(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of
Journalism at the University of Oxford. The opinions expressed
here are his own.)
By John Lloyd
Oct 14 Editor's note: This column contains
language that some readers may find offensive
Both journalism and politics now live in the leak culture, and
both professions will be forever changed by it. Both have always
benefitted from leaks of some kind, from the officially
authorized to the criminally filched. But today's ability to
download and disseminate vast banks of information constitutes a
new chapter in journalistic and political practice. Wikileaks
has put U.S. diplomatic cables in the public domain, followed by
the much riskier leaking of sensitive files from the National
Security Agency and that followed by the leaking of the Panama
Papers, which showed how the rich secretly contrive to get
The leak to the Washington Post of a video, made in 2005, of
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump claiming, among
much else, that "when you're a star, you can do anything" to
women differs in principle from the previous leaks. They were
unambiguously about issues of public concern. The Trump leak
reaches into his private life. It is, to say the least, an
unedifying moment: It shows him as boastful, glorying in his
fame because it allows him to assault women with impunity.
It has allowed - indeed, compelled - Democratic presidential
nominee Hillary Clinton, her allies and supporters everywhere to
frame Trump as a lewd, sexist brute, who in bragging about
grabbing women "by the pussy" had confessed, if not in
prosecutable detail, to a criminal assault.
Yet suppose that someone had leaked details of the argument
between President Abraham Lincoln and General John Fremont,
commander of the Union Army in St Louis, Missouri, in the summer
of 1861. Fremont, an autocratic man who rarely consulted higher
authority, proclaimed that all slaves in Missouri were free.
Lincoln, concerned that this would turn pro-union slaveholders
against him, rescinded the proclamation and fired Fremont.
The leak of a letter, an account of a meeting or of
Lincoln's private frustrations vented to aides or friends could
easily have been represented as pro-slavery sentiments on the
part of the president. In fact, it was a matter of calculation
aimed at ultimate victory by one whose opposition to slavery had
been constant since his youth, though only strengthened into a
full emancipation conviction in the course of the Civil War.
Publication of the leak could certainly have been justified as a
matter of public interest. Yet it would have been wholly
deceptive if used as an indication that Lincoln was pro-slavery.
The Trump leak may have been a reasonable illumination of
Trump's character. Though it caused a wave of revulsion in
Republican ranks, it didn't seem to cause much surprise. It was
the kind of revelation that, when put in the public domain, we
feel we know in principle, if not in detail. But it cannot
encapsulate the whole person.
A leak of this kind allows no extenuating observation, of
the kind Clinton herself proposed at the end of their testy
second debate earlier this week. When asked what she admired
about Trump, she said that "his children are incredibly able,
and devoted. And I think that says a lot about Donald I do
respect that." Clinton's generosity had changed the frame from
enclosing a sexist brute glorying in assaulting women to an
affectionate and responsible father who also glories in
assaulting women. We are all, to use Walt Whitman's most famed
line from Leaves of Grass, large and "contain multitudes."
Leaking isn't, and doesn't.
The bragging Trump video, which had lain on a shelf at NBC
for more than a decade, was leaked to Washington Post reporter
David Fahrenthold, presumably by an NBC employee.(Fahrenthold
won't say.) The network was itself about to broadcast the tape,
but after the debate, when it would have had less impact of the
kind the leaker - presumably a Clinton supporter - evidently
Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks organization has released,
among other documents, Clinton, John Podesta and Democratic
Party emails, has denied that he is dumping the data to help win
Trump the White House. Nonetheless, Assange despises the
liberal-interventionist record of the former secretary of state
and has clearly signaled his preference for the property
The Clinton campaign has fired back, with spokesman Brian
Fallon calling Wikileaks "a propaganda arm of the Russian
government, running interference for their pet candidate,
These leaks are more directly concerned with public matters
but are still Clinton's private communications about strategy
and policy to her aides and her daughter, Chelsea. Such internal
debates, when revealed, always make participants appear cynical
and disrespectful of the electorate, whose opinions the campaign
wishes to manipulate. Every political figure has had such
conversations for centuries: See Niccolo Machiavelli's "The
Prince" for advice on how to please the people and stay in
During the debate, Clinton congratulated herself for
following First Lady Michelle Obama's advice on "going high,"
while Trump went low. In fact, both candidates went "low" in
using the garishly lit revelations of private behavior for
political advantage. Trump's parading of women who claim to have
been sexually assaulted by her husband, Bill Clinton, was an
attempt to win a battle on the same ground by claiming that
Hillary Clinton threatened the women - a charge that, former
editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson claims, is largely
The internet never forgets. It is a dark arsenal of
incidents, from embarrassing to mortal, to be used against
public figures. The news media have few inhibitions left about
using private scenes to humble the famous.
Trump, accustomed to taking the rewards of celebrity, is
learning the old maxim that one must pay for everything. Clinton
has known it for decades.
Leaking, the brilliant flash catching the guilty moment, is
part of our politics, and our journalism.
(Reporting by John Lloyd)