Wikipedia, on the expression “shooting the messenger”:
In ancient times,
messages were delivered by a human envoy, sometimes sent from the enemy camp. An
easily-provoked combatant might vent his anger on the deliverer of an unpopular
message by killing the messenger.
When I read on Sunday that after receiving
complaints from users, YouTube had removed from its servers a video channel run
by an Israeli NGO for repeatedly airing hate speech, I thought there hardly
existed a more perfect example of “shooting the messenger.”
Media Watch did show videos of incitement that were “indeed horrific,” in the
words of PMW’s Itamar Marcus, but their content was directed against Jews and
Israelis and recorded from Palestinian and other Arab media.
disturbing videos were posted as part of an agenda: to educate the wider public
about what was being disseminated among Arabs, in their own language, as opposed
to what is said in English to Western audiences.
Essentially, PMW took on
the role of messenger, and was “shot” for it.
Following outrage from
supporters of the Israeli NGO and a report in this newspaper, the website
reinstated the PMW channel a day later. Its staff presumably (hopefully)
realized that there is a vast difference between those who purvey hate and those
who work to unmask them; and that disgusting as a Hamas terrorist’s call on
Palestinians to drink the blood of Jews may be – to describe just one video –
PMW was simply exposing this and similar barbaric exhortations that it believed
non-Arabic speakers should be aware of.
The reinstatement of PMW’s
channel suggests that YouTube’s operators understood, albeit belatedly: It’s
wrong to shoot the messenger.
IN 2002, Time
magazine named as its Persons
of the Year “The Whistleblowers” – Sherron Watkins, the vice president of Enron,
who wrote a letter to company chairman Kenneth Lay warning him that the
company’s accounting methods were improper; Coleen Rowley, the FBI attorney who
caused a tornado with her memo to FBI director Robert Mueller about how the
bureau had brushed off her pleas that Zacarias Moussaoui (now indicted as a 9/11
co-conspirator) be investigated; and Cynthia Cooper, who informed WorldCom’s
board that the company had concealed $3.8 billion in losses.
women weren’t after publicity. They initially tried to keep their criticism
in-house, and became whistleblowers only when their memos were
These “messengers” were, in the words of Richard Lacayo and
Amanda Ripley, “what New York City firefighters were in 2001: heroes at the
scene, anointed by circumstance… people who did right just by doing their jobs
rightly… with eyes open and with the bravery the rest of us always hope we have
and may never know if we do.”
But Watkins, Rowley and Cooper also
suffered, “because whistleblowers don’t have an easy time. Almost all say they
would not do it again. If they aren’t fired, they’re cornered: isolated and made
irrelevant. Eventually, many suffer from alcoholism or
Though that didn’t happen to the three women, they say that
“some of their colleagues hate them.” And Cooper told the interviewers:
“There have been times that I could not stop crying.”
You don’t have to
shoot a messenger to give him or her heartache.
CHRISTOPH Meili, who in
early 1997 worked as a night guard at the Union Bank of Switzerland in Zurich,
discovered that UBS officials were destroying documents detailing the credit
balances of deceased Jewish clients whose heirs’ whereabouts were
He also found in the shredding room books from the German
Reichsbank listing stock accounts for companies involved in the Holocaust, and
real estate records for Berlin property that had been forcibly taken by the
Nazis, placed in Swiss accounts, and then claimed to be owned by UBS.
Destruction of such documents violates Swiss law.
Meili gave some of
these bank files to a local Jewish organization, which handed them over to the
police; and to the press, which published them.
A brave act: But in many
ways, this intrepid messenger was “shot.”
A judicial investigation was
opened against him for suspected violation of Swiss banking secrecy laws (it was
later closed), and he received death threats. He and his family left for the US,
where they were granted political asylum. In January 1998, a suit was filed on
his behalf against UBS, demanding a sum of $2.56 billion. A $1.25b. settlement,
which included Meili’s costs, was reached with the bank.
ended in 2002, and he complained that he never received the money promised in
the settlement. He became a naturalized US citizen and started working in
security again, claiming that those who had once championed him had let him
down, including the Jewish organization he originally approached with his
He said he was working for minimum wage. He returned to
Switzerland in 2009, homeless.
In his book Imperfect Justice
Eizenstat suggests that the “Meili Affair” was significant in the Swiss banks’
decision to participate in reparations for Nazi victims of WW2.
Meili’s story support some cynics’ view that “no good deed goes unpunished,” or
was he himself instrumental in the downward spiral that followed his brave
THE world media are working overtime to report on an elusive and shady
individual who considers himself a messenger and possibly hero par excellence,
bursting to deliver reams of information he believes should be freely
accessible. Many disagree.
And many of the politicians and other senior
figures who feature in the trove of secret US military and diplomatic cables
that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange began to publish last month would probably
be delighted to shoot him personally.
Failing that, the next best thing,
in their view, is the fact that American officials are determined to prosecute
Assange to the full extent of the law on charges relating to his release of the
250,000 classified cables. The 39-year-old Australian is also facing charges of
rape, molestation and unlawful coercion of two women in Sweden.
latter charges politically motivated – as Assange’s supporters claim – cooked up
to silence a troublesome and embarrassing agitator? Or is this one “messenger”
who does deserve punishment for delivering his message(s)?
His leaks tend to
expose US secrets, but, curiously, none from Iran or China. His sources of
funding are obscure, and the data he released was stolen by a traitorous or
Those who side with him and cheer his dissemination of
the cables include Vaughan Smith, founder of London’s Frontline Club for
journalists and owner of the 10-bedroom British country mansion to which Assange
is currently restricted as a condition of his bail as he fights extradition to
One thing is certain: The ramifications of the WikiLeaks saga are
far-reaching, as “traditional watchdog journalism, which has long accepted
leaked information in dribs and drabs, has been joined by a new counterculture
of information vigilantism that now promises disclosures by the terabyte,” to
quote Scott Shane in The New York Times
IT’S unlikely we will
ever find ourselves in the position of being messengers whose revelations get
reported by the media. But suppose we come into possession of intimate knowledge
that we feel it is wrong to hold onto.
Suppose a close relative has a
serious illness that is being kept secret from him or her, and you have an
unshakable conviction that this is bad. Or suppose you know that your best
friend’s husband is having an affair and feel compelled to tell her for her own
Many people who have delivered such personal “messages” have lived
to regret it, finding themselves not thanked, but rejected and perhaps even
detested by the recipients. The once-best friend may suddenly find herself
considered no friend at all.
Discretion, we can discover too late, is
often the better part of valor.
But should one feel one’s conscience
urging the delivery of a “message” one knows will not be serenely received, one
must consider the implications of such a revelation from every conceivable
angle. One needs to seek discreet and expert advice, if possible, and then
proceed as if treading on thin ice – which is, of course, exactly what one is
Above all, one must examine one’s own motivation minutely and be
quite sure that one is not delivering the message for the sake of any personal
Some folk seem to take delight in spreading bad news. They need
to be aware that they themselves may, as a result, come to be regarded as “bad