One of my university lecturers posed these questions to us regarding ethics in journalism:
Is it ever ok for the media to engage in covert activities and deception? What role does public interest play?
In Pt.1 I gave One Nation and the gun lobby no quarter, and it is in this piece that I wish to explore Al Jazeera’s role, as well as answer the above questions.
Ethics and the Public Interest
When it comes to investigating and running stories like these, ethics becomes a very murky field. One can certainly argue that the deceitful nature of Al Jazeera’s operation could be considered ‘unethical’, as One Nation’s furious members have. So much so that Al Jazeera has been referred to ASIO and the AFP, with the accusation being the Qatari government (which owns and, to an extent, runs Al Jazeera) sent an agent to spy on them and interfere with Australia’s elections.
There are two points I would put forward to dispute those claims, the first being One Nation’s sense of over importance. The Qatari government, I’m sure, has a lot more to deal with at this time than the antics of a minor fringe party in Australia. If Qatar were to target Australian elections, it would probably try to take down the Coalition – the party that has amiable relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel, two countries in the Middle East that are openly hostile towards Qatar. Tearing down a minor party that has more chance stealing votes from the Coalition would be counterintuitive.
The second point is that I don’t see how Al Jazeera “set them up”. Sure, the undercover journalist created a fake Australian gun lobby group, but the actions and words of Ashby and Dickson were their own. They went to Washington and met with the NRA; they tried to make deals for up to $20 million in donations – donations that would have interfered with Australia’s election drastically. Al Jazeera did none of that – they just caught them on tape.
But was Al Jazeera being unethical, really? If you are talking in purist or academic terms, then yes. They ran a covert investigation that misled those they became associated with in their fictional position. This is where public interest comes into it, and why I do not think Al Jazeera did anything wrong. It would be on a case by case basis, of course, but more often than not, public interest outweighs any ‘subterfuge’ carried out, whether by journalists or other individuals.
The go-to trio here is that of WikiLeaks: Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. Chelsea Manning sent a trove of documents to WikiLeaks, a move that landed her (at the time Bradley Manning) into 35 years prison, solitary confinement, and suicide attempts. It broke her oath of service as a member of the US army, and while Obama had her released after 7 years, the charges were not cleared. Unethical? One would have trouble arguing against that; some, i.e. those who are blind loyalists to oaths made to the greatest army of terror in the world, would say treasonous.
To the contrary, Chelsea Manning is an inspiration and a true hero. The revelations made when WikiLeaks published what they received were ground-breaking and damning, but most importantly they were absolutely necessary. It was in the public’s interest to know exactly what atrocities the US government was committing around the world, and Manning should be praised for her role in exposing it.
Similarly, Snowden has become a fugitive (currently held in Russia) and has been called treasonous for leaking information concerning the NSA, it’s PRISM project, and the UK’s GCHQ. He collected massive amounts of data and fled the country (a good book on this is Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files), first to China where he was in contact with Guardian journalists, including Glenn Greenwald (who has since formed The Intercept). From there, with assistance from Julian Assange, he globe-hopped to end up in Ecuador, but when passing through Russia got captured and kept there.
Were Snowden’s actions unethical too? No doubt, but just like Manning’s leak, public interest is a much higher priority. What was once conspiracy theory about mass surveillance suddenly became the terrifying reality, and his role, along with the Guardian’s reporting on what they were given, should also be praised as a heroic sacrifice.
Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK since 2012, his only crime (aside from the uncertain and now dropped sexual assault charges) being the head of WikiLeaks. A platform for, as the name suggests, leaks sent to them by whistleblowers, the importance of WikiLeaks on a global stage cannot be understated. Assange himself is by no means a pleasant person, but for his work with WikiLeaks he should be paraded back to Australia as a hero too.
Three cases, all ‘unethical’ in one way or another, and yet each are entirely justifiable as services to the greater good and public interest. The Al Jazeera scenario is the same – they undertook some relatively minor deceit with the end result being the revelation of One Nation’s secret courting of the NRA. Ideally, the media’s role is to be a check on power and an investigative entity to uncover any abuses of this power. If some mildly ‘unethical’ action is required to blow the lid off of war crimes, mass surveillance, or, in this case, what could have been election rigging and political hypocrisy, then the questionable actions of the journalist or individual are negligible, or to be celebrated.
One Nation planned on making deals of up to $20 million from a foreign gun lobby, boasting that they could win the balance of power in Parliament and therefore weaken gun laws. It is inarguably within the public’s best interest to know exactly what our politicians are doing and why. Greater transparency on these matters is required, and if that takes people like Witness K to reveal espionage carried out by our government against a fledgling country (Timor-Leste), or a Qatari owned media outlet to expose communication between an Australian political party and one of the deadliest US lobbyists, then I am all for it.
The ethical violations of whistleblowers and journalists in cases like these are insignificant when compared to the violations they present to the world. Watching One Nation flounder about and refer Al Jazeera to ASIO is like watching a comedy skit run in real time.
Just a quick aside regarding the ABC. Some, i.e. the usual gang wanting to shut down the ‘leftist’ ABC, have called out the ABC for airing How to Sell a Massacre here in Australia. Seeing as it is about Australia, and in the public’s interest to know about, I would argue the ABC is actually obliged to air it. Not to mention that they have often aired content from Al Jazeera in the past, so to do so now should not come as a surprise.
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