WikiLeaks: A morality tale of the modern media

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WikileaksIt is a captivating story, isn’t it? Julian Assange, the face of WikiLeaks, is now an enemy of some of the most powerful people in the world. This Australian born ex-hacker, questionably accused of sex crimes, is now on the run from Interpol and hiding out in Europe. The recent leak has spread like wildfire over news sources, while its web origin is under constant DDOS attack, at least in part by a hacker known as “The Jester” (@Th3J35t3r). It’s the closest thing, at least in my lifetime, to watching a political psychological thriller occurring in front of the eyes of the public.

But this isn’t a movie. These secrets are real government secrets, they concern real people, and the stakes of their release are diplomatically important. Through the enigma, excitement and thrill of the WikiLeaks drama, the actual leaks are themselves being overshadowed by their context.

It is the macro-story of WikiLeaks, and its visionary leader that is the more interesting story. It is a story about the modern media, about the ethics of journalism and the transparency of government. It is the story of two extremes of a dichotomy, tugged between the belief in freedom of information and the responsibility of a government to maintain secrecy and security.

I have no doubt in my mind that the WikiLeaks saga is one of the ‘greatest’ things to happen this year, for the following reasons:

  • Firstly it has clearly highlighted the failures of the major modern news media in their role as government watchdogs. The lumbering and profit hungry beasts of CNN, Sky and BBC are not positioned to give anything that would be truly damning to the respective governments. They are large and exposed. WikiLeaks is small and mobile. It’s a game changer.
  • Second, it has exposed specific instances of underhanded political dealings, in a list that grows longer and longer with each passing day. I will not go into detail about these, because of the sheer mass, but do not make the mistake of thinking that the release of these documents is inconsequential. Sure, these are things that we all expect to happen behind closed doors, but to have them in black and white in the public domain is something else entirely.
  • Third, it has shown the true power of mass communication that the web allows. When web advocates talked about what the internet could do for people, how it could change the world, this is what they were talking about. A small and dedicated group of smart people with limited resources have shown the world’s most powerful nations’ dirty laundry to the public… and there’s surprisingly little that can be done about it.

Despite this, there are some serious problems with the nature of Wikileaks. There is an irresponsibility attached to releasing government correspondence indiscriminately. It is an invasion of privacy, and violates the expectations of those concerned in the correspondence.

In much the same way as leaked emails between scientists can be misconstrued, so can leaked cables between embassies. International diplomacy and politics will always require a certain amount of privacy, and the violation of this privacy can do needless damage.

For the same reason you don’t like big brother watching over your shoulder; there is a certain reasonable need for information not to be thrust to the public domain. For the same reason relationships between friends and lovers can suffer from things that previously went unsaid, so too can relationships between countries and diplomats. This is not necessarily the right way to ‘open governments’.

It seems as if WikiLeaks, though, might be a reaction to the current political climate. While the non-editorialised and hands-off approach that WikiLeaks takes is both its saving grace and major criticism, it is a reaction to governments and media outlets that have long been feeding filtered information to the public. It is indicative of the growing mistrust of the authorities on which we were supposed to rely.

Furthermore the escalating backlash against WikiLeaks is as damaging to the reputations of the parties concerned as many of the leaks themselves. Consider the attacks against WikiLeaks servers, the pressure put on PayPal and Amazon, the personal and highly dubious charges against Assange and even the public statement calling for Assange’s assassination.

Not only are the leaks embarrassing, but the entire fiasco has shown the dark, and yet so far ineffectual, arms of the powers that be. These scrambled and transparent attempts to silence the threat have served only to highlight their own failings. In particular, the US has shown that, despite nearly a decade fighting a war on terror, it is unable to prevent secure information from being released and, once released, it is unable to neutralise a public figure that openly threatens their security of information. Even BP was quicker in stopping their leak.

Although WikiLeaks is a truly international organisation, its recent highly publicised leaks have been particularly tied to American activities. From the Collateral Murder Video, the Afghan and Iraq logs to the current cables, the US government and military specifically have been in WikiLeaks’ cross-hairs.

What is particularly ironic about this is the parallel to the encroachment of privacy by that very same government. The Patriot Act logic of “Why do you mind us looking if you have nothing to hide?” cuts both ways. Of course, the sensible answer is that governments will always have things to hide, and rightly so.

Anyone who has worked with diplomatic relations of any kind will recognise the importance of this. There is a difference, however, between secrecy and privacy. WikiLeaks ignores this subtlety as a rule, albeit less ruthlessly then governments often do. Another key point to remember is that WikiLeaks itself does not leak anything. It merely releases documents that it receives from leaks and whistleblowers. This is an important distinction not only legally, but ethically.

The alternatives for WikiLeaks are to editorialise the release, which is also problematic, or to ignore the leak, which is even more so. WikiLeaks is now set on a path and cannot change course in any significant way without compromising its ideals.

Sources suggest that the banks will be the next to face the wrath of a public release. Whether Assange will make it that long is unclear. I hope so. I would be lying if I said I don’t get a slight kick out of seeing his likeness all over the internet. His face seems to symbolise a giant middle finger to government secrecy.

Either way, I think that the leaks regarding banking cartels may be a more influential release than this one, and might have particularly negative immediate economic consequences. It also may not make Switzerland a great place for the whistleblower to find refuge.

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