22 December 2016


Kushan Mitra

Hacking is a reality of today's digital world. However, there are moral and ethical questions that are rightly raised about how the media should treat information from hacking. There can be motives behind the move, or it could be driven by a genuine desire to inform

Hacking happens. Let us get that irritating truism out of the way. In this digital world, espionage is increasingly about peering into your enemies (and even your friends) computer infrastructure. Future wars will be fought, indeed some undeclared wars have already been fought online. And now we have a question posed before us: Has one nation actually hacked the democratic process of another to ensure the victory of someone aligned to their interests?

But, these issues of cybersecurity and cyber-warfare while excruciatingly important are not the agenda for this column. This column wants to deal with the very important question of how to deal with the information from such hacking attacks. Particularly, how do journalists deal with that information? Is the information leaked by such hacker attacks in the public good? Does the public need to know the machinations of diplomacy and ostensibly private conversations? Yet, we live in a time where traditional media houses, like this newspaper, are not the only game in town. Information is released, and has been released, in the public domain for all to see.

The core basis for all communications is security. If information is not secure, trust will collapse. People often maintain different opinions in public and private, and while the hypocrisy of this might seem shocking when exposed, ask yourselves whether public personalities are the only ones guilty of such double standards. In this politically correct world, this is human nature. You might have opinions in private that you cannot express in public, even if you wanted to, lest you be lynched by the mob of perpetually outraged social media trolls.

Information is leaked out by many sorts of people. It could be a whistleblower, like in the famous Watergate case in the United States, or when the 2G Spectrum scam came to light in India. It could be foreign Governments, and more often than not corporate rivals. Or, like in the recent corporate battle between Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry, opposing sides in a corporate or political battle leak out damaging information about the rival party. It could also be in the astoundingly common cases in the UK, where people leak bedroom secrets for money.

But, while secure information has leaked out before, earlier this information had a level of editorial control. After all, some information is sensitive and when responsible journalists realise the enormity of the information they have in hand, they treat it accordingly. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the godfathers of modern investigative journalism, realised this. While the Watergate expose eventually brought about the downfall of Richard Nixon, there was a level of integrity here in the sense that noone ascribed ulterior motives to their reportage. It was good journalism, period.

And, after all, it was an insider, ‘Deep Throat’, eventually revealed to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who was ethically repulsed by the goings-on in the White House. Again, in 2003, the Boston Globe covered the depressing cover-up by the Catholic Church of rampant child abuse in the US Northeast. In both the cases, these were stories that needed to be told. Similarly, the awful organised loot of public property that was the 2G Spectrum scandal, was a story that had to be told.

Just like the mighty Brahmaputra erodes away riverine islands in Assam, the erosion of faith in the media, rather what is today defined as the mainstream media (MSM), is almost complete. Those of us who work here, have to realise that this is our fault. And this is because we have let our prejudices come into our reportage. For example, during the 2G Spectrum scam, most other media organisations which were ‘supportive” of the Government of the day, ignored The Pioneer’s steadfast determination to bring the scandal to light, and hid their partisanship by accusing this paper of the same.

While it is important for journalists, from those on the sub-editing desk to top editors, to have opinions, it is fair to say that journalists on the whole, by virtue of their education, are for the most part social liberals and economically Left-wing. The public at large believes, and to an extent rightly so, that these opinions have clouded fair coverage, and journalists want to protect their status quo.

But this is only partially the case. The emergence of the Internet and a host of so-called news sources, which seek to play on people’s insecurities and reinforce their opinions, are now the rage. The problem is that, while traditional journalism is partially guilty of manipulating the information at their disposal or ready to attack those who do not subscribe to their views, these post-truth websites are equally guilty. And both of these can have a real-world impact. The question can then be rightly asked: Would Donald Trump have been elected US President minus these websites and the access to the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s camp?

This column does not wish to defend the mainstream media. Far from it, the US presidential election also proved just how tone-deaf the US mainstream media is. You do not need this columnist to tell you just how tone-deaf to reality most of its peers in India are. The lack of trust combined with a huge amount of possibly illegally acquired information and paid trends on social media websites, are leading to facts being swamped and reality altered.

The only possible solution here is for traditional media to fight to regain its relevance, and for the public to realise that ‘hacked’ information that is deliberately leaked, is more often than not done so to change opinions. There needs to be responsibility with flow of information, and hiding behind phrases such as ‘freedom of speech’ cannot excuse irresponsibility. Both hackers and journalists need to realise this.

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