Malachi O'Doherty: Yes, a free Press is a cornerstone of democracy... but not when it confuses mischief-making with journalism
The leak that brought down the British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, had nothing to do with news values and everything to do with political chicanery, writes Malachi O'Doherty
One of the best and brightest journalists I ever knew was a Belfast man called Terry Sharkie. Terry had worked for years as a reporter on the Irish News and then in the BBC.
When I knew him he was the producer of the Radio Ulster religious affairs programme Sunday Sequence. He brought me onto the programme as a contributing freelance reporter.
One day, I went to him with the news that the big American evangelist Billy Graham was coming to town. I suggested I interview him.
"Why?" said Terry. "Is he going to say something he hasn't said before?"
I said I doubted that and Terry said, "Then, why bother?"
Billy Graham coming to Belfast was a story, but what he would say when he was here was unlikely to be one.
So, I ask myself today: how would Terry Sharkie have responded if he was still alive and I had brought him the first leaked memos from the British Ambassador in Washington, disclosing an opinion that the president, Donald Trump, was "inept" and his administration "dysfunctional".
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I can almost hear him say it. "Where's the story in that? I can read that opinion any day of the week in the Washington Post or the New York Times."
He'd say: "Bring me a leak that says Donald Trump is a much maligned man of considerable genius, a man with a talent for leadership and a boon to the free world. Bring me that leak and we've got a story."
But, I might have argued, isn't the leak itself the story here?
"Only if we make it one. And that isn't reportage, that's mischief."
Terry would have seen no more point in publishing that memo than he would one which commented on the soup at a White House dinner.
What the story about the leak says is not that the ambassador has disclosed insight into things of interest of which we previously knew nothing, but that a London newspaper thinks it is awfully clever in having got hold of the leak in the first place.
Yet, when the police take an interest in finding the source of the leak, the media squeals that it is not the source and, therefore, should not be subject to any law that might apply to the leaker.
The defence is: it is our job to report the news. Fine.
But what news is there in that leak? The leak was not a story of any value at all, but it generated stories. That's a different thing.
And the stories that it generated may have been predictable, indeed pre-planned.
The leak was made for the purpose of embarrassing the ambassador, perhaps for getting him removed from office, perhaps in the hope that Boris Johnson, as the next Prime Minister, would appoint a more Brexit-minded diplomat to that post.
Should an editor of discretion not be wary of being used in that way?
Does a newspaper that pulls a stunt like that have a moral right to claim Press freedom to pursue a political, rather than a journalistic, agenda?
In the newsrooms of London that question is laughable.
Of course, journalists and newspaper editors relish having political impact. There is nothing they enjoy more than bringing down a minister.
It's not so clear that the second leak is not a story. This showed that the ambassador believed that Trump tore up the nuclear deal with Iran simply to spite his predecessor, Barack Obama (right). Even then, there were ways of telling that story which spared the ambassador - "sources close to the diplomatic services". Sources are routinely protected with such devices, where the paper sees a practical interest in protecting them.
The point in not protecting the ambassador was that he was to be made central to the story itself.
Surely an editor, offered a scoop of this nature, asks who is working moves here and what their objectives are.
Usually, the objective is plain; it is to unveil a scandal that authority wants hidden.
That doesn't describe this leak. There is no scandal in a diplomat briefing a government.
The Press must have its independence and its freedom to determine what is newsworthy and what is not; what is in the public interest and what is not. But it will be a great pity if that principle has to be fought for in defence of a story that may turn out to have served an undeclared political project.
Journalists pride themselves on finding the right angle on a story. Mine on the first leak would have been: Press Offered Leaked Memo to Embarrass Ambassador.
The first paragraph might have read something like this: "Political mischief-makers were yesterday offering London editors leaked messages from the British Ambassador to Washington in an apparent effort to have him removed from his job."
I think I know how Terry Sharkie would have responded to a headline like that. "Great story," he'd have said. "Bloody great story."
On the second leak: "Internal Foreign Office communiques disclose a clear belief on the part of high-ranking diplomats that Donald Trump's sole motive for ending the nuclear deal with Iran was personal; he wanted to slight his predecessor, Barack Obama."
That does the job.
Unless, of course, the job in mind is something else; not to keep the public informed in a democracy that honours a free Press, but to manipulate that democracy through devious machinations, with a politically motivated Press leading the charge.