This Bill Keller column on Bradley Manning is a few weeks old now, but I found it saved and unread on my iPad yesterday. I was struck how, on the one hand, Keller naturally suggests The Times greatly appreciates the work of whistleblowers, and would always be open to publishing their leaks if they contained information of public interest. And yet Keller also quotes The Times’s Max Frankel on a past scenario analogous to Manning’s:
When the government moved to prosecute Ellsberg, we felt no obligation to assist him… He was committing an act of civil disobedience and presumably knew that required accepting the punishment. We were privately pleased that the prosecution overreached and failed, but we did not consider ourselves his partner in any way.
This position strikes me as insufferably schizophrenic, and possibly not even coherent. Yes, First Amendment rights may apply to the press in a way that they don’t to government officials, but if you recognise the strong reasons for and value of political transparency, it’s hard to see how you can defend your own right to be free from prosecution whilst thinking the source essential to your work can fairly face the full wrath of the law. How can a crucial part of a valuable and legal activity itself be rightly illegal? If you have no obligation to assist a source and their punishment is required, why would one be ‘privately pleased’ when prosecution failed? Any reason for punishment of the whistleblower will also be a reason counting strongly against The Times’s recognised right to air such information. It worries me greatly that the paper views their relationship with sources in this way.