Tag Archives: journalism

WikiLeaks and the Case of Bradley Manning: An interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir

Me and Birgitta Jónsdóttir

WikiLeaks was one of the largest media stories of 2010 and continues to make headlines. The majority of this attention has remained on Julian Assange. This coverage has often focused on developments around efforts to extradite him from the UKto Swedento face two alleged crimes of rape. For those counting, as of today’s posting (May 14, 2012) Assange has been held under house arrest for 524 days.

While a number of high profile people have offered their support for Assange, less visible in the news is Pfc Bradley Manning, the US intelligence officer charged with leaking the material to WikiLeaks. In fact, one could hazard a guess that, if theUnited Statesgovernment had their way, Manning would become invisible.

Bradley Manning has been in pre-trial detention for 710 days awaiting trial. By the time he goes to trial in September he will have been detained for over 2 years. (In fact, it will be two years by the end of this month).

In the wake of Manning’s detention, the Bradley Manning Support Network quickly formed to raise funds for his legal defense, campaign for better treatment, keep his case visible in the public eye and ultimately seek justice for Bradley Manning.  Despite the network’s committed and ongoing efforts, political and high profile public support for Bradley Manning’s defense seems shamefully low. It shouldn’t be.

Two weeks ago I, along with a fellow professor Dwayne Winseck of Carleton University, had the chance to interview Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Dwayne has already posted an excellent reflection on the conversation as it pertained to Jónsdóttir’s WikiLeaks –Twitter case. So, in my blog post, I wanted to highlight parts of our discussion around WikiLeaks and the case of Bradley Manning specifically.

Jónsdóttir is an Icelandic activist and Member of Parliament. She is also a former WikiLeaks volunteer who helped edit and produce the Collateral Murder video. Released on April 5, 2010, Collateral Murder is a packaged video put together from a leaked video of a US air strike in Iraq. Taken on July 12 2007, the leaked video is shot from a US helicopter gunship over Baghdad and shows a US military air strike where two Reuters staff (Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh) were amongst those targeted and killed by the helicopter pilots (The Collateral Murder video is edited for maximum effect, for comparison, you can also watch the longer unedited footage of the incident).

Birgitta, recounted to us the first time she saw the ‘Collateral Murder’ video:

“I was sitting in a really busy café (in) downtown Reykjavik and Julian [Assange] pulls out his computer… and starts to show it to me on maximum volume: chh chh chh chh chh chh chh ‘Lite’em all up’. I remember the waiter came to ask him to put it down and I am sitting there and I’m in tears. I’m absolutely just horrified to watch”

For those with little direct experience of the theatre of war, the video is quite powerful. Powerful for its grainy images of death; powerful for the detached manner in which the pilots wantonly execute the killings. From Birgitta’s perspective, the video is also powerful because it provides a rare glimpse into an all too often repeating scene, “I know that there are so many videos out there with exactly the same scene just with different people”.

The July 2007 Baghdad air strike video and the snippets of reality provided by the Afghan War Logs and Iraq War Logs offer an insider’s account of the raw reality of war. And, Birgitta suggests, the only way we can end war, is to know more about it:

“I mean, how are we going to end the wars?  We are going to end the wars by knowing what war is. And, that was the beauty and the horror of the Afghan War logs is that you were basically just getting minute by minute snippets out of what war is really about.”

Of course, the files, in the state that they were received by WikiLeaks, were mostly jargon. However through a strategic partnership of hacker know-how and old fashioned investigative journalism the logs were deciphered.  Amongst the revelations in the data were  15,000 civilian deaths that the US military had documented, but not publicly disclosed. It was allegedly Bradley Manning who released this information to WikiLeaks. And if Manning was the leaker –which seems to be the case based on the badass87/ Adrian Lamo chat logs – Birgitta argues that Manning deserves full public support.

Earlier this year Bradley Manning was nominated and won the 2012 People’s Choice Award from the Global Exchange, an international human rights organisation based in San Francisco. Jónsdóttir has taken award efforts even further. She was responsible for Manning’s nomination for a Nobel Peace prize. With Manning’s name now on the long list, she’s working towards securing high profile endorsements from around the world to try and bolster Manning’s nomination.

Even if her bid to win Manning a Nobel Peace Prize is unsuccessful, the campaign still keeps Bradley Manning in the spotlight. The ongoing activism of the Bradley Manning Support Network has also continued to keep public attention on the case with a “Free Bradley Manning Contingent” in the May 20 March Against the NATO Summit in Chicago. From Birgitta’s perspective, one of the most successful Manning actions to date was the serenading of President Obama by the Fresh Juice party at a $5,000 a plate fundraiser inSan Francisco. As she commented, “there is nothing as effective as civil disobedience at the right moment”.

Showing Support for Bradley Manning has become all the more important as many assert that Manning is being made an example of by the Obama administration. Given the nature of the network society and the fact that the information leaked cannot be destroyed or deleted (paper is much easier to burn), Manning is being made an example through, what the UN special rapporteur on torture recently described as inhumane and “punitive”  treatment . In other words, the fate of Manning is what happens to leakers — digital whistleblowers — in the age of the internet.

Those advancing this argument include Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler and lawyer and columnist Glen GreenwaldI have made this argument as well (I will make this into a separate blog post in the future). Along these lines, Birgitta commented, “what they’re doing, is that they are making him into a scapegoat to scare away all the other whistleblowers, all the other potential whistle blowers”.

It is the whistleblowing aspect which is key to Manning’s case. It is the whistleblowing aspect which has made Daniel Eslberg, famed and celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers, stand up and say “I am Bradley Manning”. And, likely, it is the Whistle blowing aspect Manning’s defense team will play up come the court case in September. Yet, the discourse around whistleblowing is all but absent in the talk of US politicians. While I will expand on this absence in a future blog post, this is likely part of a strategy to prevent stirring further public sympathy for Manning.

Perhaps one of the biggest paradoxes of the entire Manning case thus far is the lack of support for Manning from the traditional left. Charles Davis, in a guest post on Glen Greenwald’s Salon blog, refers to this as “the liberal betrayal of Bradley Manning“.   The reason for this, argues Davis (and a rationale also supported by Greenwald in a talk he gave in Ottawa, back in April) is that Manning is being prosecuted by a Democratic President. Thus, those on the left, due to “brand loyalty”, find it harder to speak out against their President. Would public support for Manning, and from the left in particular,  be higher if Manning was, like Daniel Ellsberg, persecuted under a Republican President?Davis, in his article concludes that perhaps what Bradley Manning did was too radical for liberals, since Manning didn’t work through the system to affect change but opened the system up wide for the public to see.

From Birgitta Jónsdóttir’s perspective, the material Bradley Manning (allegedly) released “…was an incredibly important gesture for our historical records as humanity”.  I too am certain that history books will treat Bradley Manning with compassion and as a whistleblower; someone who disclosed information about misconduct in the hopes of stopping it. As for how the Military Judge in Manning’s court martial treats Manning? We will have to wait and see. But until then, and most likely afterwards, Manning will need all the support he can from high profile supporters like Birgitta Jónsdóttir and from the public at large.


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May 14, 2012 · 2:19 pm

Out of the rat hole: Dictators, capture and the ‘rat’ frame – The Death of Gadaffi

Although the next year of the rat will not be until 2021, the rat metaphor is a popular cultural ‘myth’ in Roland Barthes’ sense of the word. The idea of the rat still holds the mythic connotations of describing someone who is a snitch, a scavenger, lowlife and undesirable. Of course this also holds true to describe the dwelling where someone may be found or their act of hiding. For this reason, the rat “frame” appears to be a favored rhetorical device for framing the capture of dictators as can been seen in the capture of Saddam Hussein and Mummar Gadaffi.

To be clear, Saddam Hussein or Mummar Gadaffi were not pleasant men by any stretch. They were war criminals who tortured and killed their own citizens. Arguing and outlining the extent of their crimes is not the purpose of this short post. Instead, what is interesting is the common cultural narrative used – 8 years apart – which is drawn upon to describe their capture.

On December 15, 2003 Saddam Hussein’s capture was reported by CNN using the headline, “Saddam ‘caught like a rat’ in a hole”. The reference to being caught like a rat, and therefore the source for the headline, came from US Major General Raymond Odierno when describing Hussein’s capture to the media. The rat metaphor proved popular and was published on media outlets from  Fox News, “Saddam Captured ‘Like a Rat’ in Raid” to the Scotsman, “Torches shone on Saddam’s face – he was caught like a rat in a trap“.

On October 20, 2011, Mummar Gadaffi was found hiding in a sewer reportedly begging for his life. His capture also fell into a ‘rat’ frame with Reuters using the headline, “Libya’s Gaddafi caught hiding like a ‘rat’ “.   Given the situation in which Gaddafi was found, hiding in a sewer, and that sewers are indeed where rats live, the use of a rat frame is understandable. This description becomes all the more appropriate given the characteristics Gaddafi embodied, and exceed, what the mythic rat represents.

So perhaps what is of interest is the mythic power of the rat and its use in journalism as a frame; a way of making sense of events. It works on a literal level as both men were found in locations (dark holes and sewers) where rodents would be expected to live. It also captures the characteristics of the dictators who, with different degrees and at different times, were tolerated by the West [despite still being bad men!]. The mythic power of the rat also relays the descent of  the two leaders from powerful individuals who appeared to rule with disdain and without mercy into emasculated individuals who had been  reduced to retreating to a rat den and being ceremoniously dragged from it. In the media, the two men had devolved into the antithesis of the public image they had tried to project.


The role of ceremony here is important and shows the limits of a rat metaphor. At the risk of mixing metaphors, those who were being hunted – Saddam Hussein and Mummar Gaddafi – were big game. Proof of this rests in the trophy shots; the exterminators or rat catchers who successfully captured the leaders at large. The ceremony or perhaps spectacle of media coverage is also of interest. For this I wish Susan Sontag was still with us to offer her perspective on the parading of corpses and its interpretation by Western journalists. While Western media is usually quite conservative in how it represents the dead, in this instance, it is graphic. Perhaps because the images are of the dying and dead body of a villain; a rat.

While the public was denied seeing  the dead body of Osama Bin Laden, video of Gaddafi exists almost up until the moment of his death and images are abound of his death. The public can not only witness the compressed demise of  the public figure but the process and then the face of death. The public too was able to witness the death of Saddam Hussein though this was through a leaked mobile phone video; a backstage act made public.

Gaddafi’s death, on the other hand, was public.  The shoot out, subsequent retreat to and then expunged from a tunnel marked the climax of the Western media narrative  around  Mummar Gaddafi. The rat has been caught; the rat has been exterminated. The media images which accompany the death of Gahaafi fit this narrative and while I certainly do not feel an ounce of sympathy for either Saddam or Gaddafi, I think events like this showcase the role, function and ideologies of media. Thus amidst the celebratory parading of Gaddafi’s body and the media’s coverage of this, there is an opportunity to open a discourse around ideology and ethics in media representation.

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CBC Ombudsman to review conduct of Kevin O’Leary in Chris Hedges interview

[Edit: Shortly after putting this post up, I received a response from the show’s Executive Producer, it can be read HERE]

It has been great to read everyone’s comments on the blog and on twitter and to see that there are a number of people who want to turn their disappointment with the actions Kevin O’Leary into a formal complaint with the CBC.

Two days ago, on October 11th, I received a reply from Kirk LaPointe. the CBC’s Ombudsman saying that, “It is the customary practice of CBC’s Office of the Ombudsman to share complaints with the relevant programmers, who have the right to respond first to criticism of their work” and stating that my complaint was shared with Jennifer McGuire, the General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News.

However, in a reply to a complaint sent in by Christine Estima, it appears that Mr. LaPointe will indeed conduct a review. Christine posted the reply she received to her Twitter account which read:

I write to acknowledge receipt of your e-mail, which I have shared with senior information programmers so that they may be aware of your concerns.

As a result of a similar complaint, I am going to conduct a review of this matter. Once I have completed it, you will be able to find it in the Findings section of my website: http://www.cbc.ca/ombudsman I expect it will be completed within the next few days.


Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman

I see this as a very positive step and look forward to reading Mr. LaPointe’s reply and will be sure to write a blog post about it once it is in.

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Journalism, Risk and the Media: The Case of WikiLeaks

Much has already been blogged about WikiLeaks and I imagine a good few academic papers are already underway. On the topic, John Naughton’s blog has been a  great source for thoughtful memes, not to mention Aaron Bady’s work which went viral. Meanwhile, recent posts by both Charlie Beckett and Emily Bell have encouraged me to think about the case of WikiLeaks from the perspective of journalism, risk and the media.

Actually, the connection was more serendipitous as I have been working with a colleague and friend on a larger research project where we are currently starting to delve further into the literature on risk and particularly the work on Beck and Giddens. While reading this literature the parallels with WikiLeaks struck me.  While I intend to develop this idea further, and really must read wider (so I welcome comments) on the matter, it seems to me that WikiLeaks epitomises the ‘risk society’ that both Beck and Giddens write of. However, the case also illustrates how their theories must be pushed further.

I would argue that the theories need to be elaborated upon in two ways. First, by positioning ‘information’ as a global ‘risk’. While Beck does hint at some statements to this effect (see below) much of the discourse is specific to larger environmental threats.  Second, I would argue that WikiLeaks shows how the media’s reporting of events could, at least theoretically, put the media at risk. The latter point, which is thus far unaddressed in the literature, could be a partial explanation for the ‘crisis in journalism’ identified by Emily Bell.

WikiLeaks – Information as a ‘risk’ in the ‘risk society’

Making the case for WikiLeaks first requires a brief dip into the concept of risk. While much has been written on it, in Beck’s original thesis, risk is defined as, ‘a systematic way of dealing with the hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’ (Beck 1992: 21). Here, the ‘hazards’ Beck refers to are the large scale environmental threats such as radioactivity but he, and others, have extended the concept to include other threats such as climate change, GMO, BSE , terrorism and global disasters.

In a risk society, society and its institutions, reorganise themselves to try and anticipate and manage risk.  Decisions are made on the basis of how such actions may or may not impact future events; organisations are ‘self-limiting’ acting to reduce and avoid risk (Beck 1992: 42). A fundamental characteristic of the risk society is the end of the ‘monopoly on rationality’ held by experts (scientists) whereby risk is now but is contested and debated over as opposed to identified by experts.  This, for Beck, is where the media come in. The media are largely theorised as providing an arena for the definition and contestation of risk; media make risks visible. Restated, the media become sites where large scale hazards such as nuclear power or pressing issues such as climate change are discussed and interested parties struggle with and through the media to define the problem (risk) and the solution.

While implicit in much of Beck’s discussion, ‘information’ is not conceptualised as a risk but as something that is to be struggled over in relation to a specific discourse such as climate change.  A lucid example of this perspective is Beck’s almost prophetic remark that

power struggles over the distribution and the distribution coefficient of information flows will become an important source of conflict.’ (1992: 218).

In the case of WikiLeaks, the power struggle was indeed over the very distribution of information. The information flow – with its multiple mirror sites and rogue torrents  –  arguably resembles Castells’ ‘network society’ and the very act of release and distribution an act of ‘counter power’. Returning to information, States have always been vulnerable to information leaks; thus information has always been a risk. So, what is new? When the internet was barely the Arpanet and when Todd Gitlin was still a radical, war-architect turned whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg – with the help of others including Noam Chomsky – released what became known as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ – a damming dossier on the US war on Vietnam. Not only is the release of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ impressive for their content, but also given the rather ‘time-bound’ approach of meticulously photocopying multiple copies of the 7,000 page documents when compared to the ‘space-bound’ approach of dumping 280,000 files onto a flash drive. Of interest, if Daniel Ellsberg were to release the ‘Pentagon Files’ today as a PDF, they would be no larger than 10meg file and, in fact, are now available as PDF files.

The ‘Pentagon Papers’ were released by a real insider, in a tight-knit circle where not only access to the information, but the ability to manually photocopy 7000 pages of text, was tightly controlled and restricted. The information from Cablegate however was available to hundreds of thousands of people and arguably wasn’t even that classified. The very ease of access to information is part of what makes information a risk. Related to this, is the relative ease in the digital age that such information may be copied and distributed. Just think of the hours it would have taken to either print or photocopy 280,000 diplomatic cables? The sheer volume of the ‘data dump’ has led some critiques to claim that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic organization. I would say that the sheer volume represents the ‘risk’ of information in the information age while the skilled and selective way in which the information has been released establishes WikiLeaks as a media outlet.

The release of the WikiLeaks cables and subsequent reporting by mainstream media has amplified the visibility of the ‘backstage’ and ‘backroom’ dealings visible of powerful national governments and power hungry corporations. Arguably, the response of various organisations to WikiLeaks and the United States in particular, has made the power hinted at in the diplomatic cables all the more visible [and perhaps this was part of the WikiLeaks master plan?]. From what was/is effectively a cyber war launched on the WikiLeaks sites, to the ‘economic war’ by way of informal, perhaps formal, or even simply self-serving, economic pressure applied to WikiLeaks’ funding channels and technological infrastructure show the ongoing power of the nation state and what Clay Shirky emphasizes as the extrajudicial lengths countries will undertake in the name of self-preservation.

What is slightly different in the case of WikiLeaks from Beck’s initial take on risk is that while Beck’s theory has often been applied to specific issues which then are the risks debated such as climate change, in this case the information covers multiple issues. Salon has an excellent overview of ‘What WikiLeaks revealed to the world in 2010’.

Sure, the U.S. serves as the central hub in these cases but the risk here is the information itself.  The point is, is that information is often recognised as a component of risk in Beck’s work but not as a risk itself.  However, given the vast array of actors covered in the WikiLeaks cables this puts ‘information’ as significant risk in the risk or even information society. Beck’s ‘reflexive modernization’ is also interesting in the case of WikiLeaks as the term  is mean to capture the ways in which certain risks can come back and hit you.  To be fair, what Beck lacks here however, Giddens, in his Consequences of Modernity, identifies the control of information and social supervision as one of the, ‘four basic institutional dimensions of modernity’ yet from a quick reading of it information is not explicitly discussed as a risk (though it is obviously implicitly through a lack of control etc).

Of course here then, the implications for power creep back up. Some have argued that WikiLeaks have made states aware of this risk and it may lead to a repressive turn by nation states. However, as Aaron Bady, eloquently argues this runs counter to the aspirations Assange has for WikiLeaks.  Parallels between Beck’s ‘risk society’ and WikiLeaks could also easily be extended into the realm terrorism and information terrorism. Assange has already been labeled or at least inferred as a  terrorist or ‘high tech terrorist’ by many US politicians including US Vice President Joe Biden. So there is obviously scope here to further develop the literature on ‘risk’ that emerged in the wake of 9/11 in the context of an information war, cyberwar, information terrorist or what David Rieff of The Nation has called ‘The Cyberwars to Come’.

Media at ‘risk’ in the ‘risk society’?

A final point, and one that really should be developed more but I feel I have already broken the conventions of a blog post, is related to the underdeveloped role of media in Beck’s ‘risk’ thesis. Of note, this is something Beck himself not only acknowledges but challenges media scholars to pick up. In an interview published in Journalism Studies , Beck notes,

‘The perspective of media as actors in the second modernity is underdeveloped. I have to admit that this focus is underdeveloped in my own analysis and the concept of the risk society as well. Actually, I am still waiting for somebody to pick up the ball here’

This begs the question, what can WikiLeaks tell us about journalism and the media? Just as the scientist no longer has the monopoly on expertise, the traditional /old school / mainstream journalist, in an age of global communication, no longer has the monopoly on practicing journalism. Moreover, for Beck, the media organisation then engages in (and hosts) the debate over the risk which thereby works towards defining the territory of the risk. However, the media organisation is more than a platform for debating risk, it is also a source of risk. Two things are of note here.

First, this may be contingent on how we define a media organisation? Is WikiLeaks a media organisation? As Charlie Beckett argues. Yet even if we say WikiLeaks is not a (traditional) media outlet or even publisher, questions have been raised as to why media/journalists have not generally been supportive of WikiLeaks. In fact, Newsweek asks this question in a recent article.

I think Emily Bell hits the nail on the head in arguing that ‘many, if not all, news organisations are uneasy with either the philosophy or the required skills of performing the same function as WikiLeaks’. I think this point could be interrogated further in the case of WikiLeaks by taking a risk society perspective. More generally, given the global media environment and pressures media organisations are facing, it would be fascinating to consider how the practice of journalism is both enabled and constrained based on their orientation to the risk society. Obviously the ‘classics’ in the sociology of news along with those with a political-economic perspective are already well aware of the structural limitations on the reporting news which would likely argue that journalists have always been part of the establishment they report and we should expect nothing different in the case of WikiLeaks.  Nonetheless, the role of media and therefore journalism is something woefully underdeveloped in risk society literature. I think the ongoing case of WikiLeaks presents a fascinating opportunity to not only develop this perspective, but as a lens to try and understand the wider significance and undeniable importance of the WikiLeaks case.


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I’m eating my cookie – Cookiegate in Canada

Until now, I never thought of a cookie as something which could provide any form of protection from the prying questions of journalists. However, in this video Dr. Stephen Duckett proves me wrong and show just how effective a cookie can be when you are both really hungry and do not want to answer awkward questions about the state of healthcare in Alberta.

Of note, the remix culture of Cookiegate has started already as well:


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