Leaks and the limits of press freedom

Eric R. Boot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Political philosophical work on whistleblowing has thus far neglected the role of journalists. A curious oversight, given that the whistleblower’s objective - informing the public about government wrongdoing - can typically not be realized without the media. The present article, therefore, aims to start remedying this neglect by exploring some of the most pressing questions. Accordingly, the paper will be structured as follows: Section 1 will explain why the authorities have treated whistleblowers far more harshly than the journalists who publish their disclosures. Still, the freedom of expression of media workers is (and ought to be) less extensive than that of ordinary individuals. Section 2 will explain why by arguing that the freedom of expression of the press, contrary to that of individuals, is not an unconditional good; instead, it is good merely instrumentally. Section 3 considers and refutes an argument for a more expansive press freedom based on the marketplace of ideas model and, in doing so, also discusses some important differences between the ethics of the traditional and the new online media. Often journalists, like whistleblowers, will justify their publications based on leaked classified documents by appealing to the public interest. Yet, this is problematic for two reasons: (1) the public interest is never clarified; and (2) this argument overlooks the fact that the public interest can also be a reason for not publishing about leaked classified documents, even if the leaks are verified (in the interest of national security, for example). Accordingly, Section 5 sets out to clarify the public interest. Section 4 then discusses two case studies – one concerning unverified leaks, and one concerning verified leaks – in order to demonstrate how we might employ the concept of the public interest in order to determine the permissibility of publishing about leaked classified information in practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)483-500
Number of pages18
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Leaks
  • Press freedom
  • Public interest
  • Whistleblowing


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