Sunday, August 18, 2019

Seares: Leaker answers for the leak; press, for published material

[Related Media’s Public column: “Leaks to the press not so bad,” Feb. 19, 2017]

DONALD Trump is not the first U.S. president afflicted by leaks. In extent and noise, though, Trump seems to have set an all-time high.

Under Trump, the White House has earned the name “a Niagara of leaks,” from one journalist who obviously benefited from it. Anthony Scaramucci, who was fired last week as chief communications officer after a classic public rant, griped he couldn’t eat dinner without media knowing about it.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama was no less pestered. The difference was that Obama dealt with it more efficiently and quietly. For one, he didn’t Twitter like Trump who repeatedly complains about “leaks and fake news.” And Barack went after leakers more vigorously. He used the Espionage Act (of which the Philippines doesn’t have a replica, at least against journalists). Nine people were criminally charged and d reporters from Fox News, ABC and Associated Press were “ensnared in prosecution.” Trump still has to take legal action against a journalist.

Who are liable

As a rule, it’s the leaker who gets punished for the unlawful release. The journalist and the news outlet that publishes the story is liable only if the leaked stuff is a national-security secret or any other information whose exposure is expressly prohibited by law.

In our country, the legal prohibition is mostly on the government official or employee, the leaker, not the media, the “leakee.” The journalist and his outlet account for what they publish. As to theft of the material, only If they took part in it.

The constitutional guarantee on free speech and free press and the prohibition against prior restraint support the general rule. Our courts are also influenced by U.S. jurisprudence that has consistently upheld the same precepts.

Loyalty helps

President Duterte or his communications office* still has to complain against any leaker. It may be because his key people are loyal to him. Until now, as a glaring example, no inside info has come out to refute the claim that the president went on a secret mission in June, which Malacañang used to explain his disappearance from public view for one week. Trump’s leakers may be Obama workers still in the White House. Or each each faction in Trump’s crew is trying to put the other faction down.

The leak, as we said in a Feb. 19 Media’s Public, may be used to embarrass an official or an administration, float a trial plan or idea, return favor to a friendly journalist or spite a hostile media outlet, or promote oneself at the expense of another.

Good or bad leak

The leak is good, we’re told, if it “expands public understanding of an issue” without incurring serious harm or, if some injury results, the greater public good supports its release.

That’s why, as journalists usually do, this is prudently asked before the reporter and editor decide whether to use a leak. Is its publication expressly prohibited by law or does it open them to civil liability? And even if no criminal or civil liability attaches, is it not a “bad leak”?

• • •

‘On the record’: no breach on each side

ANTHONY Scaramucci, whom U.S. president Donald Trump fired before he could formally assume office as White House chief communications officer, had no gripe against reporter Ryan Lizza for publishing a profanity-laden interview in “The New Yorker.” The article was a major cause in Scaramucci’s dismissal last week.

Lizza had taken steps to avert a denial of the story or claim of breach of an off-the-record request: he talked again with Scaramucci before posting the article to walk him through the story and be sure he knew it was for publication. “I understand the interview was not off the record and it’s totally within your rights to publish it,” he told Lizza on tape.

No expletive

A White House overhaul that included dismissal of Chief of Staff Reince Preibus and Scaramucci himself must have been influenced by the uproar over the New Yorker article. Yet the news source didn’t disown the interview or allege violation of confidentiality.

The reporter was careful. And the news source was decent enough: not even an expletive from the man who said White House chief strategist Steve Bannon would “suck his own cock.”
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