The WikiLeaks phenomenon necessitates a review of some of the assumptions underpinning the rules and regulations governing mainstream media, according to the Head of Curtin’s Department of Journalism, Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez.
Dr Fernandez said conventional controls on mainstream media need to be reviewed in the wake of the WikiLeaks phenomenon and the exponential growth of online publishing avenues that are not as strictly limited by publication rules and regulations.
He said the stringency of the formal controls on mainstream media should be reviewed so that the discussion of matters of public interest does not go underground and fester in a counterproductive way.
‘The present framework of onerous controls impedes the publication of sensitive information by mainstream media,’ Fernandez, a media law expert, said.
‘But does that does not completely stop the information from getting into the public domain.’
‘When you look at the mix of avenues available for the circulation of information, then I’m afraid that it’s not possible to have a one-size-fits-all type of approach to controls on information flow.’
Fernandez said that the regulatory framework imposed on mainstream publishers needs to be made more flexible to facilitate the flow of information.
Fernandez said whilst the WikiLeaks phenomenon had raised concerns about editorial judgment and media responsibility, it had also opened the door for individuals to access a greater amount of information and make their own informed decisions.
The UK Information Minister Christopher Graham recently labelled WikiLeaks a part of ‘the online empowered citizen’.
‘That is an apt descriptor,’ Fernandez said.
‘One upshot of the explosion in avenues for self-publishing is that ordinary citizens who may not subscribe to the same set of rules, conventions and practice codes as mainstream media are able to make themselves heard and you could ask – “Should they be allowed to articulate their views?” I would advocate freedom of speech, any day.
‘There is an old view that the truth best emerges through a collision of ideas in the market place. In other words, if your view is unsound, the collision of ideas will expose it as such. So the empowerment of the citizen through increased publishing opportunities increases the number of voices that contribute to public discussion, which is not a bad thing at all.’
WikiLeaks has stated that its primary interest is “exposing oppressive regimes” across the globe, though Fernandez highlighted the difficulty in defining people or governments to be either oppressive or non-oppressive.
‘These are value-laden terms,’ he said.
‘Just because someone refers to another party as oppressive, doesn’t mean the accuser is on any higher moral plane.’
Fernandez said the focus should be squarely on the content of each of the WikiLeaks releases, as opposed to the focus being on those responsible for the publication . ‘Our focus should be on the message, not the messenger,’ Fernandez said.
He said he was not aware of any instance where the release of information by WikiLeaks has resulted in clear harm and agreed that a level of editorial control and judgment would be justified to minimise the occurrence of such harm.
‘For example, if the identity of a trusted informer of useful information that can be used in the fight against terrorism is released, I would say that’s not a very clever thing to do. I do not advocate a blanket, free-for-all, release of information.’
‘What WikiLeaks has highlighted for us is that they have a considerable amount of public interest information.
‘It’s the media’s job to keep the public informed on matters of public interest, but certain types of information deserve to be protected for society’s own good.’