Michael Clifford: Need for robust media has never been greater

Michael Clifford: Need for robust media has never been greater

John Shipton, father of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange,  in front of a 'Don't Extradite Assange' poster as he arrives at the Old Bailey, London, ahead of a hearing in Assange's battle against extradition to the US. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Here’s a little vignette about where the media stands today. 

Around 7pm on August 21, the Irish Examiner website broke the story that would come to be known as 'Golfgate'. 

Aoife Grace Moore and Paul Hosford sourced and confirmed the story within 24 hours of the Clifden dinner taking place.

The rest of the so-called mainstream media piled into what turned out to be a major political event with serious repercussions. 

Yet by the following weekend, there were dark mutterings on social media. 

Where are the photographs? Why hasn’t everybody who was at the dinner been accounted for? 

Why do the media appear to be covering up for their pals in the “elite” circles?

Even when the media was doing its job, and in the case of Moore and Hosford in record time, some remained convinced that the media prefers to cosy up to power rather than hold it to account.

The attitude is mirrored on the populist right, most notably by US President Donald Trump. 

When the media publishes what he likes, they are holding the correct people to account. When the media holds him to account, they are “fake news”.

Of course, the media is full of faults, susceptible to fads, fallibilities, and rogue elements. 

But just as liberal democracy, in general, is under threat right now so also is the role of one of its main tenets.

Two events in recent weeks illustrate how the media is now operating in a totally new environment.

In London, the extradition hearing for Julian Assange is taking place at the Old Bailey. 

Assange is the man behind Wikileaks, the website that a decade ago exposed war crimes and the ill-treatment of prisoners by US forces in Iraq.

The USA wants him extradited to answer 18 counts violating the Espionage Act.

Notably, the charges do not include anything to do with Wikileaks' publication in 2016 of emails from Hillary Clinton which were stolen by Russian hackers.

The publication did Clinton some damage in the presidential election that year. But it would seem the US Justice Department doesn’t have a problem with that. 

It does have a problem with a journalist publishing information that was undoubtedly in the public interest. And Assange is a journalist, not a spy or an employee of the US government.

During the week, Daniel Ellsberg gave evidence via video link at the hearing. 

In 1971, he leaked documents known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post which showed that the US was acting illegally in Vietnam. Neither publication was prosecuted for publishing the papers.

The US attorney general at the time attempted to injunct the publication of the papers, but Judge Murray Gurfein refused. 

“The security of the nation is not at the ramparts alone,” he wrote in his ruling.

“Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” 

Forty years down the line a very different attitude to the role of the press  — now the media — is gaining traction.

Ellsberg told the Old Bailey hearing this week that the Wikileaks publications had exposed war crimes. 

“I was very glad that the American public was confronted with this reality of our war,” he said.

Numerous academics, journalists, and even politicians have decried the attempt to extradite Assange, but the hearing is receiving scant attention. 

A group of MEPs, including Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, were initially granted monitor status at the trial but that has been withdrawn. Amnesty International has been similarly treated.

This is the environment in which it is being decided whether to extradite a journalist to most likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

There was a time when western democracies railed against this sort of thing going on in totalitarian states.

At home, a recent judgment raises questions about whether the role of the press is now being diluted in the courts. 

On September 11, High Court judge Garrett Simons ruled that the editor of a Co Roscommon newspaper was not entitled to claim journalistic privilege in refusing to allow gardaí access to his mobile phone.

The gardaí are investigating a high-profile incident in Strokestown, which occurred following an eviction. 

Security personnel who were present at the site were allegedly assaulted. Four individuals have faced criminal charges in relation to the incident.

The gardaí want to see who tipped off Emmet Corcoran, the editor of the Strokestown Democrat, that the incident was occurring. Mr Corcoran refused on the basis that it would reveal a journalistic source.

However, the court ruled that in this case, the public interest overrode any right to journalistic privilege. 

One factor in ruling against Mr Corcoran was the “motivation” of his source.

Judge Simons ruled: “It might not be unreasonable to infer that the motivation of the source may have been to propagate the ‘message’ that action would be taken against those, such as the security personnel allegedly assaulted, who seek to facilitate the repossession of property by financial institutions.” 

The judge thus ascribed motivation to “a source” who was not before the court and couldn’t even answer for him or herself. 

The ruling also broke new ground in suggesting that a source’s motivation could determine whether a journalist might be obliged to reveal the source’s identity.

At home, a recent judgment raises questions about whether the role of the press is now being diluted in the courts.
At home, a recent judgment raises questions about whether the role of the press is now being diluted in the courts.

People, or sources, who interact with journalists can have all sorts of motivation, sometimes of a nefarious nature. 

Journalists’ primary concern is whether any information is factual and should be published or broadcast in the public interest. The motivation does not matter.

Now there is the prospect that any potential source could be unmasked if their motivation for revealing information is called into question. 

Surely that is going to impact the media’s role in holding power to account?

Freedom of the press, as articulated by Judge Gurfein back in 1971, always was a basic tenet of liberal democracy. The powers that were, tolerated it, often through gritted teeth. 

But there was a broad acceptance that the press — or media — had a vital role in holding power to account, and thus ensuring that citizens could have some confidence in how governance at all levels was conducted.

Things have moved on. The media is no longer trusted as it was, and that in turn perfectly suits power centres all over the world. 

Certainly, the media as a whole has to accept some blame for a decrease in trust.

The bitter irony, however, is that the current political climate demands, now more than ever, a robust media at precisely the time that its capacity to perform its primary function is under serious pressure.

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