The hypocrisy of the media attack on Wikileaks
Monday November 29, 2010 22:50 by Ian Dunt
The traditional media has become so toothless it is reduced to attacking Wikileaks for doing its job properly.
With a regularity that's becoming almost traditional, the latest major release from Wikileaks has been accompanied by a chorus of disapproval from the establishment. Politicians, analysts and, most worryingly of all, journalists, are lining up to condemn the organisation's eccentric founder, Julian Assange.
The White House and the Foreign Office instantly sprang to action. The media's response was less predictable, and far more irritating. Writers point out that the West will be a more dangerous place if, for instance, Saudi leaders feel they cannot have confidential conversations with US officials. One might respond that the world becomes a far more dangerous place for a few unfortunate individuals when they do, but that's a small response to an attack that requires something bigger and more substantial.
Society is about roles, with groups pitted against each other in a bid to balance the outcome. The executive is given certain powers, for instance, while the legislature - constituted quite literally by the mates of the executive - is tasked with scrutinising its decisions. The same is true for international diplomacy. Diplomats strive for confidentiality. Journalists strive to uncover secrets. The fact that many columnists see fit to attack Wikileaks is evidence of how severely they have misinterpreted their mission statement.
The only difference between Wikileaks and other news organisations is that Wikileaks is doing its job properly. This is not a symptom of its greater intelligence, merely its ability to comprehend the ramifications of new technology. Wikileaks is like a symbol of globalisation. It has no HQ. It uses a Swedish company for net hosting, but puts servers all over the world.
The simple ability to leak this much information is a result of radical advances in data storage. On a purely physical level, it's very hard to leak hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper. These memos were simply put on a USB stick. Technology creates all sorts of complex-sounding security systems. But no system can prevent the endless surprises of the human brain. By making it so easy to transfer information, the whims of individual whistle-blowers are more easily realised than they ever have been before.
Previous Wikileaks releases have brought us a video of US troops killing bystanders during an operation in Iraq, information about allied estimates of civilian casualties in the country, and the revelation that we didn't bother investigating Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. In every case, the western media reacted by, yes, covering the story, but pushing the narrative of an irresponsible outlet beset by anti-Americanism to the fore.
Of course, no-one was calling Assange irresponsible when Wikileaks released "Kenya: The Cry of Blood - Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances", which won the 2009 Amnesty International UK New Media Award. Many commentators today are encouraging Assange to get back to tracking a supposedly authoritarian government elsewhere, rather than concentrate on the US.
The central attack is that Wikileaks puts lives at risk, by potentially revealing sources. It seems a fair concern, but so far the Pentagon has been unable to show any repercussion from Wikileak's releases. It's certainly not an attack which can be utilised today, where embarrassment is the most likely outcome. So instead the narrative turned to government confidentiality, which is pitiful.
But America and its allies shouldn't be the only people with egg on their face. The media should be embarrassed as well. Large parts of it have mistaken their role of truth-seeker for that of the establishment's press office.
There is a suspicious, slightly conspiratorial school of left-wing thought which considers the media part of the 'state apparatus'. The reality is far more complex, but the reaction to the Wikileaks dilemma reveals there is some substantial truth to it, or at least more truth than those of us working in the media would like to admit. The genuine role of the media, the role it must adopt if society is to function in a practically and morally coherent way, is to reveal power, to pester power, to hound it with questions. Because power cannot be trusted.
I've long since lost count of the number of articles I've read which are basically transcripts of government briefings. Sometimes it's for party political reasons, but usually it's the result of something much more dangerous and hard to decipher: the reliance on authorities that comes when journalists are over-stretched and insufficiently critical. Just this week, much of the content about the student protest outside parliament read like an internal memo from the Met police, complete with flat-out inaccuracies. You see this after most protests, where the police line is adopted wholesale by crime editors on newspapers across the country. Very occasionally the police inaccuracies are so glaring that it becomes impossible to maintain the pretence. This is what happened with Iain Tomlinson. But it doesn't always happen.
People ask how diplomacy can function with releases like this. That's for the diplomats to work out. The purpose of the media is not to concern itself with British interests, or that of the West. The purpose of the media is simply to reveal the truth. There are moments, such as Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan, which require some information to be retained in cooperation with authorities, but these are few and far between.
Look at most censored material and it becomes quite confusing why the government should go to so much effort to keep it blacked out. My contacts in the civil service say most redactions from documents released under Freedom of Information rules are trivial embarrassments - nothing earth shattering. Once the media believes that it has a duty to perform in the 'national interest' it also starts to slide down that slippery slope. They sell confidentiality on the safety of individuals, but soon enough they use it to cover up embarrassment.
It's an indictment of the British media that its response to these leaks is one of condemnation rather than troubled inner scrutiny. Its general outlook is so conservative, its relationship with the establishment so cushy and its interests so scurrilous that it now condemns those who do their jobs properly. But perhaps there's something else. Wikileaks represents merely the birth-pangs of a new media, one that cuts out the middle man to reveal the documents in full. Perhaps the media feels things moving away from it, to a world of citizen journalists and information freedom.
That's an eventuality which would be far less likely if the traditional media did its constitutional duty and held the powerful to account.