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The importance of leaks

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 26 April 2007

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke is definitely not old school. But make no mistake - his speech this week (PDF link) to the Policy Exchange think tank was a clip round the ear and a stentorian "now laddie, don't do it again" for the Whitehall news machine.

DAC Clarke's warning that a "small number of misguided individuals who betray confidences" by leaking details of anti-terror operations was stated in terms as cool and calm as they were serious. The leaks were compromising investigations, he said, revealing sources of life-saving intelligence and putting lives at risk.

He didn't exactly lay a hand on a pin-striped shoulder with a cheery "you're nicked." But his carefully measured speculation that the villains were looking "to squeeze out some short term presentational advantage" from the leaks left no-one in doubt who he meant.

Certainly Conservative leader David Cameron was in no doubt. He extracted from the prime minister at PMQs the condemnation of “leaks of sensitive information from whatever quarter” and the non-denial denial that “as far as he (the prime minister) was aware” the leaks did not come from civil servants or ministers.

Leaks - private briefings - are a basic tool of the journalist. They satisfy one of the first conditions of news; revealing something significant that those outside a small circle of privileged people don't know.

They can be irritating and embarrassing for those in positions of power, authority and influence... and that’s sort of the point. Without leaks and whistleblowers a long list of abuses of power would have remained unknown. Even small leaks are a constant reminder to those we allow to govern us that we want to know what they’re really doing in our name... not just what they choose to tell us.

But there are leaks and there are leaks. In the ‘traditional’ model of journalism, a leak is associated with some sort of journalistic enterprise. The good contact; the spade work to find the right person... and then asking the right question; winning the trust of the whistleblower; reporting the leak faithfully, honestly and fairly.

But that model's been turned on its head by a different kind of leak, one that's entirely unburdened by journalistic enterprise. One that has become very much more common since the mid 1990s. The staged, selective leak not from a whistleblower but from someone who legitimately holds the information and whose purpose it is in leaking to massage and manipulate a “short-term presentational advantage,” to quote DAC Clarke once again.

DAC Clarke had in mind the investigation in Birmingham into an allegation that a British serviceman had been targeted by a terrorist network. This leak was of the second and not the first type.

“Almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked,” DAC Clarke said.

Now, no journalist has ever turned his or her back on a piece of information presented as a leak... especially if, as in this case, the leak is a shower and all the competition has it too.

But since the mid 1990s, the currency of the leak - particularly in the political context - has been devalued.

Journalists still exist who by their own hard work spanner out the facts citizens need in order to know what’s being done to us in our name. But two other kinds of journalist have come into being in the last decade and a half; the first who - bluntly - just makes it up under the protection of 'sources'. The second who waits patiently in line for today's or this week's handout from authority, knowing that a story that is in fact from official sources but which is misleadingly buffed to possess the patina of a 'leak' automatically attracts a validation denied the official version. Even if the story is the same.

DAC Clarke's anger - and that of the journalists trying to cover the Birmingham raids on the ground who felt undermined - was aimed at those who leaked/briefed London based journalists. There was more than a measure of disappointment, too, at the journalists who lapped it up.

There will be no inquiry nor is the oath of omerta that binds journalist to source, even in this distorted version of a 'leak', likely to be breached. But the test journalists always employ after a leak is captured in the Latin phrase 'cui bono'. Loosely - 'who benefits'.

Everyone will come to their own conclusion on that - DAC Clarke evidently has. But it's worth spending a moment pondering also whether journalism has benefited or lost.


Given that the people arrested in these highly publicised terror raids (forest gate, ricin plotters, etc) consistently turn out to be innocent of all crimes, clearly no harm has been done to any terror investigation, as the raids are there primarily as government propaganda for the war against terror.

  • 2.
  • At 12:42 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Dudley wrote:

Talking about leaks from small groups of privedged people about what they are doing in our name and not just what they want to tell us...

Can we have a leak of the Balen report please?

  • 3.
  • At 01:00 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Sorry to be dense here, Mr Marsh, but are you saying that you acted on leaks which put the country's security at risk and people in danger ?

Because if that is what you are saying, stop beating around the bush, and dressing it up with sanctimonious tosh.

I will ask you again, did you act on leaked information, which as DAC Clarke said, put security at risk and people in danger.

Yes or No, Mr Marsh ???

  • 4.
  • At 01:18 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

"Now, no journalist has ever turned his or her back on a piece of information presented as a leak... especially if, as in this case, the leak is a shower and all the competition has it too."

What, even if an informer's life is in danger ?

'ALL the competition..' Mr Marsh ???

How did you know ? Did they give away any perceived advantage by telling you that they had a 'scoop'.

Do me a favour...

  • 5.
  • At 03:20 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Funny, you left out a very important aspect of some kinds of leaks and that is the issue of national security. It is one thing when government classifies information as secret to hide its own misconduct and quite another when that information would put lives, even the security of a nation at risk if it were released. In the US, this is a very difficult issue the Supreme Court has grappled with for a long time. The press is regarded as an unofficial branch of government which is there to reveal a conspiracy of the other branches when all else fails. This is seen as legitimate. On the other hand, nobody has a right to disseminate information which is immediately gravely injurious to the nation or about government employees doing their jobs which puts their lives at risk. The Supreme Court walks this tightrope like it was walking on eggs knowing full well that censorship can start with a single step down "the slippery slope." Therefore in general, the individual who leaked the information is the one held responsible and can be penalized by loss of his job, even by criminal prosecution, even by conviction for treason and execution while the press which reported it is usually not prosecuted. In extreme cases a judge might try to hold a journalist in contempt of court for failing to reveal his sources but even here, the Supreme Court is usually cautious about attacking the right of journalists to keep sources confidential.

  • 6.
  • At 03:26 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Glass House wrote:

Of course, you would never leak something which might prejudice a jury trial, now would you ?

Well, unless the Guardian had done it, and the people involved were your chums in the Government.

If you are the answer to the 'Hutton' enquiry, you really shouldn't have bothered. This stinks, and you should have the integrity to resign your commission. '..lives were endangered..' - hope you sleep well at night, but if not can I suggest some Valerian tea.

Very helpful if one has a guilty conscience. I am normally a big fan of the BBC Licence Fee - but if you can't do any better in terms of journalistic standards and integrity than Murdoch's 'soaraway' Sun, then you might as well give up and go home.

  • 7.
  • At 04:00 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

This all sems fairly farcicle to me. Who needs an investigation?

You know for a fact which newspapers etc published the leaked info so you simply throw the reporter in question in jail and force them to 'leak' who leaked the info, if they refuse then you double the sentance.

Job done.

  • 8.
  • At 04:45 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • gareth wrote:

If these 'leaks' come from official sources and are passed to all and sundry in the media why not just call them what they are - press releases.

  • 9.
  • At 05:54 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Ed wrote:

So official information with the 'patina' of a leak acquires "validation" which an official announcement of the same information would not have. Wonderful! Information delivered openly with the authority and accountability of ministers and officials, so traceable to source, is now less trustworthy than information sneaked out anonymously via journalists accountable to each other and their editors, and bound not to reveal the source.
This is the wilderness of mirrors.

  • 10.
  • At 09:57 PM on 26 Apr 2007,
  • Rachid Bousetta, Tunis wrote:

Ian in post 1#, mentions three leaks which proved incorrect.

However, I note that Ian omits all the correct leaks, why is that?, ould it be that Ian is pushing his own agenda?.

The UK is a target for terrorists, that is a fact however much Ian would like to ignore it.

It is high time that the loony left wake up to this threat, this ISlamic extremist threat to the world is here and it threatens everyone, I am fed up with the PC brigade telling us that we are over reacting.

I am a Muslim and I despair of some of my so called muslim brothers, it is time that the BBC started to report the facts correctly, 99% of muslims love life and love our brothers irespective of thier religion.

People like Ian do us all a disservice, stop attacking the USA, stop attacking the UK, and start concentrating on the real problem, that is radical Islam, this form of Islam should not be mixed up with mainstream Islam.

I get so upset with the PC brigade talking rubbish, come to the Middle East, live like us, then you will understand how lucky you are to live in the west.

The BBC is not the respected media outlet that many think it is, it is known for it's bias reporting and is as detested by as large a majority of Muslims as those who seem to hate the Americans.

Go on BBC publish this, allow a modarate Muslims views to be published.

And as a final point everyone should remember that the terrorists real aim is to kill, kill and kill, they do not care if you are Muslim, Catholic, Buddhists or Mormon.

Mark makes very interesting point. Leaks that truly endanger national security are difficult for journalists ... and for anyone who favours the idea of open government. The situation you describe in the US is, of course, very different - there is a written constitution and the press has a role within it. The Supreme Court is charged with the responsibility of finding the point of balance - there is no such body here charged with that responsibility.
Gareth - well, I think that's sort of what I was getting at; the thing is, though, there's now a decade and a half long history of what are effectively press releases dressed up as 'leaks' and 'scoops' ... and the truth is, newspapers will print a 'scoop' obtained in this way when they would never print the same information handed out as a press release.
Good for journalism?

  • 12.
  • At 12:37 PM on 27 Apr 2007,
  • John R wrote:

Good for journalism? Of course it's not good for journalism (as you very well know); it's sheer laziness and destroys what little credibility the media still retain.

The question we the public need to ask you is: what are you going to do about it?

  • 13.
  • At 01:06 PM on 27 Apr 2007,
  • gareth wrote:

Kevin Marsh: No it's not good for journalism. That multiple media outlets slavishly lap up pretend scoops is damaging to journalism in the long run. If the BBC decides it must do the same as the others they must also accept the same consequences, whatever they may be.(What is the quid pro quo for these things? Presumably the BBC might be left out of the loop on the next pretend scoop if it dared to be different.)

It is good that such comments as yours are coming from someone on the inside. I hope more will be done then simply discussing it though. Actions speak louder then words and I'd much rather the BBC took the initiative and stopped referring to sly press releases as leaks. It would be a step in the right direction for the BBC's reputation outside of Westminster.

Ed, I think I'm describing the world the way it is ... not the way it should be nor even the way I might like it to be. I, too, think we've arrived at a strange place where a story presented as a 'leak' is somehow felt to have more kudos, more validity than the official version ... even if they're one and the same.
I have some sympathy with John R - of course it's all about trust ... and the proliferation of non-leak leaks is one of the the many things that mean fewer than one in five believe what they read in the papers.
What can I/we do about it? Flag it up ... discuss it ... question the culture. But no, Sam, throwing journalists into prison isn't likely to be part of the answer.

  • 15.
  • At 03:45 PM on 27 Apr 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

The issue of national security being compromised by reporters came up during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when an embedded reporter Jeraldo Rivera inadvertently broadcast information which could have led to the enemy knowing the position of the troops he was with. He was not prosecuted but he was made aware of it and was more cautious afterwards.

This same kind of incident was explored in an episode of the fictitious TV drama "Law and Order" where an embedded anti war reporter who deliberately revealed the position of the troops he was embedded with was murdered during a return visit to NYC by one of the army buddies of a soldier who got killed in battle as the result of the reporter's revelation.

The reporter Robert Novak was not prosecuted for his role in the revelation that Valery Plame was a covert CIA agent.

  • 16.
  • At 02:52 PM on 28 Apr 2007,
  • M wrote:

"fewer than one in five believe what they read in the papers"

On a parallel point, are future thoughts and decisions by senior BBC opinion formers actually going to be sourced directly by the BBC, with BBC web links in the Editors' Blog? To find out what's going on at the BBC at the moment it seems to be necessary to read all the newspapers.

  • 17.
  • At 09:06 PM on 28 Apr 2007,
  • greg wrote:

I would like to know exactly how this relatively small leak has harmed our national security as some people allege here.

As far as i can see this is the sort of information we all need to be aware of more and more. There is a reason why all the terror trials take so long to finish, because there is never a conclusive case to make, yet every trial, no matter how flimsy, gets days of media attention with massive headlines proposing we are all under attack from monstrous forces all connected to al-qaeda. we are quite simply not. people are just angry at our government due to Iraq and Afghanistan. if al-qaeda were a massive organization hell bent on destroying us we would be hearing about foiled terror plots every single day, or even witnessing these plots happening.

However there is a real risk that if we stay in Afghanistan or Iraq much longer then we will start to see attacks occurring on a regular basis.

Politicians use the fear of terrorism to make us back legislation that we would not otherwise accept so that our economy can continue to flourish. First it was the cold war, now its 'international terrorism', without a threat like this the government would not have the power over the people they need to implement controversial legislation for economic profit.

Its also very suspicious as to why the PM has insisted that there not be an investigation into the leak, unless 'evidence emerges'. Staggering.

  • 18.
  • At 11:26 AM on 01 May 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

BBC should examine the question; what responsibility does the news media have to protect national security and the democratic civilization which allows it to exist at all? It would be the height of irony and folly if we lose that civilization as the result of bad government decisions made under political pressure stemming from opinions in the press which "got it dead wrong" as they so often do. At the moment, it would seem much of the press feels no such responsibility at all.

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