Hey Media, Be More French

Learn from the French response to anonymous leaks & show a little savoir faire, will you?

WrittenBy:Mihir S Sharma
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Hours before the French were due to vote, it looked like Anonymous might manage to affect yet another Western election. #MacronLeaks began to trend, and a collection of generally boring memos from inside the French front-runner’s campaign that had been stolen were dumped into the public domain. WikiLeaks tweeted: “A significant leak. It is not economically feasible to fabricate the whole. We are now checking parts.” And also, in an even more amusing attempt to fabricate outrage: “Metadata of#Macrongate ‘offshore’ document corresponds to Canon printer which costs over $100k”.

What was the point of the data dump? Well, obviously, it was to influence the election. But, just as with the dump of various US Democratic Party emails last year, there was hardly any sign of enormous wrongdoing that was released. No, the point was to try and create a sense among voters that there was something, inherently suspicious, that they were not being told by the media. One of Marine Le Pen’s deputies said on Twitter that the “leaks” might “show us something that investigative journalism has deliberately chosen not to”. It linked up to vague remarks that Le Pen doubled down on in the weeks before the runoff election, accusing Macron of having an undisclosed offshore account.

But the big difference was that the French media just shrugged, in a very French way. They didn’t write the stories, didn’t give any fuel to the rumours, and there was no measurable effect on the election. True, the media wasn’t allowed by law to report on campaign issues in the last hours before voting; but even outside that window, they didn’t exactly throw resources at follow-up stories. Le Monde declared that it would not let itself “be manipulated by the publishing agenda of anonymous actors”.

In this refusal, the French media demonstrated an unusual amount of responsibility. In the new age of politically-motivated hacking, it’s increasingly important to not just figure out what you’re being told to report on, but also why. Journalism is not just about facts, but about context. And thus, journalistic organisations can’t let somebody else define the context of the news – for then, they are not doing their job. When such stolen documents emerge, then every news organisation must take a call whether to publish them without crucial context: such as, for example, that they may be selective. And perhaps the most important bit of context is the notion that the hacking victim’s political opponents may have done far worse things than the stolen documents reveal – but we don’t know because the opponents haven’t been hacked. “Balance” may not be compulsory, but ethical reporting is: and that requires telling the full story, not just the bits you’ve been handed documents about.

Compare this sense of responsibility to how the news media across the world has been behaving. The New York Times, in a report titled “Why the Macron Hacking Attack Landed With a Thud in France”, tried to suggest that the leak had no effect because there was no equivalent of Fox News in France. But it wasn’t Fox News that was the main problem during the 2016 US presidential race. It was the rest of the media – led by The New York Times. As NYT itself reported in a story about its stories: “Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the DNC and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.” NYT defended itself strongly, with its managing editor Joseph Kahn telling Huffington Post that “when these things are put in the public sphere, we’re likely to judge them for their news value, independent of the motive of the leakers”. That’s a deceptive statement: for the “news value” of information is not independent of leakers’ motives when the leakers themselves are participants in the story.

And consider, finally, India’s independent-est ever journalist and his brand-new media platform. His first three stories were, naturally, about opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party – I don’t want to be sued, and so wish to reiterate that this choice obviously has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with his funders’ agenda – and featured recordings or leaks. In at least two of them – I won’t dignify the stories by repeating what they’re about – the question of context becomes crucial. Who leaked or stole these, and why? By repeating them, whose agenda would we serve? What is that agenda? Is the behaviour revealed believable, out of the norm, or not? These are the questions any responsible media outlet would ask. Of course, if you’re a quasi-entertainment programme that wants to pretend it’s the Supreme Court, then I suppose none of these rules apply.

There’s a lot of private information out there. It will only get easier to hack, steal, leak or release this information. Unscrupulous political contestants will start to do this as a matter of course. So, the news media that wishes to distinguish itself from straightforward political agents – as we have seen above, some may not care to do so – had better develop a keener eye for when it is being manipulated. And that means behaving less like the American or Indian media, and more like the French.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @mihirssharma


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