Paul Lashmar

Spies and journalists: Towards an ethical framework?

The publication by the Guardian in the UK from mid-2013 of secret intelligence documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was highly controversial. The newspaper was attacked by the UK government, intelligence chiefs, some other news media and a range of other critics for publishing the previously secret documents. The Snowden affair was just the latest episode where the news media sought to publish information about intelligence operations, usually revealing some area of significant concern, in the face of government objections. In each case negotiations between the state and the news media have been adversarial. At the heart of this reoccurring problem is the balance in liberal democracies between national security and the freedom of the press to inform the public over matters of concern. This involves a complex set of ethical issues. This paper seeks to lay out the ethical terrain for this discussion incorporating the emergent discipline of intelligence ethics. The paper also takes the first steps in discussing a bipartisan framework for an ethical relationship between intelligence agencies and the news media that would allow accurate information to enter the public domain without recklessly jeopardising legitimate national security. It examines the various bodies that could act as an honest broker between the two sides but concludes that identifying such an organisation that would be trusted at this time is difficult.

Keywords: journalist, ethics, national security, press freedom


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Note on the contributor

Dr Paul Lashmar is a Senior Lecturer and leads the Journalism team at the University of Sussex. His Doctorate investigates the links between the intelligence services and the media which is also his core research interest. He is a co-investigator on the ESRC-funded project: DATA-PSST! Debating and Assessing Transparency Arrangements: Privacy, Security, Surveillance, Trust, a two-year ESRC Seminar Series (2015-16). Paul is also a highly regarded investigative journalist and has worked in television, radio and print. He is a former 'Reporter of the Year' in the UK Press Awards and has been on the staff of the Observer, Granada Television's World in Action current affairs series and the Independent. Paul covered the 'war on terror' for the Independent on Sunday from 2001-2008. He has authored or co-authored four books. His textbook on multimedia journalism, Online journalism: The essential guide, was co-authored with Steve Hill (Sage 2014).