the British government also gotten into these files?
Harper: Well, the files came from America and the UK, so they may already have known for some time what Snowden took — uhh, again, that’s not something we’re clear on … we don’t go into that level of detail in the story we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.
Howell: Your article asserts that it is not clear if the files were hacked or if he just gave these files over when he was in Hong Kong or Russia, so which is it?
Harper: Well again sorry to just repeat myself George, but we don’t know so we haven’t written that in the paper. It could be either, it could be another scenario.
Howell: The article mentions these MI6 agents … were they directly under threat as a result of the information leaked or was this a precautionary measure?
Harper: Uhh, again, I’m afraid to disappoint you, we don’t know…there was a suggestion some of them may have been under threat but the statement from senior Downing Street sources suggests that no one has come to any harm, which is obviously a positive thing from the point of view of the West.
In short, Tom Harper knows quite literally nothing about the story. He also says that ‘no one has come to harm’, which makes the inclusion of the term ‘blood on his hands’ unconscionable. He only knows what government officials hiding behind anonymity told him. Yet armed with this spectacular lack of knowledge, he published a headline article that claimed that the files had been ‘cracked’ by the Russians and Chinese (although he doesn’t know that) and also that Snowden has ‘blood on his hands’, while again having no evidence that this is true. These are extremely serious, dangerous and defamatory claims so one would expect the inclusion of a comment from the Snowden side, or at least from one of his prominent supporters or associates. No such opportunity was provided. This also is a fundamental breach of journalistic ethics.
If one were searching for a working definition of ‘government propaganda mouthpiece’, the actions of Tom Harper and – by extension – the Sunday Times are as close as one can get. While the Sunday Times and any media outlet are at liberty at any time to publish the ‘official position of the British government’ on any issue they choose, depicting it as bombshell breaking news complete with deliberately emotive language is the height of irresponsibility.
This is a serious embarrassment for a major newspaper. A retraction, apology and full explanation must be issued for any credibility whatsoever to be regained. As the Sunday Times is unlikely to accept such an assertion, and is indeed standing by its story, can we now expect a similarly aggressive and blockbusting article on the ‘official position of the British government’ on, say, its arms sales to the Saudi regime? At least in this case the term ‘blood on its hands’ would be demonstrably accurate.
It takes a special level of indoctrination to report with a straight face righteous accusations by British government officials that anyone at all has blood on their hands. The UK, both in its colonial and modern eras, has attacked, invaded, occupied or interfered with almost every nation on the planet. Such indoctrination is a common element of establishment journalists in the UK, with many seeming to possess no awareness of how ludicrous some of their claims about the crimes of current enemies are when weighed up against the similar, documented crimes of their own nation, which they almost unfailingly depict as a benign force in the world.
For the Sunday Times to stand by this obviously bogus story, there are only two possible interpretations of its role: it is either naive about or complicit in the actions of its government. As one does not become a decision-maker in a Rupert Murdoch-owned enterprise by being a shrinking violet, the first option can be safely eliminated. The unavoidable conclusion, therefore, is that the Sunday Times in publishing this article is complicit in the aims of the UK government.