WikiLeaks’ Long, Strange Tail

Irony and paradox, as elements of art, add texture, depth and complexity.

The same is true in life, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the ever-surprising case of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks and for many a champion of the freedom of information, a resister of arbitrary authority and a defender of the public interest.

Holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy for the past two months in the swank Knightsbridge district of London, Mr. Assange has been granted asylum but is locked in a stand-off with British authorities over his bid to leave the UK. There have been reports that Britain is prepared to suspend the Embassy’s diplomatic status and enter the premises in order to execute a court order and arrest and extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces lurid allegations of sexual impropriety.

I believe that threat unlikely to be executed.

Diplomatic premises are deemed inviolable under the Vienna Convention, and those conventions are widely enforced. While it is true that under situations of exceptional instability the protections afforded by the Convention are occasionally breached – think of the US Embassies in Saigon in 1975 or Tehran in 1979 – the effective removal of the Ecuadorean Embassy’s sovereign immunity would under these circumstances be very difficult to justify, even if a national legal basis exists.

Respect for international law is an important plank in UK foreign policy, and Britain would not likely wish to establish a precedent which would invite retaliation against its own representatives abroad.

In a world network node like London, moreover, the media coverage attending any forced removal would be a PR disaster.

Still, a decision to abstain from storming the chancery does not mean that British authorities must grant Mr. Assange safe passage should he attempt to leave the Embassy. The upshot of it all is that unless something fundamental changes, Assange may find himself a guest of his Ecuadorean  hosts for a some time.

That might not suit him; unlike the members of the shadowy hacker collective Anonymous, Assange relishes the spotlight. It was through his talk show on Russia Today that he met the person who is now his most useful advocate, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

The fact that Mr. Assange has thrown his fate upon the tender mercies of diplomacy might be considered rather curious in the wake of his central role in “Cablegate”, the publication in 2010-11 of over 250,000 US-origin diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks site. That episode, by exposing the innermost workings of the world’s second oldest profession, appeared intended to damage and discredit the integrity of the very institution upon which Assange is now relying.

And the irony has been compounded. By showing diplomats hard at work doing their best to advance national interests around the world 24/7, and writing capably about their efforts, the longer-term impact of “Cablegate” has been to burnish diplomacy’s image and reputation.

Be that as it may, I would like to table some additional thoughts regarding both Mr. Assange and the WikiLeaks enterprise. When the larger picture is assessed, some other interesting patterns emerge.

Unless there are very good reasons for secrecy – such as the need to protect privacy, confidentiality or personal safety – I am in principle a supporter of the public’s right to know. As citizens and taxpayers, members of the polity are generally entitled to an open and transparent account of what their governments have been up to, and why.

I am not certain, however, that these are the primary ends at issue here.

Although more of a conduit than a source, WikiLeaks is almost universally referred to as “the whistle-blowing web site”. That description would not seem to apply in the case of the “Cablegate” affair. Unlike WikiLeaks’ presentation of the raw U.S. military reporting contained in the Iraq or Afghanistan “war logs”, or the Apache helicopter gun sight video footage of the “death from above” killing of several civilians and two Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, the “Cablegate” data dump cannot be accurately described either as a “leak”, or as “whistle blowing”.

A leak is typically a single story, or at least a unified collection of documents. “Cablegate” is an undifferentiated deluge.

Whistle blowing typically refers to the exposure of corruption, illegality or wrong-doing on the part of those in authority. Although a limited number of “Cablegate” messages report on apparent malfeasance abroad, and candid diplomatic commentary and analysis can be embarrassing, it would be a stretch to maintain that the publication of such material constitutes whistle blowing.

Similar sorts of observations can be applied to the more recent material published on the WikiLeaks site  – the so-called  Syria, GI (Stratfor), Spy and Guantanamo Files. All make for fascinating browsing, and like the “Cablegate” messages represent a bonanza for researchers. I am not sure, however, that vast data archives such these as can reasonably be considered “leaks”, the presence of the odd incendiary bit of buried treasure notwithstanding. 

Secondly, unlike the wildly popular Web 2.0 social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the ever expanding reaches of the blogosphere, and its spawn more closely resemble old style, Web 1.0 “read only” and broadcast sites. Neither WikiLeaks, nor its many mirror-image substitute sites are interactive – visitors cannot post or edit any of the material displayed.

These sites, therefore, are not wikis.

If  WikiLeaks is not a wiki and much of the site’s content cannot be described as a leaks, might this venture qualify as journalism?

I think not.

By virtue of its lack of breaking news, analytical or editorial content, the activities associated with the WikiLeaks site and its founder fall outside of what is typically regarded as journalism. I was accordingly taken aback to learn on 02 June 2011 that Mr. Assange was awarded the UK’s coveted 2011 Martha Gelhorn Prize for journalism. The actions of Mr. Assange in receiving and disseminating the cables, and his defence of those actions in the world press, do not in my view compare favourably to the painstaking presentation (in fully searchable form), publication and analysis of the 1600 Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera in January 2011. That act falls within the purview of a responsible news organization, and differs markedly from entrepreneurial show-boating in support of technology-empowered celebrity.

In sum, Mr. Assange may be pioneering a new form of highly individuated digital activism and political agency, but it would be inaccurate to describe his machinations  as journalism, or whistle blowing, or leaking.

Distilled to its essence, it is by no means clear that these disclosures, and especially those in the “Cablegate” collection, will enhance freedom of information, transparency, probity in government or the public interest. Instead of serving as a platform for the transmission of vital knowledge out of the shadows and into the light, the “Cablegate” affair especially seems to have been more about personal self-aggrandisement and the commoditization of information.  In the US, UK, Canada, Peru, Australia, India, Holland and elsewhere, the releases were carefully timed and targeted, designed to produce maximum publicity for the source. This is closer to classic muck-raking than to journalism, heroism or principled support for good governance.

Also on the negative side of the ledger, sensitive sources have been compromised and others will now be less inclined to come forward, official communications will be more highly classified and less widely distributed, and diplomats may be excluded from key conversations. Scepticism is clearly warranted regarding Mr. Assange’s brilliantly promoted claims that the “Cablegate” revelations played a major role in encouraging of the Arab Spring. While there was possibly some influence on the margins, it is unlikely that many of those who participated in the uprisings had any clear idea of the content of the cables which reported on corruption, nepotism, and various other unsavoury practices in Tunisia and Egypt.

None of this, though, is to suggest that Mr. Assange and the WikiLeaks revelations have been without consequence. Even if not world-changing, together they have produced something akin to a “Napster moment” for governments. Just as the emergence of that file sharing site in the mid 1990s transformed the music retailing industry forever, the emergence of WikiLeaks, and the similar sites that are popping up all over cyberspace, looks very much like a game changer.

Think culture shift, with the Web emerging as a new political centre. The classified information monopoly once enjoyed by governments is over.

For those inclined towards secrecy and information control, life will never be quite the same again.

Whatever becomes of Mr. Assange and his troubles in London, he has become somewhat of an industry. His legacy, often expressed in multiple dimensions of irony and paradox, will endure.