WikiLeaks has offered us glimpses of how the world works. And in most cases nothing but good can come of it
December 12, 2010
I have lost count of the politicians and opinion formers of an authoritarian bent warning of the dreadful damage done by the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables, and in the very next breath dismissing the content as frivolous tittle-tattle. To seek simultaneous advantage from opposing arguments is not a new gambit, but to be wrong in both is quite an achievement.
Publication of the cables has caused no loss of life; troops are not being mobilised; and the only real diplomatic crisis is merely one of discomfort. The idea that the past two weeks have been a disaster is self-evidently preposterous. Yet the leaks are of unprecedented importance because, at a stroke, they have enlightened the masses about what is being done in their name and have shown the corruption, incompetence – and sometimes wisdom – of our politicians, corporations and diplomats. More significantly, we have been given a snapshot of the world as it is, rather than the edited account agreed upon by diverse elites, whose only common interest is the maintenance of their power and our ignorance.
The world has changed, not simply because governments find they are just as vulnerable to the acquisition, copying and distribution of huge amounts of data as the music, publishing and film businesses were, but because we are unlikely to return to the happy ignorance of the past. Knowing Saudi Arabia has urged the bombing of Iran, that Shell maintains an iron grip on the government of Nigeria, that Pfizer hired investigators to disrupt investigations into drugs trials on children, also in Nigeria, that the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, is swinging both ways on the Taliban, that China launched a cyber attack on Google, that North Korean has provided nuclear scientists to Burma, that Russia is a virtual mafia state in which security services and gangsters are joined at the hip – and knowing all this in some detail – means we are far more likely to treat the accounts of events we are given in the future with much greater scepticism.
Never mind the self-serving politicians who waffle on about the need for diplomatic confidentiality when they themselves order the bugging of diplomats and hacking of diplomatic communications. What is astonishing is the number of journalists out there who argue that it is better not to know these things, that the world is safer if the public is kept in ignorance. In their swooning infatuation with practically any power elite that comes to hand, some writers for the Murdoch press and Telegraph titles argue in essence for the Chinese or Russian models of deceit and obscurantism. They advocate the continued infantilising of the public.
Nothing is new. In 1771, that great lover of liberty, John Wilkes, and a number of printers challenged the law that prohibited the reporting of Parliamentary debates and speeches, kept secret because those in power argued that the information was too sensitive and would disrupt the life of the country if made public. Using the arcane laws of the City of London, Alderman Wilkes arranged for the interception of the Parliamentary messengers sent to arrest the printers who had published debates, and in doing so successfully blocked Parliament. By 1774, a contemporary was able to write: "The debates in both houses have been constantly printed in the London papers." From that moment, the freedom of the press was born.
It took a libertine to prove that information enriched the functioning of British society, a brave maverick who was constantly moving house – and sometimes country – to avoid arrest; whose epic sexual adventures had been used by the authorities as a means of entrapping and imprisoning him. The London mob came out in his favour and, supplemented by shopkeepers and members of the gentry on horseback, finally persuaded the establishment of the time to accept that publication was inevitable. And the kingdom did not fall.
Over the past few weeks, there have been similarly dire predictions from sanctimonious men and women of affairs about the likely impacts of publication, and of course Julian Assange finds himself banged up in Wandsworth nick, having neither been formally charged with, nor found guilty of, the sex crimes he is alleged to have committed in Sweden. Making no comment about his guilt or innocence, or the possibility of his entrapment, I limit myself to saying that we have been here before with John Wilkes; and the reason for this is that authorities the world over and through history react the same way when there is a challenge to a monopoly of information.
It is all about power and who has access to information. Nothing more. When those who want society to operate on the basis of the parent-child relationship because it is obviously easier to manage, shut the door and say "not in front of the children", they are usually looking after their interests, not ours.
I don't argue for a free-for-all, regardless of the consequences. In the WikiLeaks cables, knowledge and the editing and reporting skills found in the old media, combined with the new ability to locate and seize enormous amounts of information on the web, has actually resulted in responsible publication, with names, sources, locations and dates redacted to protect people's identities and their lives.
America is sore and naturally feels exposed, but the state department would have had much less cause for regret if it had listened to Ross Anderson, the Cambridge professor often quoted here in relation to Labour's obsession with huge databases of personal information. His rule states that it is a mathematical impossibility to maintain a large and functional database that is also secure. Hillary Clinton must rue the day that the Bush administration built a great silo of cables that could be accessed by three million staff. The Chinese and Russians would never have been so trusting.
There has been more than a hint that China and Russia have empathised with the Americans. The unseen affinities of the powerful may also be responsible for the unforgivable behaviour by Amazon, which pulled the plug on hosting WikiLeaks, and PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, which unilaterally stopped customers making donations to WikiLeaks. There was not the slightest consideration of principles about free information or the freedom of their customers to make up their own minds. What next? Will these corporate giants be blocking payment to the New York Times and the Guardian? It is hard to feel much regret over the cyber attacks on their websites because, in the end, they did not seem much better than Shell and Pfizer, the companies that appear to be running so much of Nigeria like the worst type of imperial powers.
Nothing but good can come from revelations about these companies, and in this brief moment when we have a glimpse of how things really are, we should relish the fact that publication of the cables, as well as the shameful reactions to it, have brought light, not fire.