"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

12 January, 2011

On the Media - Wikileaks & Journalism: “The Julian Show” rolls on.... (& on)

Good afternoon, good evening and good night!

Once upon a time, I, too, had my own little perch in the daily news conference at the Guardian. I would squat inelegantly in the corner of a windowsill, overlooking the Farringdon Road, nervously awaiting my own 90 seconds of impatient attention, while some of the biggest beasts of Fleet Street – Roger Alton, Alan Rusbridger – bestrode the pokey editor’s office.

So it was difficult not to feel a rush of nostalgia when the paper’s deputy editor Ian Katz lifted the lid on some of the excitement engendered by the Guardian’s recent entanglement with Wikileaks. Katz was on the panel at the Frontline Club’s first On the Media event of 2011, entitled “Wikileaks – holding up a mirror to journalism”. The event was covered, live, in admirable detail, by the erudite Brian Condon.

It was an often heated discussion, with the Guardian accused at one stage of: “playing Julian Assange and essentially betraying him”. Read the much cited Vanity Fair piece here.

But precisely there, with Julian Assange, lies the rub. Katz himself admitted that Julian: “is a colourful character” and just what, exactly, was the Guardian supposed to do, when their collaborator himself became the story?

For David Aaronovitch, also on the panel, Assange is “a phenomenon of the modern era”. He is itinerant, arrogant, aloof, cool. “Throw in a Swedish sex story […] he was never not going to be interesting”. Indeed.

And here, for me, is where “The Julian Show” has now, sadly, obscured so many of the very significant implications of the Wikileaks phenomenon: for free speech, for accountability and transparency and for best possible journalistic practice. “The Julian Show” is the very model of the indolent, personality-based, sleb-led journalism that so many newspapers and on-line media outlets now prefer to practice.

After all, “The Julian Show” has got simply everything. The enigmatic, persecuted protagonist, the thorny, likely trumped-up, law suit, the photogenic range of international locations. Why, it’s even got the obligatory stately home and a plucky yet truculent heiress to boot now. Someone, somewhere, must be polishing off the screenplay as I write.

Here are some of my own casting suggestions – for Julian, Jason Isaacs (who plays Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter - above); Kelsey Grammer for Vaughan Smith; Andrew Lincoln for Ian Katz; for Bianca, either Salma Hayek or Monica Belluci would do.

And isn’t it so much easier to dissect the individual rather than examine the issue? Discuss, say, Kate Middleton’s incipient anorexia; not the likely expense of her nuptials in the current climate, or the sheer anachronism of her fiancé’s elevated status in a 21st century democracy. The examples are endless.

Whatever your perspective: Wikileaks presents a watershed for journalism. It has heralded a sea change which was addressed, albeit briefly, during the Frontline event. Gavin MacFadyean, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, raised the worrying spectre of the sheer scale of the tsunami of information unleashed by ever-accelerating technology.

How, with mainstream media reduced to increasingly impoverished resources, can these data dumps be effectively mediated and republished coherently? How can we be sure that the stories which need to be published get the appropriate space and attention they deserve? How do you choose between the old-fashioned “splash” and the almost afterthought “basement”, when both contain vital, new information?

As Katz explained, the sheer volume of material processed by the Guardian – who were apparently able to second between 30 and 40 reporters to deal with the Wikileaks data tsunami – often meant that stories which, at a different juncture, would have brazenly commanded the front page, only merited a few down-page paragraphs. How disturbing is that?

Personally, I loved Aaronovitch’s idea of an “analyst caste” – experts who understand how to read this data and process information in vast quantities. But he acknowledged that it is costly to develop these skills and suggested it might just put an end to investigative journalism as we know it.

Certainly, without the ever mysterious resources of the Scott Trust or perhaps an impecunious army of hungry interns, data dump journalism presents huge challenges to the main stream media and is likely to continue to do so.

According to McFadyean, there are still millions of documents to see the light of day, including significant material from whistleblowers in China. It seems the weird fog of Wikileaks will not be clearing any time soon.

Meantime, the Julian Show rolls on. Tune in for the next cliff-hanger on February 7th, when Julian returns to court in London for his extradition hearing. I have heard a rumour that he has been allowed to stay the Frontline Club. Well, Julian, I can highly recommend it.