The value of a news leak

by suleimanharuna

When a very important information or document is leaked to the public through a news media, the news media usually take the credit, just like it takes the slingshots from the target of the leaks. Ideally, such credit or lack thereof should go to the source of the leak, the whistle blower, the aggrieved, because where it not for him, the medium would remain with its dreary, mundane, dog-bite-man stories.

Credit is important. If I decide to leak sensitive information to the press, it is because I want someone exposed or embarrassed, or it is because I simply have a puritan spirit; so the main subject should be the source and not the channel. Today however, the sources are afraid to take this credit for a variety of reasons. For one, exposure might put them in danger. It is such fear that has blocked many a professional from conducting investigative journalism in Nigeria, although some media men believe the settlement culture is purely responsible.

When I see leaks in the media, I ask myself if I would do the same, having the right material, or if I was the editor, would I find it worthy of my pages, or if I was the target, would I be embarrassed or angry? I do believe that a target of leaks expects a simple call for them to confirm or deny the fact. In most cases, probably out of excitement or mischief, this is never done and the by-line usually states that efforts to contact the target have proved abortive.

For the source of the leak, once his work is published he goes to have a smug, good night’s sleep, as if that is the end of the story. Publishing the story is only a means to an end; the end should be investigation and possible retribution.  I know many leaks that have fizzled out of public consciousness without a single action. For the media, publication of such leaks mean more patronage and sales, higher credibility and those in the editorial suite get more ‘respect’.

Public figures are always on the radar of media, either for scoops or for exclusives, so if nothing comes from them, but something comes on them, all the better; news comes out, not minding whether the media is some forlorn backwater 100-copies-a-day mash, or it is a cheap blog, probably run by some burn-out activist basking in the euphoria of citizen journalism, measuring his self-worth by the number of kicks (sorry, clicks) he gets.

I see a lot of public figures heartache over leaks either relating to their work or personal lives. Those that can’t take it sometimes end their lives, while others live with the opprobrium that follows such leaks, even when they get cleared of any wrong doing. The worst thing about publishing leaks is that not all those who read about the condemnable acts get to read when the public figure gets cleared of all wrong doing, in the event that they get cleared. The media does not have much to do because they don’t control their readership and they don’t like sparing spaces for retractions and apologies. Remember the little obscure spaces given to them even when courts state that such retraction should be accorded the same space and publicity as the initial story?

This government seems to have birthed a new kill-joy for the media anyway and it is the 5% whistleblowing fee. I would rather report my find to government and walk with a neat sum and possibly some commendation, than leak it to the media for its own glory.  More leaks are therefore on the way, especially from public servants who have access to financial transaction documents in their offices; and with this will come more secrecy, more exclusion and more with-hunt in government offices. But the papers may get less and less of these leaks, as I am certain, government may come up with a proviso that any leaks that appear in the media loses the 5% automatically.

Let’s be considerate and careful as we publish leaks; remember that anyone with a leak has a motive. Let’s verify the authenticity of documents before we publish them and let us try our best to sound out the targets before we destroy the lives that they have built with sweat and blood, only for our own glory. Journalism was not only invented to destroy, but to share and promote the principles that make us human. It is much better to let a criminal go free than to destroy an innocent man – someone once said