2011-02-23 Five major newspapers debate WikiLeaks in Madrid

MADRID - Today the auditorium of the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid hosted a debate between the chief editors of the five major newspapers involved in cablegate: Javier Moreno from El Pais, Alan Rudbridger from The Guardian, Sylvie Kauffmann from Le Monde, Georg Mascolo from Der Spiegel and Bill Keller representing The New York Times. The theme was the future of journalism in the new global context set by Wikileaks.

We live tweeted the event here.

There was plenty of expectation, and early on in Twitter trends users were wondering if we would see a true discussion and not an orchestrated charade. This was important as most of the audience was made up of young reporters and students on assignment from their Universities: if the debate was to be centered on the future of journalism and its new model then the way it was to be carried out had to be convincing for the future players present. It seemed, however, that the organizers had planned on trying to have a big impact on the future generations, as they lined up students of a journalism Master sponsored by El Pais behind the main participants, though it was still unclear if they would be allowed to join in the debate. As they went in, the viewers were given a piece of paper each, in which they were supposed to write down a question addressed to one of the five editors. It is a shame that even though the scene was perfectly set for an interesting and enriching discussion, full of young people ready to carry the torch when their time comes, it turned out to be sterile: no participation was allowed from and the master students were a little bit more than a stage prop.

Javier Moreno, the host from El Pais opened up with a brief and general reflection about the issue at hand. He asked himself how Wikileaks actions has revolutionized journalism, and how work ethics should change for people associated with the press. Interestingly he also questioned his own role, suggesting that maybe the newspapers present had become the establishment and were outdated compared to new forms of communication such as free social networking. After him Bill Keller from the New York Times came on strong, saying that he was “skeptical that Wikileaks has changed the world as we know it. It only has in a quantitative way, due to the volume of information released”. He went on to say that it was positive for journalism because “everybody can be a publisher” though he also added that “it has not invented a new era in journalism”. When asked about how it would affect diplomacy he eerily quoted U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying that “foreign countries don’t do business with America because they love it, they do it out of self-interest”. This hard, skeptical line was followed by Sylvie Kauffmann and Georg Mascolo. However Alan Rudbridger from The Guardian changed the tone by saying that organizations like Wikileaks (referencing other organizations with the same goals) have the highest standard of free speech because they have the “power to deal with repressive governments thanks to technologies that guarantee the anonymity of their sources”.

He then went on to explain the ethos of publishing such highly compromising cables and all five agreed on the fact that it was too risky to expose the lives of certain people who would be in trouble if their activities were known. On this subject, Keller stated that the New York Times decided what to publish based on their “own judgment”: “we consulted with the U.S. government but made our own decision in the end”. At this point the debate lapsed into sterility, as the participants recounted anecdotes about the decision making process at the time or went into detail explaining the structure of the teams that edited the cables for protection. Javier Moreno, trying to be incisive, asked Bill Keller about Bradley Manning and the actions of the U.S. government against him, and as he could not answer he simply described Manning’s situation and shifted towards Julian Assange and the Espionage Act of 1917. He did mention however, that in his own opinion it would be “very hard to go after Assange with the Espionage Act” as it would also mean “going after the New York Times for publishing secret information” and that for some time he and his staff had considered opening a drop-box for leaks to be published in the newspaper, as a way to adapt to new times. He also said, quite shockingly that “the U.S. government reacted in a sober and mature way” towards the publication of the cables.

After they all agreed on this subject, Moreno raised the issue of the revolutions going on in the Arab world, and asked about the role media was playing in the conflict. Most of the answers were redundant or unclear. Moreno himself answered his own question saying that the “Arab revolution has a lot to do with technology and social networking”. Kauffmann added that she believed people were the ones that made the changes, now they only had the right instruments. On the other hand, Keller said that this is a very important tool as it makes the process much faster and wider in a quantitative way, though the same structures are in place: for it to be news there had to be a journalistic effort behind it. To this Rusbridger responded wisely saying that, if the press was to adapt to new times it needed to “put an end to the difference between a professional journalist and a citizen […] the media must find a new middle position between sources and audience to continue being relevant”.

All this talk about the future led inevitably to business models, a theme that was not present in the program of the debate but which crept out from underneath as a matter of common interest of the participants. At this point the age difference between the five editors and their audience was palpable, as they debated about the battle between open and closed information while free data was being offered on the twitter trends worldwide being projected behind them. Then the debate ended and the questions from the audience were dropped because of “lack of time”. People left the auditorium abruptly and in a hurry. The feeling was that the debate turned out to be a friendly chat between colleagues, who seemed to be complimenting each other for their good work and doing a superficial analysis for all the young journalists they had brought there: no real issues were raised and the lack of participation made the debate shallow. Issues like the persecution of Julian Assange in the media; the lack of pressure against the war criminals still in charge of the U.S. government or the arbitrary transparency of the New York Times would have come up for sure if the people present would have been given the chance to ask.

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