Hear me out on this one.
I’ve been a political animal for over half my life; for me it came with the turf of being working class boy, avoids going down the pit by going to university, comes home and sees the five pits that I could see from my bedroom window as a kid closed down within a few years. I was active in ‘Old Labour’ – Chair of Ward, vice Chair of Constituency, District Labour Party, etc. before quitting in disgust at the direction New Labour was taking the party. Since 1995 my politics have been with a small ‘p’ – they’ve been about community building – bottom up helping people create their own solutions, a little writing, a little online community building, whatever.
So, you might be surprised to read this item, in which I am going to argue that many of the ‘big leaks’ of US Military and Diplomatic Information from Wikileaks have been ultimately pointless, organisationally egotistical and distracting from the issues at hand. The lack of US security, the possibility that some of the information is ‘black propaganda’ and the personal life of Mr Assange are matters for another day and probably another writer.
Going back to the first time that Wikileaks hit the headlines, the release of papers showing that there had probably been war crimes in Iraq perpetrated by Allied troops, that torture took place and other stories associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was undeniably valuable and the sort of traditional ‘investigative journalism’ that we might expect from the Fourth Estate. These were relevant and important leaks in any number of ways – wrongdoing by US and UK citizens, possible war crimes, lies in Government about the prosecution of a war – possible further indications that the wars themselves were illegal. They removed the last shreds of the idea that these were ‘just’ wars being legally and effectively prosecuted.
Now, the October/November 2010 release. More of the same to some degree, with added diplomatic cables – what embassy staff said about world leaders, stuff like that. And stuff going back 20 or 30 years. Here’s where I start having misgivings – the Diplomatic leaks.
Diplomacy has been defined as the art of saying ‘What a nice doggy, here doggy, have a biscuit, cute doggy…whilst looking around for a large rock with which to hit said dog.’ A great deal of diplomatic traffic is ‘private’ – a concept that many people in Wikileaks and who believe that ‘all information wants to be free’ have problems with. Does it benefit anyone in the world to find out that British sailors were released from Iranian detention after possible involvement by the Pope? Or that a US Diplomat regards the British Government as having slight paranoia about the so-called ‘Special Relationship’? I’m not sure it does – to me it genuinely appears to be gossip on a par with that published in Heat about the status of the marriages of people in the public eye – but I’m sure that it gave the chattering classes a great deal of vicarious pleasure by apparently letting them in to what CS Lewis called ‘The Inner Circle’ – a group of people who know something that most other people don’t… But ultimately, I’m reminded of the story from World War II surrounding ‘Enigma’ intelligence. Messages were decrypted that often gave lots of useless personal details about German officers – like one chap constantly complaining about gout. Whilst it was amusing it was also pointless to the allies, and potentially dangerous to the Enigma decoding project, as were it to get back to the enemy that the allies were having a good laugh at the General’s throbbing toe, it would soon lead to a review of policy and procedure that might shut down the Enigma source for good.
There are other diplomatic leaks that should be kept secret – simply because they deal with ‘work in progress’. Diplomacy is not a spectator sport. Those of us of a certain age can remember that the Camp David agreement was greatly facilitated by ‘back channel’ diplomacy where people could speak to each other in secret without knowledge of these meetings, which would have probably scuppered political careers at the very least, getting out until after the event. This sort of ‘get lots of data, apply no self-censorship, dump the lot on the Internet’ approach from Wikileaks will undoubtedly make any diplomats think twice about what they say in such situations in future.
Wikileaks themselves have admitted that their approach to releasing documents without review or ‘redacting’ (blacking out text, for you and me) could mean that the site would ‘one day have blood on it’s hands’. To say that and still persist in the same publication method is arrogant and ego-driven. Amnesty International have already raised the issue of redaction of the names of Afghan civilian workers from released documents – i.e. people helping the Coalition forces in Afghanistan who’re now at risk of death (as are their families) because of the leaked documents. There is also information about techniques and equipment used to tackle ‘roadside bombs’ in the leaked documents. Whilst it’s likely that anyone with reasonable technical knowledge could work a lot of this stuff out, there is no point in making the task easier. I am forced to wonder how much blood will be spilt on the backs of these two stories alone? Afghan civilian and bomb disposal officer? Feeling queasy yet, Wikileakers? People on the liberal left quite rightly decry the waste of life of these wars; I’m not hearing the same voices decrying the waste of life caused by the release of documents by Wikileaks.
And the whole Wikileaks business has been a massive distraction here in the UK. Whilst a fair number of mainstream media outlets have been publishing leaked Wikileaks documents, running stories on them, and then most recently getting in on the personal stuff about the Wikileaks founder, Britain has had a number of student protests and ‘bottom up’ political protests that have received either biased or no coverage at all. To people in Britain, Wikileaks will have :
- Academic / prurient interest for journalists, the chattering classes and teh wannabe ‘heroes of open data’.
- Serious interest if you’re serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, or have family or friends there, from teh point of view of your own life or the lives of others being put in greater jeopardy by the data released.
- Political impact (probably negative) in terms of diplomatic negotiations
- Very little impact at all on the vast majority of people in the UK.
That’s not to say people are not interested and concerned about leaks that deal with wrongdoing at a personal, governmental or corporate level. That’s what organisations like Wikileaks SHOULD be doing, but with a degree of care, and not with teh arrogance and narcissism that they currently display.
But things like the Student Protests and the protests against unpaid tax made against High Street shops and businesses such as BHS, Vodafone and Top Shop are relevant to people on day to day basis – they will be paying for that unpaid tax, their children will be paying more for education. Their children are getting their heads broken (literally) by Police batons. And these stories are only getting out to the public slowly and with great effort.
Wikileaks is a distraction to these stories and activities that are more relevant to the British people. But, I guess they’re not as sexy as things with ‘CLASSIFIED’ written on them that smell, ever so slightly, of spilt blood.
Like I said, ‘Heat’ magazine for the Political classes, political porn for the poseurs.