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Beyond WikiLeaks and the Court Martial of Bradley Manning: Analogue versus Digital Whistleblowers

After prolonged detainment and harsh, punitive and even unlawful pre-trial punishment, Bradley Manning’s court martial started this week in Fort Meade, Maryland. The court martial is part and parcel of the wider ‘WikiLeaks Moment’ we are living through. Attempting to make sense of history as it unfolds before us is a perilous task. That said, yesterday I published a post on the uOttawa Expert blog on the start of Bradley Manning’s court martial. As the post had a strict limit of 400 words, I wanted to take the opportunity to expand on some aspects of the Manning case which deserve more attention. Thus what will do is offer a series of blog posts over the next couple weeks briefly exploring themes related to the case of Bradley Manning including three themes: 1) Analog versus Digital Whistleblowing – Ellsberg versus Manning, 2) Whistleblower Smackdown and Crackdown 3) Crowd-Sourced Journalism in a time of Secrecy.

Today’s blog post explores the first theme:

Analog versus Digital Whistleblowers – Daniel Ellsberg versus Bradley Manning

There is no question that US Army Private Bradley Manning facilitated the biggest leak of government information of our time by providing material to the online whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks. Prior to Manning, it was Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of what became known as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ which held this record. The cases of Manning and Ellsberg are fascinating for both their similarities and differences.  To fully understand the differences and thus understand whistleblowing in a digital age, we need to pay attention to the men and the environment they worked in.

Daniel Ellsberg was the consummate insider. A former Marine, Ellsberg earned his PhD from Harvard and was working at the top of his profession. Ellsberg had some of the highest security clearance in the United States (equivalent to a two star general) and was one of only a handful of people with access to the complete Pentagon Papers report known officially as  “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”.  Not only that, as the report was classified “Top Secret-Sensitive”, RAND employees were only supposed read classified documents in a Top Secret Control Room that is, you were senior enough to have a top secret document safe in your office. Ellsberg indeed had a top secret document safe and it was twice the size of the regular issue safe.

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Given the sheer volume of the Pentagon Papers (7000 pages), preparing the documents for their eventual leak was a laborious and very much analogue process. Briefly it involved, Ellsberg hiding volumes of the study in his briefcase, walking out the Rand front door past security and covertly photocopying the study at night at the office of a friend’s advertising agency. Not only would Ellsberg and his helpers need to photocopy each page but, do this twice. Once to get a copy of the page, then the “top secret” stamp would be cut off the photocopied page to make the document seem less conspicuous at which point it would be photocopied again. The process was laborious, time consuming and was undeniable facilitated by Ellsberg’s insider status.

While Daniel Ellsberg was at the top of the information food chain for his time, Private Manning was at the bottom.  Two years after enlisting in the US army, Private First Class Manning was deployed to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad Manning where he worked as an intelligence analyst.  Private Manning worked inside FOB Hammer’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) which was essentially a room which met the US government’s standards for handling classified information.

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As part of his job, PFC Manning had Top Secret – Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS-SCI) clearance which allowed him to work at a SCIF computer terminal with access to SIPRNET the source of the diplomatic cables and other files published by WikiLeaks. Manning was not alone in his access to the SIPRNET but was a node in a vast industry of networked individuals. While the US government will not confirm numbers, the BBC has estimated that approximately “2.5 million US military and civilian personnel” can access SIPRNET”(BBC 2010). Consequently PFC Manning’s network access – along with at least 2.5 million fellow security-cleared individuals – must not be seen as an exception, but as typical of military work in the network society.

The rise and reach of SIPRNET and the related digitalisation and networking of US government and military resources epitomises Manuel Castells’ “network society”.  It also accounts for how such a low level analyst could have access to such a vast trove of information.

This ease of digital access was also magnified in the wake of the 2001 September 11th terrorist attacks when the 9/11 Commission concluded that a key factor not preventing 9/11 was too little information sharing.  This finding set into motion a series of government initiatives to tear down information silos, share information and balloon resources dedicated to generating, gathering and sharing such information.

With unprecedented numbers of people having access to the U.S. government’s network of classified information, there was a shift from information being concentrated in the hands of insiders, to being shared with a vast, global network of security-cleared personnel. With this, the potential for leaking becomes democratised, open to anyone within network access, motive and opportunity.

In Conclusion…

ImageFor those interested in more detail on some of the topics discussed above, especially parallels and striking contrasts between the Ellsberg and Manning cases, I dedicate a chapter in my new co-edited book Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society (Palgrave, 2013, co-edited with Arne Hintz and Benedetta Brevini). Other prominent academics, experts and insiders also join in the effort to explore what WikiLeaks means for journalism, freedom of expression, policy-making and democracy. What ties the book together is a shared view that the case of WikiLeaks embodies many of the pressing social struggles and dilemmas of age.

In the meantime the case of Bradley Manning continues to unfold and while the government has refused to make transcripts of Bradley Manning’s court martial publically available an excellent imitative by Press Freedom Foundation has seen the crowd funding of a court stenographer. Regardless of your opinion about what Bradley Manning, it is important to have a historical record. You may read the transcripts and support the initiative on the Press Freedom Foundation webpage. 

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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

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.

Sincerely,

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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How to Complain to CBC about O’Leary’s exchange with Chris Hedges about Occupy Wall Street (Part 1)

[Edit: A response from the show’s Executive Producer, to my complaint can be read HERE]

I recently posted this on my Media Memes tubmlr but given its length and focus thought it would be good to post here.  It has been a while since a blog post and having just finished relocating from Europe back to Canada, hope to offer comments more regularly. Recently, Rabble.ca drew a blog post from Creekside to my attention. The post offers a considered reflection on an exchange which took place on the CBC show between Lang and O’Leary ExchangeThe exchange was between one of the show’s hosts Kevin O’Leary, and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges focusing on the Occupy Wall Street (#occupywallstreet, #ows) protests.

While I will write about the show in more detail in another post, the point of this post is to encourage people, if you deem fit, to file a complaint with the CBC for Kevin O’Leary’s manner in the interview as a clear violation of CBC Journalistic standards.

Complaints should be sent to the CBC Ombudsman and should be in writing with your name, address and telephone number. Note that the Ombudsman does not respond to anonymous complaints.

You must including the following information: Program Name: Lang and O’Leary Exchange on CBC Television, CBC News Network or CBCNews.ca. Air Date: October 6, 2011.

Be specific. When you feel a program or report was inaccurate, unfair or biased, please indicate how it was inaccurate, unfair or biased.

Complaints can be sent via email to the CBC Ombudsman.

Alternatively, complaints can be sent via snail mail to:

Kirk LaPointe
Ombudsman
CBC
P.O. Box 500, Station A
Toronto, Ontario M5W 1E6

Via fax to: Fax: (416) 205-2825

Via telephone: (416) 205-2978

Wondering what the CBC Journalistic Standards are? Read them here:

Accuracy
We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Fairness
In our information gathering and reporting, we treat individuals and organizations with openness and respect. We are mindful of their rights. We treat them even-handedly.

Balance
We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held theses views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

Impartiality
We provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. We do not promote any particular point of view on matters of public debate.

Integrity
The trust of the public is our most valued asset. We avoid putting ourselves in real or potential conflict of interest. This is essential to our credibility.

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Speakers confirmed for WikiLeaks Special Session at 2011 IAMCR Conference

Back in February I posted that plans were afoot to hold a Special Session on WikiLeaks at the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). Since then, two Special Sessions have come together which will run back to back on July 15th in Istanbul,Turkey

My involvement has been in helping to organise what will be the first session: “Lessons from/for WikiLeaks: Perspectives from Media and Communications”.  The rationale driving the panel may be read here and was developed by leaders of the Community Communication Section and Global Media Policy Working Group, along with cooperation from Ibrahim Saleh of the Journalism Section and the IAMCR Secretariat.

The 90 minute session will consists of talks from 4 speakers who will each speak for 8 minutes and 3 remote Skype interventions of 5 minutes each. We have intentionally structured this session to have ample time for discussion and debate between the panellists and field questions from audience members.

The speakers for the session are as follows:

Special Session: Lessons from/for WikiLeaks | Perspectives from Media and Communications

Panelists

1) Bart Cammaerts ,London School of Economics, UK  |  “WikiLeaks as information and communication resistance”

2) Hopeton S. Dunn, University of the West Indies, Jamaica |  “Something Old, Something New…” : Marrying New and Old Approaches to Political Exposure in theCaribbean- A Wikileaks Case Study”

3) Lisa Lynch, Concordia University, Canada | “The Neverending Story: WikiLeaks and Media Futures”

4) Ibrahim Saleh, University of Cape Town, South Africa | “Weak Ties: Big Changes: WikiLeaks inNorth Africa& theMiddle East (MENA)”

 

With remote/Skype Interventions from:

1) Greg Mitchell,  The Nation | Title: “Enemy at the Gates? The Major Media and WikiLeaks”

2) Gabriella Coleman, New York University,USA | Title: “The Politics of Hacking in the Age of Information”

3) Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, Producer/Host “The Stream”, Al Jazeera | Title: “WikiLeaks, Journalism and the Arab Spring”

 

Chair: Patrick McCurdy,  Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

 

Biographies of Panelists

Dr. Bart Cammaerts is senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His research examines multi-stakeholder policy processes, media strategies of activists, alternative media and issues regarding power, resistance and public-ness and has published in these areas. Bart Cammaerts chairs the Communication and Democracy Section of the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) and is vice-chair of the Communication technology Policy section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR).

Professor Hopeton Dunn is the Director of the Caribbean Programme in Telecommunications Policy and Technology Management (TPM)  at the Mona School of Business, University of theWest Indies, inJamaica, where he holds the Digicel Foundation Chair in Telecoms Policy and Management. Dr. Dunn is also the current Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica and acting Secretary-General of the IAMCR. He is a former Chairman of Jamaica’s Telecommunications Advisory Council (JTAC), which provided advice to the Jamaican government during the country’s transition from a monopoly to a multiplayer market in telecom services. He currently serves as a member of the Jamaica National Commission for UNESCO, and a long-standing board member of the National Library of Jamaica.

Dr. Gabriella Coleman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. Her research and teaching centres on the politics of hacking and digital activism. Her book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Pleasures of Hacking, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press.

Dr. Lisa Lynch works broadly at the intersection between culture, technology, and political change, publishing, presenting and teaching her research in the fields of new media, the cultural reception of genetics, science fiction, disaster narratives, visual culture and humanrights. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from Literature and Medicine and New Literary Historyto Open Democracy and The Arab Studies Journal. She is currently at work on a book project on the ever-increasing boundary skirmishes between traditional, institutional sites of facticity and newer, contingent sites of authority

Greg Mitchell served as editor of Editor & Publisher, the “bible” of the newspaper industry in theU.S., from 2002 to 2009.  He has written for The Nation since 2010, and began a popular daily blog on WikiLeaks that November.  He is the author of eleven books, most recently “The Age of WikiLeaks” and “Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences.” Among his other books are “HiroshimainAmerica” (with Robert Jay Lifton) and “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits, and the President, Failed onIraq.”  He lives in theNew York Cityarea.

Dr. Ibrahim Saleh is Convenor of Political Communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies,University of Cape Town,South Africa, a Fulbright scholar, a senior media expert on theMiddle Eastand North Africa (MENA), and an indexed scholar in the Media Sustainability Index (MSI). Saleh’s research includes monographs and anthologies with most of his research in indexed publications. Saleh’s third book was published in 2006: Prior to the Eruption of the Grapes of Wrath in theMiddle East: The Necessity of Communicating Instead of Clashing. Saleh has received several international prizes such as the Carnegie Research Award (2010), Fulbright Certificate of Merit (2009), the World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) in 2007, and the Arab-US Association for Communication Educators (AUSACE) in 2005 and 2006. Saleh chairs the Journalism Research and Education Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR)

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is a journalist and currently produces and co-hosts “The Stream” ­ a new web community with a daily TV show on Al Jazeera English that taps into the extraordinary potential of social media to disseminate news. Before joining Al Jazeera English he worked as a reporter and producer for The Doha Film Institute, PBS’s award-winning documentary series Wide Angle, and The New York Times. He has also worked as a freelance reporter inNew York,Beirut,Dubai,Kuwait,DohaandAmman. Soon after graduating with honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Ahmed began teaching New Media courses as an Adjunct Professor, including The Bronx Beat and New Media Skills. In 2008, his Masters Thesis earned him a Webby Award for “Defining Middle Ground: The Next Generation of Muslim New Yorkers”.  His work has been featured in The Huffington Post, Frontline/World online, TimeOut, and Washington Week. He also served as a new media mentor on News 21, a collaboration of 12 journalism schools experimenting with forms of in-depth investigative reporting aboutAmerica’s changing social fabric.

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Radical media? UK ad firm threatens activists with legal action over the use of term ‘radical media’

Academics and activists likely recognise the term ‘Radical Media’ from the influential and ground breaking book ‘Radical Media’ written by John Downing first published in 1984.  However, @radical.media, a media company with offices in London has recently claimed ownership over the term ‘Radical Media’ and has threatened legal action against organisers for calling their conference on social movement media and critique: ‘Radical Media’.

The full text of the letter threatening legal action from @radical.media LLC may be read here. In short, in the cease and desist letter they claim that the use of the term could tarnish their ‘reputation’.  In response to this letter conference organisers have changed their conference title to ‘Rebellious Media: Media, Activxt ism and Social Change’ (Although I think they should change it back!) but @radical.media remains unhappy that the conference has kept the conference domain active which is: http://radicalmediaconference.wordpress.com/

 The conference itself looks fantastic with speakers such as Michael Albert, coordinator of the world’s largest radical website, ZNet John Pilger, radical documentary film maker Jessica Azulay, formerly of The New Standard Robert McChesney, renowned media scholar. The ‘Radical Media’ conference is certainly within the activist spirit of ‘radical media’; I only wish I was able to attend the conference in person.

Returning to the misplaced and over zealous actions of the @radica.media group, there are many things with their actions.

To begin with, the concept of ‘radical media’ is an established notion within the field of media and communication studies, social movement studies and the study of alternative media that has been in the public domain since 1984. The book was republished in 2000 and the concept of ‘radical media’ was picked up and used by a wave of scholars interested in studying the rise of the Global Justice Movement in the wake of the 1999 WTO protests against Seattle. As an example, a Google scholar search returns over 1,600 articles that use the concept of ‘radical media’.

For Downing, the idea of radical media was preferable to terms such as ‘alternative media’ in order to capture the motivation of small scale, independent and politically driven media.  The speakers and topics at the Radical Media Conference in London are precisely in the spirit of ‘radical media’ that Downing first wrote about over 27 years ago.

The actions of @radical.media are deplorable and disappointing and reflect the company’s lack of vision not to mention their lack of a ‘radical’ edge.  Looking at what they do, I can see nothing ‘radical’ [in the original sense of the word] about @radical.media; they make advertisements. If anything @radical.media is the pure embodiment of the antithesis of how radical media has been written about for two and a half decades. Sure, they may have a flash website and perhaps they collect ‘urban art’, but to threaten legal action over a name, particularly when the idea is used in good faith and has precedent of being used to describe social movement media for 27 years is simply ridiculous.

The idea of ‘radical media’ is not something that can or should be owned by any corporation. It is a concept which has been used in academia for over 27 years to not only critique corporate media, but to conceptualise how political activists use media to challenge, resist and subvert the power of corporate media.

It is my hope that word of @radical.media’s actions is spread far and wide and that their threat of legal action indeed reflects back on their reputation.  I would encourage those of you who find the actions of @radical.media deplorable to tell them by sending an email to the CEO or corporate president or getting in touch by other means. If you know people who are clients of @radical.media, tell them too.

So, with this in mind, spread the word about the unacceptable actions of @radical.media. Tweet about it, blog about it in order to send a message that corporate bullying, threats and scare tactics are not acceptable.

Edit: It was just brought to my attention that @arcadefire employ @radical.media for their music video. Given the band Arcade Fire have expressed an affinity for radical politics, why not tweet them about the actions of @radical.media too.

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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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