Wikileaks founder Julian Assange came to the Centre for Investigative Journalism weekend school at City University last Friday to speak to a public audience. Assange is clearly making many more of these appearances in what might be called the Phase Two of the Wikileaks story.
In Phase One, Assange barely gave any interviews at all and was secretive about himself and his organisation. Phase Two began when Wikileaks had put more than a million documents into the public domain which organisations and governments had never intended to release and when the US government arrested one of Wikileaks alleged leakers in the American military. (Earlier posts on this here and here; whole Wikileaks story here). That phase has seen Assange come out his shell and switch from defence to attack.
Here’s a summary of what he said in opening. Wikileaks has focussed from the start, he said, on revealing documents which will have the largest effect when disclosed. Borrowing the language of economists, documents kept secret create value by defining what will have impact when revealed.
But from the start, Wikileaks saw itself in quite a different perspective from mainstream media, or from all other news media. Assange intended, he said, to set up a “real free press” for the first time – in the sense that sensitive revelations at that scale which could not be shut down have never been done before. Wikileaks invested effort, time and money from the start in setting up servers which cannot be interrupted or attacked. He also saw Wikileaks as an “advocacy group for sources.”
He indirectly justified Wikileaks refusal to discuss its personnel, operations or security methods by saying that he has a “duty” to maintain “institutional integrity”. He went further: he has “a duty to history.”
As you can sense, Julian Assange doesn’t think small. Wikileaks first focus has been countries where government was least transparent: China, Africa and some ex-Soviet states. Then they moved on to places where “the power structure is so sewn up that the press doesn’t matter much.”
That seems, broadly, to be the developed world. “It’s all bankrupt,” he said. We have to rethink our understanding of how political power works. “All current political theory is bankrupt, all political thought, because we don’t know what the hell is going on.”
You might have guessed by now that the established media are part of the problem. Journalists, he argues, are creating unreasonable public expectations. Their “original sin” is to enjoy the imbalance of power. Why does someone want to read what a journalist has written? “They’re ignorant and you’re not. You know more.” There’s an imbalance of power.
Journalists treat readers as parents treat children. “You can’t lie but the opportunity to distort is large and prevalent.” The reader can’t see the whole picture so Wikileaks has to fill the gap. Once “primary source material” is up on the web, the “lying opportunities” shrink.
Assange’s style is an odd mixture of insight, nonsense and brass-neck salesmanship. His assumption that society’s decision-making structure is a bankrupt fraud if only people could see it reminds me of the worst bollocks people spouted around four decades ago. But his strategic planning and tactical execution for Wikileaks betrays a very sharp understanding of how digital communications alter the world.
One of his least convincing answers was on the funding of Wikileaks in the period ending this past January (when they began soliciting donations): money came from “people working on it.” That must have been quite some sum. I can’t disprove his description, but it sounds unconvincing to me. This is the only area of life where total transparency won’t do, apparently. Someone should investigate some more.
Update 16/7/10: long profile interview with Assange here, done just after his appearance at City.
Update 29/7/10: you can check my observations against the video of Assange’s talk.