News media and the intelligence community

Authored by: Vian Bakir

Routledge Handbook of Media, Conflict and Security

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415712910
eBook ISBN: 9781315850979
Adobe ISBN: 9781317914303


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Across the past decade, intelligence agencies and their methods have frequently been headline news as intelligence has become increasingly central to fighting the seemingly permanent, global War on Terror (2001–) initiated after the events of ‘9/11’. Prominent examples from the USA in the twenty-first century include the use of intelligence agencies and enhanced interrogation techniques to extract information from al-Qaeda suspects in the Bush administration’s torture-intelligence policy; and the Obama administration’s use of intelligence agencies to conduct drone warfare and cyberwarfare, and to mass surveil suspectless citizens. Despite this new prominence of intelligence-related matters in the press, the academic field examining the relationship between the news media and the intelligence community is extremely small and fragmented, with sustained academic analysis limited to a handful of publications. These include Dover and Goodman’s (2009) edited collection, Spinning Intelligence. Other noteworthy collections are special editions of academic journals: in 2015 of International Journal of Press/Politics, 20(2); in 2009 of Journal of Intelligence History, 9(1–2); and in 1990 of Intelligence and National Security, 5(4). As will already be apparent, not only is the field small, but it occupies tiny patches of turf in disparate disciplines that rarely talk to each other, spanning media, journalism, international relations and history. Reflecting on these patches of turf, this chapter argues that the field suffers from disciplinary silos that would benefit from greater cross-fertilization. It identifies strong and weak currents within this inter-disciplinary field. The strong current examines the press as a target of intelligence agencies’ manipulative strategies. The weak current examines journalists’ challenges and practices in covering intelligence agencies, these practices ranging from collaborative to oppositional. The chapter then moves to reflect on the implications of these research currents for the press’s ability to hold intelligence agencies to account. The issue of accountability is a key critical issue as, in liberal democracies, the press is regularly presented as a guardian of the public interest – but the extent to which this is possible in the area of intelligence is rarely researched. This lacuna makes it difficult for meaningful reform of the relationship between the news media and the intelligence community to be suggested. The chapter concludes by outlining under-explored areas of critical research in the field, and by calling for more inter-disciplinary work.

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