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A conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics at the London College of Communication (UK) at the end of last October on the subject of "Whistleblowers and mischief-makers: The ethics of scandal" led to a number of articles on the topic being published in ETHICAL SPACE magazine, vol. 6, no. 1, 2009. Further information about this international journal of communication ethics may be obtained at www.communication-ethics.net.

The brief piece below is edited from an editorial by ETHICAL SPACE's editor, Richard Lance Keeble, of the University of Lincoln (UK) and is reprinted here by permission.

Just after the "Ethics of Scandal" conference, news broke of the death of Mark Felt at the age of 95. Don't recognize the name Felt was the "Deep Throat" whistleblower of Watergate scandal fame who provided the two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with a flow of leaks which led ultimately to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in April, 1973.

The importance of the Watergate exposé in the history of mainstream journalism in the West cannot be over-estimated. It is often seen as an iconic example of tenacious and courageous reporting and the 1976 film All the President's Men, based on Woodward and Bernstein's book of the same name, only helped reinforce this view. The Watergate story was said to have launched a new era of adversary, investigative, muckraking journalism with brave reporters fulfilling their fundamental role in Western democracy: holding the powerful and corrupt to account.

Many, however, have seen Watergate as giving birth, rather, to a Great Myth: Michael Schudson, for instance, has argued that the role of the Washington Post duo in the hounding of President Nixon was secondary to the part played by other agencies of the state: the House Judiciary Committee, the courts, and so on. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky even suggested that the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic Party was "small fry" compared to the attacks on legitimate dissenters and the assassination of two black leaders by the FBI-but these received no media coverage at all.

Most of the mainstream media in the UK reproduced the Great Watergate Myth in their reporting of Mark Felt's death. And yet, the extraordinary Felt story more significantly highlights many of the problems at the heart of scandal reporting. Felt was deputy associate director of the FBI in May, 1972 when its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, died. Felt expected to succeed Hoover, but Nixon chose L. Patrick Gray (from outside the FBI) instead. Felt was profoundly disappointed and angry at what he saw as the politicization of the FBI. And so, through leaking FBI secret intelligence to the two Washington Post reporters, he succeeded in his ultimate aim-to destroy the President.

No great and noble motivation of a public-spirited whistleblower here then: just the desire for revenge of a disappointed, careerist bureaucrat. Thus, Watergate saw not so much a lone, heroic whistleblower being protected by a courageous news organization, but a famous American newspaper being used by the FBI against the President of the day. The FBI attacks on Nixon amounted to a massive news story-but the Washington Post never reported it.

Deep Throat's identity was kept secret until 2005, when Felt himself spilled the beans. But the revelation failed to inspire a serious re-evaluation of the use of secret sources by investigative reporters-on both sides of the Atlantic. As George Friedman commented on the Stratfor intelligence Web site Stratfor.com in a piece titled "The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism": "What appears to be enterprising journalism is, in fact, a symbiotic relationship between journalism and government factions. It may be the best path journalists have for acquiring secrets, but it creates a very partial record of events- especially since the origin of a leak is much more important to the public than the leak itself."

In short, to understand the dynamics of scandal coverage-do you really not need to probe the underlying political factors?