When WikiLeaks unveiled the treasure trove of U.S. State Department communications in 2010, reporters from all industries found something relevant to their area of reportage. In our case, we found reports by ambassadors to Zimbabwe that discussed the diamond trade in the country, mostly allegations of corruption, but also the basis of the American policy towards Zimbabwe, namely the use of diamond-related sanctions to apply pressure on Zimbabwe’s government. A few years passed and along came Edward Snowden, an employee of a National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA) contractor. Snowden did not leak specific data, but did reveal what type of information is tracked, collected and analyzed by the intelligence agency that is tasked with deciphering signals of all kind.
In exposing the staggering scope of their work, ironically, Snowden showed that he and the NSA actually share at least one mission – the desire to collect information so the intentions of others are known and by that improve the ability to make better decisions. In his case, the client is the public, in their case it is the U.S. government.
Obviously, some are happy with these exposures – be it delicious information on international intrigues or the tools for collecting this information – and others are horrified by such exposures. Most people are probably somewhere in between these two extremes. However, before judging any of them, let us remember one thing – we all want, need and in fact collect information.
Be it business executives, reporters, analysts or a bored person at the barbershop, we actively collect data. In fact, we trade in data on a regular basis. Which diamond wholesaler wouldn’t want to know at what price his competitor sells his loose diamonds? Not only he, but also the entire industry, including miners, retailers and financial institutions want to know this.
All reporters want to know what was quietly discussed in closed rooms and report it to their readers. And what news consumer wouldn’t want to read what De Beers, the tax authorities or legislators plan to do? After all, it has an impact on our lives and livelihoods.
The problem is, when exposing information, it sometimes results in some kind of injury. How do you weigh the price one pays due to the exposure against the benefit the rest gain from the revelations? At times, it’s a no-brainer. Everyone wants to know in advance what measures the tax authority is planning to impose, and there is no downside to it. At other times, there is a price to be paid, and it needs to be taken into account. Journalists and editors frequently receive demands, pleas, even threats, to remove or change information published in articles because someone felt that it hurt their name, business or a deal of some sort. It’s far from being fun and requires careful juggling.
There are essentially only three broad reasons for publishing anything. It must provide readers with relevant data, interesting information or be entertaining. Practically everything falls into one or more of these categories. Hardly anyone reads anything else. The point is that the benefit from publication outweighs the harm. Is it always the case? I’m not sure.
It’s Yom Kippur this weekend, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Often, exposing the actions and intentions of important market participants is the right thing to do and yet, some feel slighted. This is a time to look within, contemplate and consider our own actions towards others. Did we act fairly? Are the indigenous people of the remote regions where diamonds and gold are mined getting their fair share, are all members of the pipeline – including those who are paid the least and therefore the weakest – paid on time, are we giving back to society?
These are not rhetorical questions, or a call to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but rather part of the essence of doing the right things – in business, in reporting, and in being members of society.