Leaking sensitive and/or classified information to media is not a new practice.
However, this week’s controversy about whether the New York Times should have published leaked information from the investigation around the Manchester bombing on 22 May provoked a minor, albeit, very public diplomatic row between the UK and the US. As a result, the UK suspended, and then reinstated, ongoing collaboration with the US on sharing material around security and terrorism threats.
President Donald Trump meanwhile declared that the New York Times’ publishing of the material was a threat to national security and needed to be investigated – using this as another salvo in his ongoing battle against the US mainstream media. Leaving aside the important question of who leaked the information in the first place and how important the material leaked was to counter-terrorism efforts – in fact, the published material did not have any significant evidence that might or might not impede these efforts – there are two main points that critical media studies can contribute to.
The first is the dynamic between politics and communication or, in other words, media as a political actor. The second is the role a socially-responsible media can or should play in situations of conflict, when images of victims are used and distributed widely in social media. In this week’s controversy, the first point seemed self-evident as it is no secret that Trump has been at loggerheads with the mainstream US media, particularly the New York Times, since before he became president.
However, the ongoing campaign against the media has shown that the dynamic between communication and politics is non-linear, but fluid, and that media are perceived as political actors. The second point relates to concerns about ethical media and media ethics which inform many studies of the role of media in different aspects of social and political lives. The question of ethical media or media ethics remains a murky one, particularly during war situations and long-term conflict and more so in the digital age. In this week’s controversy, pundits were accusing media of unethical behaviour by showing images of victims without their consent. Such debates are central to the critical study of media in diverse contexts and regions, including the Global South, and to debates over the implications of images of suffering and war for basic human rights, such as the right to privacy and the right to remain anonymous. While at the policy level, questions about making public classified information that might or might not affect national security or collaborations to deter terrorist acts might be answered by proposals for a fit-for-all strategy, what role media plays in these situations cannot be answered without critical and informed study of how media functions in different contexts.