Trust in government, the media, WikiLeaks and public service journalism: empowering a democratic public

Trust in government, the media, WikiLeaks and public service journalism: empowering a democratic public

Griffith Insider Blog
Online News Production at Griffith University
April 20, 2011

“How can we ensure that journalism’s core functions will be maintained: holding the powerful accountable for their actions, providing a voice for those who otherwise have no power and ensuring that our political servants fulfill the pledges they make to us when we elect them to office? These are the key jobs that journalism performs. If those jobs can no longer be performed, Australian democracy is in trouble.” (MEAA, 2010).

My dissertation will explore the relationship between public trust, government transparency and the media in as many countries around the world as possible. More specifically, it will identify the relationship between government, the public, the media and democracy, investigate whether the media is fulfilling its duty as a watchdog over the government and survey the public from around the world to determine the extent they trust their government, their media and WikiLeaks. Preliminary research from the UK, USA and Australia suggests the public do not trust their politicians to act within their interests, public trust in the media is down and the media is turning to digital drop box sites, such as WikiLeaks, as a main watchdog source. These will be explored, critiqued and analysed in a framework related to the tenets of democracy.

I would like to know what your opinions are. Please consider participating in this study by following the link to a survey of multiple choice questions which will take approximately 10 minutes of your time to complete:

“Government should be transparent by default, secret by necessity. Of course, it is not. Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power” (Jarvis, 2010).

According to Howell (2005) the general public is the least powerful entity in the current political, economic and democratic systems[1] in most of the world including Australia, America, the UK, and Europe (Moller, 2009). In the current media climate, the press spends more time relaying what politicians are saying to the people rather than finding out what the people think about government or issues affecting them (Enda, 2010; Lewis, 2006). Lewis (2006) argues that the media uses a class specific discourse catering to the information rich (i.e., those closely following politics) rather than a discourse aimed at empowering citizens as agents of democracy. If Lewis (2006) is correct, the media is catering to the public relations needs of politicians instead of empowering citizens and attempting to expose governmental secrets. My thesis will explore this notion in more detail.

Sepper (2010) and Gilbert (2007) purport government secrecy is endemic in Western democracies and that the contemporary fear is we are moving toward a ‘control society.’ The assumption is that the government is focused on removing individual freedoms in favour of security and protecting secret information (Sepper, 2010) thus reducing the efficacy of the media as a watchdog (Enda, 2010) and the power of the individual citizen as a change agent[2] (Lewis, 2006). It would appear that most governments can already legally prevent the public from finding out information through subclauses in the various Freedom of Information Acts/RTI[3] or under their ‘Official Secrets Acts’[4] (Assange, 2010; Colonel Polgar, 2011). This makes it more challenging for journalists to expose government secrets and hold governments accountable to the public.

Many academics claim (Enda, 2010; Gordon, 2000; Lewis, 2006; Sparrow, 2008) the press is failing to keep governments accountable. Research by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (2010) in Australia support the notion that our media’s are failing to make governments accountable. The MEAA (2010) commissioned Essential Media to gather public opinion on the media industry. They surveyed 881 members of the public of which 40% agreed that the media is too biased, 40% were neutral and 18% disagreed. Using this data, it could be argued that the Australian public does not currently trust the media.

However, journalists cannot be blamed as individuals. In the USA, ~ 34,000 journalists were made redundant from 2007 till 2010 inclusive (Papercut, 2010). In Australia in 2009 and 2010 about 700 journalists were made redundant (MEAA, 2010). To add to this, in Australia, the MEAA (2010) found that 74% of the 1669 journalists surveyed between 2008-2010 reported a noticeable increase in workload without extra remuneration 59% and the quality of their work has reduced almost half of the time as a result[5]. In addition, the newspaper industry is struggling globally with circulations drastically dropping between 2007 and 2009[6] (PriceWaterhourCoopers, 2010). This, ultimately, further reduces the resources available to the press which makes it difficult to conduct lengthy investigative research, gather government documents and expose matters of public interest. That is, of course, before WikiLeaks starting posting classified government documents online for the public and the media to distribute.

“WikiLeaks could become a journalistic tool as important as the freedom of information act” (Time Magazine, 2006).

Some journalists (Jarvis, 2010; Pilger. 2010; WikiLeaks, 2011) espouse digital dropbox sites, such as WikiLeaks, will increase government accountability and ultimately lead to more open governments[7]. While these speculations are popular in the blogosphere, a survey of the mainstream news by PEJ (2010) over 2 weeks has found that although the content of WikiLeaks publications have been published, Wikileaks itself was the main story[8] online and in the United States media.

Few studies have looked into whether the public support the publication of government secrets especially not in the manner WikiLeaks is doing it. Consequently, I will survey the general public from around the world to gather data that answers the question: Does the general public support the release of troves of government secrets, is WikiLeaks trustworthy and will they continue to support these publications by WikiLeaks?[9]

“You can’t release 250,000 secret government cables without making a few enemies.” (Julian Assange, 2011)

So far, it would seem that elements of the American government have attempted to cover up its secrets by threatening WikiLeaks CEO Julian Assange with legal action[10] and assassination.[11] Some have also worked on trying to shut down Wikileaks[12]. These interventions were imposed by various departments[13] within the US government (Sepper, 2010) and, in some cases, came from President Obama and Hillary Clinton (Attaran, 2010). This is despite WikiLeaks CEO Assange[14] offering to work in cooperation with the US government (Assange, 2010) toward President Obama’s goal of “…creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government” (Obama, 2009). However, this was declined by the US government despite them suggesting in the same letter that the publication of their secrets will “put individual persons [citizens] at significant risk of harm” (The Legal Advisor, 2010). Given this, one could logically conclude that elements of the US government believes in keeping secrets even if it means, potentially, sacrificing its citizens.

Some academics (Meier, 2008-2009) and bloggers[15] support the suppression of US government secrets. Meier (2008-2009) purports countries need secrets to continue to have diplomatic relations and that there should be a special court to deal with the potential release of government secrets. If Meier’s (2008 – 2009) suggestions are implemented, permission must be obtained from a court to publish government documents. This furthers the control of the government, suppresses the publics’ access to information and limits the media’s ability to hold the government accountable for decisions.

At a time of declining resources in newsrooms across the nation, journalists must adapt to new technologies and devise some creative, innovative ways to fulfill our obligations so we can hold our government accountable to citizens and restore to our journalism the standards desperately needed in these troubled times (Chicago News Cooperative Editor James O’Shea, 2009).

However, if one applies Lewis’ (2006) suggestion that citizens be moved from a spectator of news to its core, the public might use the media to push their own agendas. These agendas may align with the governments or they may not. Using Lewis’ (2006) concept, the way news stories are constructed and delivered need to be framed around journalism as a public service and a champion of democracy[16]. While this notion is great for democracy, it might be too idealistic and the public may not be interested in reading or watching this style of journalism therefore negating its effectiveness and further harming the industry[17]. Consequently, I will survey the public with the aim of exploring whether the public might be interested in this new style of public service journalism,[18] whether governments should keep secrets or release them, whether they believe WikiLeaks should be shut down by the government or allowed to continue to publish government secrets in the same way it has in the past.

Based on previous research[19] (MEAA, 2010) it is anticipated that the general public will trust public service journalism and it is hypothesized that the public access it around election times as opposed to infotainment styles of journalism. It is also thought that if public service journalism was adopted by the media and used in conjunction with WikiLeaks, this paradigm shift would result in a more informed and powerful public, a more trustworthy media and possibly improve the transparency of government (if the public want that). These concepts will be explored in more detail in the thesis and conclusions will be based on the results of the survey. Country specific conclusions will be drawn depending upon the number of survey participants from particular countries.


Assange, Julian (2010). Personal correspondence from Julian Assange, Editor in Chief, WikiLeaks dated November 28, 2010 to Ambassador Susman, US Embassy, 24 Grosvenor Square, London, W1A 1AE, United Kingdom.

Attaran, Amir (2010). ‘Spying at the UN: why America should be punished,’ in The Lancet, 376, p. 1885.

Colonel Polgar, Matthew J. (2011). Personal correspondence from Colonel Matthew J. Polgar, US Air Force dated February 1, 2011 to Mr. Jason Smathers, MuckRock, 185 Beacon St. #3, Somerville, MA 02143; &, personal correspondence from Susan Viscuso, Central Intelligence Agency’s Acting Information and Privacy Coordinator dated December 2, 2010 to Mr. Jason Smathers, addressed listed above. CIA Reference: F-2011-00325.

Enda, Jodie (2010). ‘Capital Fight,’ In American Journalism Review, June/July, pp. 15 – 29. Accessed online Feb 2nd at:

Gilbert, Jeremy (2007). ‘Public Secrets,’ in Cultural Studies, 21(1), pp. 22-41.

Gordon, Margarent T. (2000). ‘Public Trust in Government: The US Media as an Agent of Accountability?’ In International Review of Administrative Sciences, 66, pp. 297 – 310. Accessed online 2nd Feb 2011 at:

Howell, Llewellyn D. (2005). ‘Democracy Is Opposition,’ in USA Today, 134(2722) pp. 578 – 592.

Letzing, John (2011). ‘Judge: Feds can examine Twitter account info,’ in Market Watch. Accessed online 28th March 2011 at:

Lewis, Justin (2006). ‘News and the empowerment of citizens,’ in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(3), pp. 303-319. Accessed online 23rd March 2011 at:

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (2010). Life in the Clickstream: The future of journalism. MEAA: Australia. Accessed online 23rd March 2011 at:

Moller, Kai (2009). ‘Two Conceptions of Positive Liberty: Towards an Autonomy-based Theory of Constitutional Rights,’ in Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 29(4), pp. 757–786. Accessed online 23rd March 2011 at:

Meier, Doug (2008-2009). ‘Changing With the Times: How the Government Must Adapt to Prevent the Publication of Its Secrets,’ in The Review of Litigation, 28(1), pp. 203 – 239. Accessed online 02nd February 2011 at:

Obama, Barack (2009). The White House: President Barack Obama. Accessed online 2nd Feb 2011 at:

Papercuts (2010). Looking back: 2010 Newspaper Layoffs. Accessed 23rd March 2011 at: and

PricewaterhouseCoopers (2010). Outlook: July, 2010.

Project for Excellence in Journalism – PEW (2010). ‘Mixed Reactions to Media Coverage: Most say WikiLeaks Release Harms Public Interest,’ in Pew Research Center – For the People & The Press. Accessed online 02nd February 2011 at:

Jarvis, Jeff (2010). ‘WikiLeaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency,’ in Buzz Machine. Accessed online 28th March 2011 at: . From Sontag, Welt A.

Sepper, Elizabeth (2010). ‘Democracy, Human Rights, and Intelligence Sharing,’ in Texas International Law Journal 46, (1); pp 151 – 207.

Sparrow, Bartholomew H. (2008). ‘Who Speaks for the People? The President, the Press, and Public Opinion in the United States.’ In Presidential Studies Quarterly; Dec 2008; 38(4), pp. 578 – 592.

The Legal Advisor (2010). Personal correspondence from The Legal Advisor, United States Deportment of State, Washington D.C. 20520 dated November 27, 2010 to Julian Assange and his Attorney Ms Jennifer Robinson.

US Department of Homeland Security (2010). Privacy Impact Assessment for the Office of Operations Coordination and Planning. Publicly available social media monitoring and situational awareness initiative. Contact: Donald Triner, Director (acting) National Operations Center Office or Operations Coordination and Planning, phone (202) 282-8611. Accessed online 2nd February 2011 at:

Welch, Dylan (2011). ‘Government Considered Treason Charge,’ in Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March. Accessed online 11th March 2011 at:

WikiLeaks (2011). WikiLeaks: Global defense of sources and press freedoms. Accessed online 11th March 2011 at:


[1] Howell (2005) suggests democracy is about the consideration and protection of minority rights rather than majority rule and public opinion.

[2] We have already seen this occur with the anti-terrorism laws in America, Australia, the UK and Europe. Such laws are put in place for the benefit of the general public but most of the general public are not aware. Marquand (2004, p.1; as cited in Gilbert, 2007) claims democratic participation has a direct relationship with government secrecy and lack of accountability for illegal acts. This concept is supported by the Media Freedom Index which alleges in countries where there is a free press there is less corruption. of the extent of these laws. This is mainly due to the lack of media coverage on this topic and the decline in public citizenship – the idea that the public drives democratic process.

[3] The American government can refuse Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the public on many grounds including requests for information that “apply to records which pertain solely to the internal rules and practices of the agency”[3] (Colonel Polgar, 2011).

[4] Malaysia, India, UK, Ireland and formerly New Zealand.

[5] A survey by the MEAA (2010) found that 74% of journalists who responded to their survey reported an increase in their workload over the past 3 years. Of these, 59% reported that they were not paid for the extra work they completed. Also, 45% felt the quality of their work had decreased as a result. If you add to this the burden of lengthy, expensive defamation law suits, which are common outcomes of investigative journalism, then why would a newspaper pursue investigative stories?

[6] Bureau of Circulations (September, 2010) found paid sales of major newspapers in Australia have dropped 2.9% each year since 2007. This is a global phenomenon. PricewaterhouseCoopers (2010) estimate that between 2007-2009 newspaper sales were down by the following amounts: in the UK 21%, in the USA 30%, in Greece 18%, in Italy 18%, in Canada 17%, in Spain and Italy 16% and so forth.

[7] In 2010, media companies partnered up with Wikileaks to release confidential government documents and communications that had been anonymously dropped in their inbox. Some of these include cables that exposes the diaries of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, video footage of two unarmed journalists being shot to death by US soldiers in an apache helicopter[7], diplomats being asked to gather intelligence data from UN delegates (Attaran, 2010), former PM of Australia Kevin Rudd’s management style and so on.

[8] For the week of November 29-December 3 [2011], 16% of the news links on blogs and 24% on Twitter were about Wikileaks (New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2010). That made it the second most discussed topic on blogs and twitter for that week. It is unclear whether this response is because the public is in favour of WikiLeaks and their push for transparent governments or for the contrary.Wikileaks also ranked second on the news agenda for the mainstream press in the United States for the abovementioned week filling 16% of the ‘newshole’ (PEJ, 2010).

[9] Public opinion should drive the decision of government (Sparrow, 2008). This makes it important to review the opinion of the general public on matters of significant importance such as the future of digital dropbox journalism and WikiLeaks. I anticipate the data from the Australian, American and British respondents, in my study, will support the notion that WikiLeaks publications will increase open accountable governments. However, I purport that WikiLeaks publications will lead to a less transparent and more secretive government and the media is facilitating this process by publishing documents with the public as spectators rather agents of democracy thus stressing the importance of this analysis. More to the point, the American government will always try to cover up its secrets

[10] Personal correspondence between The Legal Advisor, United States Department of State (Nov 27, 2010) and Julian Assange stipulates that the documents (cables) were provided without authority and “they were provided in violation of U.S. law” and that “As long as WikiLeaks holds such material, the violation of the law is ongoing.” The Legal Advisor goes on to say that giving these documents to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Speigel also constitutes an illegal act.

[11] Prominent US politicians, Mike Huckerbee and Sarah Palin, have publicly called for Assange to be treated like a terrorist, assassinated and/or trialled as a traitor under the US Espionage Act (despite Assange being an Australian) (Welch, 2011).

[12] Assange and many of his followers have had their personal twitter accounts subpoenaed (Letzing, 2011), Wikileaks have had their site pulled down, their bank accounts frozen and the company that took donations on their behalf ceased activity with WikiLeaks (Letzing, 2011).

[13] The Department of Homeland Security [USA] is monitoring WikiLeaks, Twitter and any social media site without the consent of the general public. You may be monitored and wont even know it. WikiLeaks published a US government subpoena demanding passwords and the transcripts of WikiLeaks and affiliate social media posts (US Department of Homeland Security, 2010).

[14] Assange wrote to Ambasador Louis B. Susman at the US Embassy in London requesting their cooperation to “privately nominate any specific instances (record numbers of names) where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm” (Assange, 2010). The representatives of the US government responded with a confrontational cease and desist letter the day after. This supports Howell’s (2005) notion that Western democracies are a controlled society where the general public is not consulted with prior to making decisions.

[15] Although not listed here, there are many blogs that claim WikiLeaks harms democracy. See

[16] For example, instead of discussing the personality or private lives of our politicians they would discuss what society would look like if that politician was elected.

[17]Unless its efficacy is trialled we wont know whether this approach will work.

[18] Lewis (2006) also uses this concept but criticizes it as, he believes, that it caters to a class specific audience. The analysis of this term will be done in greater detail in the thesis.

[19] The general public distrusts the mainstream media discounting messages as biased or not factual and 82% of those surveyed believe the media is too obsessed with celebrity (MEAA, 2010).

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One Response to Trust in government, the media, WikiLeaks and public service journalism: empowering a democratic public

  1. griffithinsider says:

    Thanks mate – much obliged!

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