John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Salacious news of little merit


At what point does journalism become voyeurism? I'm not sure, but it felt like we had reached that point this week as we pored over the internal emails of diplomats.

The latest dump from the WikiLeaks website contained next to nothing we didn't know. It was almost entirely gossip and titbits. We were reading them only because we were not supposed to be reading them.

There is a view that journalism today is verging on voyeurism in its coverage of death and grief and the private lives of celebrities, especially the royal family. I don't agree.

The reporting of private grief is often too morbid for me, but I don't believe anyone who can bear to read it does so with anything less than admirable empathy.

And sometimes, as at Greymouth on Thursday, the national experience generated by close news coverage is enriching for us.

The coverage of celebrities and the royals has social value too, I think. They are models of life for better or worse.

Prince William has already overtaken his father and grandmother in my book because he sent a considerate message for the miners within a day of the calamity.

It must have been his initiative, not the palace's, because we didn't hear from our monarch, or our next one, for five days, when the worst was confirmed and we heard from many, even the Pope.

William has the Diana touch, perhaps, without the posing and simpering.

I'll read the screeds we are going to get on his wedding with more interest now.

It will be more worthy of attention than the trivia this week. Somebody taps into the traffic between governments and journalism salivates.

Some of the world's best newspapers, the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, led the way, sifting through a quarter of a million cables released by WikiLeaks.

They were the residue of dumps in July and October that told us disturbing things American soldiers had witnessed, or done, in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was journalism.

After those disclosures, the people who run this truly valuable website for whistle-blowers were reported to be divided over whether they should release the rest.

Former staff thought they should. They accused the site of an obsession with US military conflicts to the point of ignoring much else.

The site's encrypted mailbox that gives senders their secrecy had been so deluged with offerings that it had been closed for four weeks.

If there was a dispute - and the founder of the site, Julian Assange, denied it - the interests of voyeurism prevailed.

We learned that American diplomats have compared Iran's President to Hitler, called France's President an "emperor with no clothes", the German Chancellor "risk averse", Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "an alpha dog" and so on and on.

Their best discoveries were confirmation that the King of Saudi Arabia urged the US to destroy Iran's nuclear programme, and that the United States collects personal information on United Nations officials, including their passwords and encryption keys.

Should we be surprised? The UN is an international enclave in the middle of Manhattan.

Diplomats are supposed to find out everything they can about countries and people of interest to their governments.

The slightly salacious observations they make or pass on about leading personalities would not be classified, and it really doesn't matter very much they they have got out.

Most of the great and famous will be as philosophical as John Key, who still awaits a US diplomat's description of him.

Just about everything we have read from diplomatic email boxes this week accords with what we have been reading from honest correspondents covering the same subjects. But nobody is content to file this stuff for corroboration, it is given a new and lurid gloss. It was, after all, "leaked".

"Leak" is an intoxicating word. Information we were not supposed to have is guaranteed a good play, often far more than its substance deserves.

Often the identity and motive of the anonymous leaker is far more interesting and important, but that is an element of the story the recipient of a leak must ignore. I think every reporter has been guilty of this. I have.

The day after the latest feast from WikiLeaks, attention turned to the motives, not of the possible leaker but of the website founder, Assange.

He doesn't call himself an editor, doesn't seem to believe in editing. Acquaintances explain he is a "freedom of information fundamentalist".

We are all fundamentalists in this industry. There is nothing we can find out that we will not tell the world - except the identity of whistle-blowers.

We always assume their motives are pure and their offerings to be in the public interest. If the interest is merely prurient, who is to say.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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