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9/11 and the new breed of journalist

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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8 March 2012 17:06


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

The attacks of 9/11 brought about an almost instant reordering of newsroom hierarchies.

Old South Asia hands who knew their way around Afghanistan and Pakistan were suddenly in high demand. Former Kabul correspondents, neglected for more than a decade after the withdrawal of Soviet Union, found themselves speedily rehabilitated and sent back to the Hindu Kush. Arabists who could not only pronounce the names of terrorist suspects but also read the Jihadist websites that fired terrorist imaginations also raced up the rankings.

But in the new journalistic caste system, security specialists with good contacts in the intelligence community quickly rose to the top. The new Brahmins were the harvesters of secrets.

I was posted in Washington at the time, a BBC bureau that had traditionally favoured correspondents fluent both in American political history and the cold grammar of Beltway power. But our ranks came to be bolstered by reporters who arrived brandishing Rolodexes brimful with intelligence sources.

My friend and colleague Gordon Corera was a case in point. He was working on an expose of the Pakistan nuclear scientist AQ Khan, and would later write an excellent history of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. Now he is the BBC's highly-respected Security Correspondent, a post that did not even exist at the time of 9/11.

In the disorientating aftermath of those attacks, Washington-based journalists who lacked intelligence expertise came to rely heavily on those who did. Here, Judith Miller of the New York Times was the Brahmin among Brahmins.

For years she had been preoccupied with the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction, and just eight months before 9/11 she penned a Pulitzer prize-winning article on al-Qaeda's determination to equip itself with WMD. That piece now seemed brilliantly prescient, much like her book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, published in the summer of 2001.

So when a series of eye-catching reports on Saddam Hussein's WMD programme appeared in late-2001 and throughout 2002 with Miller's by-line attached, everyone took notice. If the information had come from Miller, and had the imprimatur of the Times, it must surely have the stamp of truth.

To this day, I think one of the main reasons US-based journalists proved so malleable in the run-up to the war on Iraq was not because of the persuasive powers of the Bush Administration but due to the authority of the New York Times. When the two worked in tandem, they were unstoppable.

Paradoxically, it was only after then US Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the UN to set forth what sounded like flimsy evidence that many reporters started to seriously question the intelligence. After Powell finished his presentation, you could almost hear the collective cry of 'Is that it?' echo across the newsrooms of Washington. For the Bush Administration, the sharing of classified information turned out to be counterproductive.

The demand for state secrets has not only brought new journalists to the fore, but important new players. When I first joined the BBC, in the days when radio reporters still used magnetic tape and razor blades, a colleague predicted that the future of news belonged to journalists who could program computers and write logarithmic code. This was preposterous, I remember thinking.

But then along came Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The document dump of secret cables produced more scoops in the space of a few weeks than a team of well-connected investigative reporters might hope to generate in their entire careers. Traditional news organisations had been outpaced by an internet start-up. Indeed, the venerable Wall Street Journal last year paid Assange the highest compliment by setting up a website of its own to attract leaks.

Yet another change has been the rise of journalists adept at processing Freedom of Information applications. The drudgery of filling out the necessary paperwork has become just as important as more traditional forms of shoe-leather reporting. Once again, young journalists who are digitally-literate are particularly well-placed to succeed.

News organisations will always reward the brave and the fearless, the clever and the articulate, the well-read and prescient. But increasingly the secret to journalistic success in the post-9/11 world is to become a reaper of secrets.

Photo by Flickr user Louish Pixel.

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