The Obama administration is pursuing Wikileaks and its Australian founder Julian Assange for alleged criminal activity in releasing classified documents.
The US Department of Justice has ordered Twitter to hand over private messages sent by parties close to Wikileaks and the whistle-blower website says that even the more than 600,000 followers of its tweets may be investigated.
Barack Obama is more vigorously chasing leakers than the Bush administration. In early January a former CIA officer was charged with disclosing national security secrets about Iran to a New York Times journalist.
But Washington’s outrage is highly selective. Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced details of his memoir this year and acknowledged that never-before-seen governments, sourced without using traditional freedom of information methods, would be included. Nobody has called for Rumsfeld to be prosecuted and nobody will.
The legal wrangling over Wikileaks will continue for years but the relationship between journalists and governments and reporters and the general public is being transformed in ways that has been rarely examined.
Here’s why it matters so much.
The traditional form of investigative journalism has involved reporters digging around for material on business, government or individuals and then distilling this information into a readable and important story.
Sources are discovered and maintained. Unsuspecting leaks (as well as sanctioned ones) may occur that shed invaluable light.
But through it all, readers would rarely see the background to the news-gathering. All they saw was the final product and assess its worth accordingly.
This unhealthy secrecy is one of the key reasons Assange speaks about scientific journalism, the right of consumers to dig deeper into a yarn. As he wrote in the Australian in December:
“Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”
Despite the mainstream media’s reluctance to reveal its journalistic engine-room, corporate media has been central to launching Wikileaks into the stratosphere. Reporters from a carefully selected number of newspapers and television outlets dissected the cables and only released the angles they thought were important. Wikileaks was not in charge of this process and thus far little more than 3000 out of 250,000 cables have been published.
Judicious care has been shown by both Wikileaks and the media to avoid any potential harm to civilians, a concern perhaps not fully appreciated by Assange with the Iraq and Afghan war logs in 2010.
But where does this leave investigative journalism itself? Middle East correspondent for the Independent Robert Fisk told Al-Jazeera English in late 2010 that the cables made for fascinating reading but risked making the media lazy. Would they simply wait at their computers for the next intriguing cable to drop into their laps? Still nothing beats being on the road and witnessing events in person.
Contributing editor at the Financial Times John Lloyd worries that the sheer volume of Wikileaks documents “reduces investigative journalists to bit players whose job is to redact the output and provide context.”
Perhaps, but journalists should not forget that the alleged leaker, Bradley Manning, didn’t send his treasure trove of documents to the mainstream media but picked a website with a track-record of judiciously disclosing secrets.
Manning’s exact motives are impossible to currently determine but he allegedly told convicted hacker Adrian Lamo in 2010 that the cables contained “almost criminal political back dealings” and had to be exposed to the public.
Media players may have to start getting used to a new form of release; hackers often view complete information transparency as the best way forward. A former collaborator with Assange, Melbourne-based Suelette Dreyfus, wrote in December that the Wikileaks founder had always wanted to “improve the lot of the most oppressed” by “using information which can be replicated endlessly - and cheaply - to promote change for the better.”
As the internet continues to develop, serious journalists have no choice but to appreciate and understand how online communities disseminate information. There are now endless numbers of players willing to share news and a reporter’s job will be to find it and understand its significance. The days of the traditional news drop from a political advisor may be coming to a close; this unhealthy embedding serves nobody except the power and media elites.
Indeed, Wikileaks provided invaluable background to the current turmoil in Egypt and across the Arab world. US diplomats wrote back to Washington that there were concerned with Egyptian bloggers being detained and tortured but the billions of dollars of military aid continued nonetheless. The main concern for the US remains Israel, a message heard loud and clear on the streets of Cairo.
With a majority of Australians according to polls supporting the Wikileaks cable release, politicians and journalists should listen to the wise words of Britain’s independent freedom of information watchdog, Christopher Graham. He recently argued that the relationship between the state and its public has fundamentally changed:
“From the point of view of public scrutiny, the web and the internet has empowered citizens. Governments now need to factor in that things can be Wikileaked…You can’t un-invent Wikileaks. If all of us accept that this is the people’s information and 99.9% should be out there in all its tedium, you wouldn’t have a Wikileaks.”
Attacking Wikileaks for releasing information or claiming the group has revealed nothing new is a predictable tactic of insiders who fear a challenge to the status-quo of cosiness between powerful interests and the media.
We should all celebrate its downfall.