Journalists and the secret services

Posted on February 17, 2010

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The current relationship between journalists and the intelligence services is as shrouded in mystery as one would expect. One or two ‘chosen’ journalists within a news organisation will be given a ‘contact’ within MI5 or MI6. This contact will be the person that the news organisation in question goes to for information on what is happening within the intelligence services. Alternatively, the contact might offer information to the journalist. This is a relationship which satisfies two basic needs: the need for the intelligence services to maintain a semblance of openness, and the need for news organisations to have access to a flow of information from within the service. Clearly, by definition the intelligence services need to maintain a veil of secrecy to a certain extent, for fear of compromising the work they do and the people that do that work, yet this system allows them to release information that is not deemed too sensitive and gives journalists a source to whom they can pose any questions or queries.

This system does have its dangers, however. The journalist with the contact within the intelligence services must be wary, for there is rarely any way of corroborating the information being released. This goes with the territory, as any information is likely to be highly classified, but it does violate one of the primary rules of journalism, in that one must always have more than one source. It leaves the journalist open to being played by the intelligence services. Though I do not accuse them of having an agenda, it is inescapable that, as the only source on a certain story, the agent in question could tell the journalist anything he or she wanted to. This is a situation that would be unfathomable in any other situation, yet it is accepted here simply because the journalist is dealing with the intelligence services. It is assumed that the secret nature of the operation in question means that news organisations must violate one of their golden rules.

A journalist with a close relationship to the intelligence services runs the risk of becoming too close. Rather like an embedded reporter in a warzone, they begin to see things only from one point of view. Moreover, also like the embedded reporter, their journalistic integrity can be brought into question. If a journalist continuously publishes stories from the intelligence services’ point of view, without qualifications or evidence, then they run the risk of appearing to be ‘in the pocket’ of their secretive handlers. Too many over-friendly stories, and they might be considered unreliable by their readers, and biased towards the intelligence services by those that oppose or distrust them.

Yet some form of relationship must exist, if journalists are to have any sort of access to information emanating from the secret services. It is the job of our profession to hold power to account, and while it may not be possible to do that as well as we might like in this instance, cutting all links with the intelligence services would mean there would be no way of us doing this at all. Without the need to face a journalist every once in a while, the intelligence services might lose all sense of accountability. There is also no denying that MI5 and MI6 can be a good source of stories, even if there is no way of checking their reliability. It would be foolish for a journalist to cut themselves off from any source at all, especially one as potentially explosive as this one.

There are several risks when it comes to dealing with the intelligence services, and a good journalist must be wary of these. Yet I am convinced that some kind of relationship is necessary, in spite of these risks. They are a source, however unreliable, but we must be careful when we deal with them.

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Posted in: Issues, Media