Yesterday was bracketed by discussions on the nature of truth. The flux of events and ideas in journalism is sending people back to first principles to blunder around in the domain of philosophers.
In the morning I was on an oversize panel convened by Editorial Intelligence to discuss “Where Truth Lies” in the media (video here). In the evening Julian Assange, founder and frontman of Wikileaks returned to City University to be questioned on his contributions to the world’s knowledge.
The single most striking thing to emerge from both debates was the vast distance between “journalism” (and all the controversies over its value, competence and conduct) on the one hand and the radically different position of the data and document leakers on the other.
In the morning’s debate, there was lively discussion of the circumstances in which it is justifiable to publish particular stories. Paul Staines, aka blogger Guido Fawkes, defended his story which led to the resignation of a special adviser to Foreign Secretary William Hague, including a refreshingly frank pitch that his aims include mischief-making gossip. Blogger Iain Dale disagreed and said the story should never have run. The distinguished investigative reporter John Ware defined his aim as building a “case which can stand up to scrutiny.” Whatever their other differences, all the speakers (me included) shared a common assumption that journalists, acting as intermediaries, select particular stories, facts and judgements for the consumption of their audience.
What Assange’s appearance at City University, his first public outing for some time, underlined was how far he stands from that entire set of assumptions. In an extended and often evasive Q&A, Assange made clear that Wikileaks aim is to produce “justice”. He would not discuss, and doesn’t appear to recognise, the idea of the “public interest”.
He has no truck with the idea of journalistic intermediaries: the moment that anyone starts selecting, piecing together items of raw material to make a story, the truth is compromised and the possibility of manipulation or corruption (by writers, editors, proprietors or governments) is opened. Assange wasn’t asked this specific question but it seemed clear that the small industry now growing up to make digestible and accessible material from data banks now being made public would not meet with his approval.
He thinks that the rule of of law is “collapsing” in western states and that anyone who thinks that they have privacy left from government is a fool.
His loyalty is to those who leak to Wikileaks in their pursuit of “justice” against those who hide things. But he isn’t prepared to discuss the criteria that he uses to judge these issues or any of the methods they might use to protect anyone from the consequences of disclosure. His answers on the still-vexed question of any risks to Afghans from the US Army logs disclosed recently are here. On Sarah Palin’s emails, he said that they had disclosed “everything our source instructed us to reveal”, without saying more.
Assange’s philosophy of extreme disclosure is that of the hacker: only in the raw data does the truth lie. He’s the ultimate disintermediator. I’m not buying it: I think it’s a lop-sided doctrine that underestimates the harm that can be done and oversimplifies the fact that truth is not the same as disclosure. Worse, from the Assange viewpoint, I think that societies construct ways in which they balance disclosure and discretion and that these are rules, however much disputed, on which civilised life depends.
But Assange is a change-maker who is testing the support for an idea which, facilitated by digital technology, tips the very idea of journalism right out of 21st century life. And he had some support in the room last night. For an example, see Rixstep here bewailing the delusions of journalism students. For the students’ feisty replies, see #wikileaksatcity.
Update 6/10/10; judge for yourself with the full video.