Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Stellar Break of Secrecy

There's a friend of mine who takes a rather dim view of the news media. I've never asked specifically why, as I'm rarely in the mood for an ideological lecture, but I can understand how someone might settle in that opinion. While the idea that "the public has a right to know" is a worthwhile ideal to pursue, I can't help but think there are times where that should be balanced with a consideration of whether or not something should be reported, just because it can be.

Case in point: today's Toronto Star has a story detailing some of the background security measures for the G8 and G20 summit - in particular the Joint Intelligence Group, described as the "nerve centre" for security operations in Toronto and Huntsville. This is where decisions will be made if, as the Star reports, "any major attack" takes place.

Earlier reports in the media stated that the JIG was up in Barrie, effectively equidistant between the two summit sites, but went into no further detail than that. In an attempt to ensure operational security, the Integrated Security Unit "has requested media outlets keep the location of the Barrie nerve centre a secret since it would be an obvious target."

Barrie, Ontario and Kempenfelt Bay

So what's the Star's response to this? Why, to not only publish a photograph of the JIG setup, but to specify exactly where it is. Who cares if the media was asked not to report on the minor detail of the precise location? Going into specifics doesn't make a difference - Barrie is barely a step removed from being a black hole anyway. So how does the Star justify this? By claiming that it "became a rather poorly kept secret when the ribbon-cutting for the facility included a large contingent of Mounties in red serge posing on the lawn outside."

Oh, all right. So because it's a poorly-kept secret, it's perfectly all right to ignore the ISU's request to report on a single detail that is not material to the release. If it was such an open secret, you'd think I'd have been able to find something mentioning it in the Barrie Examiner's archives - but not a thing to be seen in there. Honestly, there's a difference between breaking a veneer of security for valid reasons in the public interest, and doing it just for the hell of it. It's as if the Star's editorial board considered the ISU's secrecy request and said "fuck that, we're going to do it anyway."

I'm reminded of a story related by military historian Geoffrey Regan in his Book of Military Blunders - though since I can't find my copy of it right now, I can't verify if my recollection is totally accurate. It dealt with the Crimean War and focused on the British at the siege of Sevastopol, and how the British guns frequently came under preternaturally accurate Russian bombardment. The reason for the Russian accuracy was that the Times of London reported on the events of the siege in great detail, up to and including the location of the British guns, and new issues of the Times reached the Russians in Sevastopol before the British.

I can understand wanting to make sure the public knows, but newspapers need to choose their battles. The role of the media isn't to antagonize the security apparatus purely for the sake of it.

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