Whistleblowing, Journalism and Academia: 3 Questions/Answers

I was recently asked to answer a few interview questions regarding whistleblowing, journalism and academia. Here are my responses:

(FOR A MORE DETAILED PIECE ON MY THOUGHTS IN RELATION TO JOURNALISM, SEE MY OPINION PIECE PUBLISHED BY AL JAZEERA.)

1. Why should whistleblowing be seen as important in a democracy – for being increasingly perceived as an effective means of fighting corruption or for the sole rights of information freedom and the whistleblowers’ rights in disclosing information that is of moral/ political relevance?

It’s important to be clear: whistleblowing isn’t just releasing information on any given topic. A whistleblower is someone who has access to information hidden from public view showing what she/he perceives to be an illegal, unethical or unjust act, and making that information public for the purpose of injecting some type of justice into the situation. It is absolutely fundamental to a working, democratic society that whisteblowers are protected from persecution. Clearly, there are political and corporate actors who have no desire to have illegal or unethical acts exposed, but their interests should always be outweighed by the long-term benefits of the exposure of such acts. Without whistleblowers, it is hard to imagine how many corporate or political crimes  would ever come to light, given the power of governments and large corporations to suppress information. In the end, whistleblowing is a way to balance power.

2. How should one address the threats that acts of whistleblowing may pose on internal security?

National security is often used as a rationale for cracking down on whistleblowers, but, when we take into consideration what I said above — that whistleblowers are releasing information regarding activities that break, or at least seriously bend, the law — then one must again ask the question: “which serves the greater good: suppression of an illegal/dishonest act in the service or national security, or exposure?” To me, in a democracy, there can be no instance when an illegal act is acceptable, and, thus, it needs to be exposed. Similarly, if governments have lied to their citizens, then that should also be exposed. What is interesting in the case of Manning & WikiLeaks is that there has, to date, never been a single clear example of a life being lost as a result of the leaks. In the end, if governments act legally, ethically and with transparency, the need for whistleblowers will diminish. It won’t disappear, though, because even legal acts can be seriously unethical…but it will certainly diminish.

3. What is the importance of whistleblowing – keeping in mind especially the issues raised by the recent Edward Snowden case or the past Wikileaks affair – in journalism/ communication research?

This is a good question. The topic of whistleblowing, and organizations such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, has certainly gained currency in academic research recently. But, in all honesty, up until a few years ago, it wasn’t really a topic addressed to any significant degree within Media & Communications research — other than the standard references to The Pentagon Papers. Whistleblowing isn’t new, but what is new are digital tools available to whistleblowers which allow the release of copious amounts of information all at once. The decision not to find Bradley Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy” was pretty important for journalism in the United States (and abroad), and I suspect that we will be seeing a slew or articles addressing that issue in the coming months and years. The implications of the Manning case for journalism are far-reaching (even without an “aiding the enemy” conviction), and it is something that I hope many scholars will tackle. Again, this is about maintaining a critical eye on power, and that is what both journalists and academics should be doing.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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