Note: This is just a personal account of my thinking and subject to change upon further reflection.
First I need to stress that I have no real journalism training. I never went to journalism school, and my only real experience as a ‘journalist’ has been blogging for the past 7 years. This means I never took a journalism ethics class and probably haven’t spent as much time thinking about journalism ethics as ‘real journalists’ have. But after the Heartland/Gleick document leak I find my self spending a great deal of time thinking about these sorts of ethics and how they affect my writings on the subject.
The first thing to note is that there are two separate issues at play here, one is the information contained within the documents and the other is the manner is which those documents were obtained. It is possible that the information in the documents is of genuine interest and thus should be reported, while the way the documents were obtained is condemned.
Not everyone will agree that what Gleick did was wrong or unethical but we should, at least, be able to agree that it is reasonable for someone to conclude that it was. I cannot condone the way in which Peter Gleick obtained the documents.
Another consideration that is worth considering is the fact that consistency is important. Both ‘sides’ of the climate debate should be judged by the same set of rules. If it is wrong for one ‘side’ to do something then it should be wrong for the other side as well, and vice versa.
Many of the reasons given to justify Gleick’s actions could equally be used to justify the actions of the CRU hacker. It all depends on your point of view. If you accept mainstream science and find the actions of groups like Heartland deplorable (and I do!) then you might be tempted to grant Gleick some slack for exposing some of their inner workings.
But what about people who feel the opposite? What about people who are convinced that mainstream climate science is bunk, and that groups like Heartland are working hard to expose a grand conspiracy. You and I might think this nonsense (and we would be right) but it is undeniable that a significant number of people think this is point of view is true. What then? Surely those people would be tempted to grant CRU hacker some slack for exposing the inner workings of climate scientists (never mind the 9 inquiries that clear the scientists of any wrongdoing).
So is it all about your point of view? No, or at least I don’t think so.
Like I said consistency is important and the same rules should apply to all ‘sides’ of the climate debate. How you feel about the CRU hack should, therefore, match how you feel about the Heartland leak. The only real difference is that Gleick tricked a human into sending him information he wasn’t supposed to have, while the CRU hacker tricked a computer into sending him information he wasn’t supposed to have. Legally this matters. Hacking is illegal while pretexting (which is what Gleick did) is mostly legal, though I suspect Heartland’s lawyers could make a case that Gleick’s actions were illegal. But ethically I don’t think the distinction matters.
I say all of this despite the fact that I see a far greater potential for good to come out of the information Gleick obtained than the information the CRU hacker obtained. History may well judge Gleick in a positive light, but that will only likely happen if the potential for good caused by his action is realized. That has yet to be determined.
I condemn both the CRU hack and Gleick’s actions. In my books both were wrong. It is as simple as that, though it is worth applauding Gleick for publicly admitting his mistake. But this means that I wont begrudge Heartland if they decide to file a suit against Gleick. After all I would be fully supportive of legal action against the CRU hacker.
But this consistency goes deeper. Fundamentally it means that since both ‘sides’ of the climate debate should be judged by the same rules (are you detecting a trend?). Heartland’s actions and those of other think tanks need to be judged the same way scientists like Peter Gleick have been judged. If his reputation takes a hit because he impersonated a Heartland board member then what are we to make of the years of outright dishonesty coming from Heartland? Shouldn’t their reputation be worse than worthless by now?
Yes it should.
But it isn’t. While scientists are held to impossibly high standards, groups like Heartland are given a pass. They lie, cheat and defame scientists while trumpeting stolen emails long after several investigations clear all the scientists of any wrong doing. And no one says anything, save a few climate blogs. The press meanwhile might report on this when it happens but ignores the fact that they are consistently and demonstrably wrong and continues to rely on them to provide ‘balance’.
This double standard is a disservice to us all (even Heartland though they don’t realize it yet).
What this means that we should all take a good look inside the heartland documents (and the report issued by John Mashey) with the same a scrutiny that has been applied the work of thousands of climate scientist. These documents and the careful work of John Mashey provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a very secretive organization. The information is of public interest and despite the fact that many journalists are uncomfortable with how such documents were obtained (as am I) there is no reason not to report on them. Reporting on them is not the same as condoning Gleick’s actions, much the same way that reporting on the stolen CRU emails was not the same thing as condoning the actions of the hacker.
In other words all I am saying is that we should hold Heartland to the same standard to which we are currently holding Peter Gleick.