Killer content: should the media follow every Wikileak?
Conservatives regard him as a treasonous anarchist who is jeopardising the security of the free world and imperilling the lives of soldiers and diplomats. Progressives hail him as a hero for his determination to ensure the unfettered release of any and every bit of political information which comes his way, by publishing cables which shed light on the conduct of wars, reveal the secret assessments of the foreign service and expose the character flaws of world leaders.
He is Julian Assange, the Queensland-born founder of Wikileaks, the renegade website which has spooked the world’s spooks and sent a shudder through government spines from Washington to Westminster, and beyond, by indiscriminately releasing thousands of diplomatic cables via the internet.
A warrant is out for his arrest, Interpol want to sit him down and shut him down, but Assange is undeterred. He is promising that his next step will be to target corporate America with a dump of internal documents which could bring down one of the biggest banks in the United States. He has also apparently obtained and is sitting on some 1500 cables relating to Australia. Who only knows what they could reveal.
Assange is one of the most divisive figures in the world today. Many of his right-wing critics are probably just acutely embarrassed at the fact that his actions so far have demolished some of the mythological foundations for the war in Iraq, energised debate about the civilian death toll in that conflict, and exploded the quaint gentlemen’s agreements which keep valid public information private about the conduct of the world’s most senior politicians.
Equally, Assange’s left-wing critics include the worst kind of relativists who have justified massively dangerous security breaches with the most undergraduate defences, saying that if America doesn’t care about issues such as the torture of suspects or the civilian death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan, no reciprocal care should be exercised in exposing how America and its allies conduct themselves.
For those of us who have no burning ideological affiliation, and are simply interested in information, Wikileaks has thrown down a significant challenge to democracy.
In Australia, the Attorney-General Robert McClelland has this week written to news editors across the country asking them to consider whether an informal code could be drawn up to prevent the publication of information which threatens national security.
The letter which McClelland has sent is a fair-minded one which makes it clear that the Federal Government is not considering Big Brother-style legislation to punish the mainstream media for re-reporting information which has been published on sites such as Wikileaks. Indeed in these days of social media it seems kind of absurd that traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television would acquiesce to such an arrangement anyway, when the information is already out there.
And given that most Australians still access their news through the mainstream media anyway, editors should think long and hard before they agree to anything which would preclude them from publishing information which is in the public interest but which would cause discomfort or embarrassment for governments.
The main issue with Wikileaks – and it’s a massive issue – is that Assange operates as a reckless and uncritical clearing house for information where he pays no mind to its potential consequences.
Setting any moral questions aside, no commercial publisher would want to be complicit in publishing information which imperilled or cost the life of a soldier or diplomat. Assange seems untroubled by such concerns.
Through its willy-nilly dissemination of information, where identities are never protected, no thought is given to the consequences, nothing is checked or held back to weigh its possible impact on the lives of those in the field.
Many independent bloggers and critics have lauded Assange. One of the few critical pieces was published in The Globe and Mail by Canadian aid worker and former diplomat Scott Gilmore. He made some compelling points about the recklessness of Wikileaks.
When we sent the reporting cables back to the Department of Foreign Affairs, they were secret for a reason. If they were published in The Globe and Mail instead, I would have been thrown out of the country in 24 hours and the Indonesian officials would not have permitted a replacement. The local politicians would have hired a rent-a-mob to stone the Canadian embassy. Their leaders would have told the Jakarta media I was a liar and would have blamed the Timorese… the police would have arrested and killed the young teacher before the week was out. The third most common topic in the WikiLeaks cables is human rights, with American diplomats doing the same thing we were trying to do in Indonesia: Make the world a little better. That’s hard to swallow for the cyber mob that is celebrating the embarrassment being inflicted on the U.S. government this week. But the damage done to Washington is nothing compared to the pain that is about to be inflicted on the confidential sources in Russia, China and Sudan.
Gilmore’s argument is a powerful one and it exposes the problem with Wikileaks. Most of the material we have seen released this week was wholly in the public interest and did not implicate or identify anybody. It was the sort of stuff which any self-respecting editor would gleefully plaster all over the front page. The personal peccadilloes and obsessions of world leaders, the heartening disrespect which China feels for North Korea…the world is probably a better place for the release of such information. But at some point someone – a person such as Gilmore in his former professional life – could be identified or the work they are doing could be jeopardised by the indiscriminating nature of the release of this information.
Whether that warrants censorship or self-censorship in a country such as ours is an altogether deeper question.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…