So here we have this remarkable invention which, at the touch of a button, revolutionises the ways in which we can communicate. It allows the dissemination of information to countless people around the world. The operation can be carried out with complete anonymity. Suddenly, leaking and whistleblowing can be done on a grand scale – so who needs time-consuming investigative journalism? I refer, of course, to the arrival of the photocopier.
It was the photocopier which, in 1971, allowed Daniel Ellsberg, a former US marine commander and Pentagon official, to take 7,000 pages of top secret documents about the US decision-making process in Vietnam and disseminate them, first to The New York Times, then to the Washington Post and finally to a series of other newspapers across the US. In this way he established himself as one of the most significant figures in the history of whistleblowing and leaking. The photocopier was hailed at the time as a fabulous conduit for information, as, in many ways, it was. There must be many grateful journalists who have received, often anonymously, the fruits of some troublemaker’s afternoon at the Xerox machine.
Now, forty years after the Pentagon Papers, we have a combination of the internet, WikiLeaks, Twitter and “citizen journalism”, all changing the ways in which we communicate and digest information. But do they really alter the basics of reporting much more than the photocopier did?
Daniel Ellsberg is a good starting point for the debate about the future of investigative journalism, not least because he has remained engaged in the action and is prominent today in his defence both of Bradley Manning, the young US marine accused of leaking information to WikiLeaks, and of that outfit’s founder, Julian Assange.
There are three cases, taken from the last four decades, which seem particularly worth exploring in light of what is happening to the exchange of information. First, there is Ellsberg, who leaked in the hope that it would bring the Vietnam war to an end; secondly, Philip Agee, the former CIA man who passed on information about the agency in the mid and late seventies; and thirdly, Mordecai Vanunu, who leaked details of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme in the mid-eighties.
All three worked in cooperation with journalists and the end results were all spectacular. I have chosen those three partly because they are fascinating and significant cases but mainly because I had a chance to meet and interview all three of them more than 20 years after they made their decision to reveal secret information by which time they had had been able to assess what sort of impact they had had.
Ellsberg – unbowed
Daniel Ellsberg, faced, like Agee, a long term in prison and death threats aplenty after the release of the Pentagon Papers which is credited by many with helping to end the Vietnam war. Ellsberg remains unbowed. In the preface to his book, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, he makes it clear he believes the risks he took were worth it. He writes of the lesson that emerged from his trial: “Telling the truth, revealing wrongly kept secrets, can have a surprisingly strong unforeseeable power to help end a wrong and save lives.”
Thirty years ago, Philip Agee, then a 41-year-old former CIA officer living in Cambridge, was told that he was to be deported from Britain as a threat to the security of the state. He had already published a damaging expose of the CIA in his book, Inside the Company, published in 1975, and had made clear his intent to destabilise the organisation further by revealing the identities of CIA agents. In Britain, he worked with publications such as Time Out – which then had a substantial news section – to name the agents, leading to many of them being sent back to Washington, their cover blown. The US government was livid and vowed vengeance.
Agee wept on the ferry that took him away from Britain after his deportation but he died in 2008 at the age of 72 and remained unrepentant. He had been motivated initially by his horror at discovering the backing given by the CIA and US government to the military dictatorships and death squads operating at that time in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala. Reflecting on what he had done and the damage it has caused to him and his young family years later, Agee told me in an interview in Hamburg not long before he died that he had no regrets.
“There was a price to pay,” he said. “It disrupted the education of my children and I don’t think it was a happy period for them…But it made me a stronger person in many ways, and it ensured I would never lose interest or go back in the other direction politically. The more they did these dirty things, the more they made me realise what I was doing was important.”
Under the US Freedom of Information Act, Agee was able to see the scope of the operation mounted against him by an unforgiving CIA who accused Agee of being a boozer and a womaniser. “They admitted to having 18,000 pages on me. I figured out there were 120 pages a day for seven or eight years…I thought it was so foolish, such a waste of money, because I don’t do anything that’s not public.”
Agee: accused wrongly of putting lives at risk
He was also, like WikiLeaks, accused of putting lives at risk. The name most frequently invoked was that of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens who was assassinated in 1975. Although Welch was named not by Agee but in other publications, Agee has often been blamed for his death. “George Bush’s father came in as CIA director in the month after the assassination and he intensified the campaign, spreading the lie that I was the cause of the assassination.”
Not everyone who decides to leak or whistleblow manages to escape the harsher penalties. Mordecai Vanunu, who leaked details of the Israeli nuclear weapons programme to The Sunday Times in 1986, was jailed for eighteen years and spent eleven in solitary confinement but remained convinced that he had done the right thing. If he has regrets about what he did, it is about the way he chose to leak the story.
“It was a mistake to go with one newspaper but I didn’t have any experience with the media,” he said when we met in Jerusalem after his release in 2004; significantly WikiLeaks worked with five separate publications in five different countries when it made its major release of embassy cables in 2010. “My target was to bring information to the world, so the best way would have been a press conference or to send it to 20 newspapers so that it would not be controlled by anyone. Now things have changed and the internet has made it much easier for information to be passed on.”
Vanunu: keeping his spirit free
Vanunu had had plenty of opportunities to recant and is still not allowed to leave the country as part of his ongoing punishment; bogus suggestions are made that he might still have secrets to impart although no-one seriously believes this; the decision to stop him leaving Israel seems to stem more from the authorities’ irritation that he did not leave prison a broken man. “There was a lot of pressure, a lot of attempts at brainwashing,” he said. “I decided from the beginning that they could have my body in prison but my spirit, mind, brain, I would keep free, under my control; that would be my way out.”
There are some common threads in these three stories that remain relevant today in a climate of leaking and whistleblowing on which much investigative journalism depends: each of them was accused of putting lives at risk; each of them was subject to a smear campaign about their personal life using media sympathetic to the government; and each of them was pursued by the government concerned in a punitive and vindictive way.
There are similarities in the WikiLeaks case. In early 2011, Bradley Manning was accused of “aiding the enemy”, an offence which could involve him spending the rest of his life in prison while two American politicians, at the time both would-be presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, indicated that either Manning or Julian Assange should be killed. Palin said that whoever was responsible should be hunted down like an al-Qaida terrorist and Huckabee said the person responsible for the leaks should be executed.
Of course, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and one man’s whistleblower is another man’s traitor. Just as Hillary Clinton would congratulate a Chinese or North Korean leaker or whistleblower for telling truth to power or an Israeli politician would praise an Iranian who did what Vanunu did, so one’s admiration for leakers may depend almost entirely on where you stand politically. It is also worth bearing in mind that governments themselves leak on a regular basis. They leak to sympathetic journalists information that may damage their opponents or enhance their own reputation. Most of the time it is not called leaking – stories refer to “a senior source…a friend of…a normally reliable source…an insider”. It is still leaking.
How to define “investigative journalism”?
I have always been slightly wary of the term “investigative journalism”, with its implicit suggestion that its practitioners were in the business of something loftier than mere earthbound reporters, composing symphonies rather than, say, pop ballads or, perish the thought, commercial jingles. Where is the line drawn? Is it “investigative journalism” to buy a database of MPs’ expenses and then mine it, even if the inquiry is diligent and lengthy? Is it “investigative” to publish a sensational leak which might arrive on a reporter’s desk ready to run? Is writing a non-fiction book on a serious subject “investigative” per se? I suppose the answer is that we all have our own notions of what passes the test, the kinds of story to which we doff our hats, which qualify as works of diligent and exemplary journalism and that make us think: “Gosh, I wish I could have done that.”
Surely that kind of journalism will never die. Its only essential tools, none of them button-operated or dependent on the internet, are the same ones that have been used by writers and journalists and muckrakers since the invention of the printing press: an inquiring mind, a lack of deference and great patience. W. T. Stead made a name for himself and “investigative journalism” – although it was not called that – more than 125 years ago with his articles in the Pall Mall Gazette which exposed child prostitution. In 1885, by “purchasing” a 13-year-old child, he shone a light on one of the darkest places in Victorian England with his series of articles, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. He perished on the Titanic but his form of proactive journalism lives on.
What may perhaps make that kind of journalism harder now is that people who make their living as reporters are under greater constraints than they were in the hey-day of “investigative journalism” in Britain, like the seventies, say, when The Sunday Times Insight team was in its pomp and money was no object. Life has changed in television, too, since the nineties, when both the BBC and Channel 4 had genuinely investigative programmes dedicated to uncovering miscarriages of justice in Rough Justice and Trial and Error, both now abandoned as too expensive and time-consuming.
But some national newspapers and, to a lesser extent now, television documentaries, still expose injustice and wrong-doing on a regular basis along with all the waffle and the triviality. Another obstacle, again the result of financial constraints, is that it is harder for reporters to get out of the office now. The days when journalists could hang around courts covering cases and picking up tales and tip-offs from lawyers, coppers, criminals, witnesses and fellow-reporters have almost passed. No national daily can afford to have their reporters tied up in such a way and local papers have almost abandoned that beat, too. That essential human contact of trust which requires personal contact – meeting rather than tweeting – means less likelihood of stories emanating from what was once a productive arena.
The internet and the spread of rumours
What is also different today is the speed with which information – and disinformation – can travel the globe. We should not be too precious about the disinformation. Newspapers have used their authority too often in the past to spread falsehoods for them to hold up their hands in horror at all the fantasies and rumours that fly around the blogosphere now. The problem is that the internet has multiplied the opportunities for rumours and planted tales to make their way round the world unchecked. Fast journalism, like fast food, smells tasty, is cheap and easily available but often isn’t very good for your health.
Even serious newspapers now deal routinely in unsubstantiated celebrity gossip which they would have disdained a couple of decades ago, even if it is done from an “ironic” perspective; the stories don’t need to be checked, a single “allegedly” in front of a piece of tittle-tattle can be substituted for the bother of making a telephone call or doing a bit of research.
But yes, “investigative journalism” is alive not dead. And it will survive as long as there are dishonest chancers in power. Which means for ever.
Note on the author
Duncan Campbell is a former Guardian crime correspondent and Los Angeles correspondent. He was previously news editor of Time Out and City Limits. He has written a number of books, including If It Bleeds, a novel about crime reporting. This was included in the book Investigative Journalism – Dead or Alive? by John Mair and Richard Keeble.