Of course the media will report on the leaked Donald Trump documents – but it must keep doing its job in scrutinising them

The claims have been taken sufficiently seriously to warrant the media’s (and by extension the public’s) attention, even if they cannot be proved beyond doubt. But the wholesale dump of unverified information is a journalist cop-out

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What a time to be alive, eh?

As Barack Obama finished his presidency with an oratorical flourish in Chicago, his successor-elect, Donald Trump, was banging out 140 typically strident characters in response to the latest, startling assault on his reputation.

It has been alleged before – as long ago as October – that US intelligence agencies had been told tales of direct communications between the Trump campaign team and officials in the Kremlin, and of attempts by Russia to assist the tycoon’s presidential candidacy. It was said then that the information stemmed from a former Western European intelligence operative (now identified as British), who had previously proved a credible source.

After Trump’s remarkable election victory in November, these particular claims appeared to swing out of view as the focus of the intelligence community and the media shifted to the question of Russian attempts, via computer hacking, to damage Hillary Clinton’s White House run. Now, however, they are front and centre once again – along with the additional, extraordinary suggestion that the Russian administration has compromising material of an explicit, personal nature, which it could potentially use against the incoming US President.

It should be said from the outset that it remains impossible to know whether the allegations against Trump are true. And bearing in mind he has survived indiscretions which would undoubtedly have done for most other politicians, even if the latest claims are founded in fact, they might be just more water off this peculiar duck’s back.

Obama's only mention of Trump in his farewell speech

Whether Trump will have more to say on the subject remains to be seen – and he may in the end have little choice but to address the matter more fully.

His initial reaction was certainly characteristic: “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”, he tweeted. And his shouty reference to "fake news" has garnered support from fans convinced that the whole episode is a conspiracy between the outgoing administration, intelligence agencies and the dreaded "MSM".

Sure enough, many will question whether such serious, unverified allegations should have been made public. When the stakes are so high, the arguments on both sides are heightened too. This applies both to publishing broad-brush details, as CNN did when it broke the story yesterday, and to the decision by Buzzfeed shortly afterwards to publish in full the document in which the claims were first made.

The argument given in favour of revealing the information fully is that readers can judge the matter better for themselves; one argument against is that the tawdry details, once out there, are difficult to wash from the memory, even if they turn out to be incorrect. 

The debate about the claims’ veracity will run and run. Several US-based media organisations – perhaps most notably CNN – appear to have been briefed by multiple off-the-record sources who wish to give the impression that the allegations are likely to have a basis in fact. Those sources may not exactly be friendly towards Donald Trump. And, as has been noted, the enquiries into Trump’s links which led us to where we are now were originally commissioned by political opponents of the President-in-waiting. Moreover, it is also clear that the memos produced by the ex-British spy contain, at the least, some small factual errors.

Nevertheless, it has not been disputed (yet, at least) that a summary of the allegations – both those relating to Trump’s team being in communication with the Kremlin, and those concerning Trump being compromised by his personal behaviour – were included in official intelligence briefings given to Trump, President Obama and senior members of Congress. To that extent, it can be argued that the claims have been taken sufficiently seriously to warrant the media’s (and by extension the public’s) attention, even if they cannot be proved beyond doubt.

CNN’s carefully crafted report yesterday seemed well-judged in both tone and content. And in our internet-dominated world, it would be frankly odd for publications beyond those which first broke the story to ignore these dramatic developments. In fact, this is how the media has always worked, internet or no. 

As for the wholesale dump of unverified information by others, in the interests – it is argued – of transparency, I find it hard to shake the feeling that it is in some ways a journalistic cop-out, and perhaps an overly hasty reaction to the facile attacks of the alt-right and others who wail from the rooftops (or below the line) about how untrustworthy the media is.

Journalism is about reporting information, yes, but it is also about analysing and interpreting, and deciding what degree of detail it is appropriate to place in the public domain. Otherwise, we might as well just leave everything to WikiLeaks – and that way madness surely lies. 

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