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 richer.
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 Lincoln, concerned that this would turn pro-union slaveholders against him, rescinded the proclamation and fired Fremont.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 wanted.
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 magnate.
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, Trump."
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 power.
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 empty.
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.
(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.)