Dec 10

Wikileaks and…Tunisia

A few posts back, reflecting on the arguments swirling over the release by Wikileaks of the American diplomatic cables, I said that I couldn’t see any geopolitical situation which might have been changed by the appearance of the information. I’ve spotted one case which might (only might) be an example of a specific country being changed by the revelations.

President Ben Ali

The country is Tunisia, where anti-government demonstrations and riots have broken out in the last ten days. The events have not been widely reported, but are extremely unusual in a state held in a tight grip by an old-fashioned ex-military strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. There’s a summary here (but the parallel with the fall of Romanian dictator Ceaucescu is implausible), more detail and rumours here and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni here. The picture on the Al Jazeera piece of the protesting Tunisian lawyers in their black gowns and white collar tabs doesn’t suggest that a violent revolution is under way.

Now recall that one of the diplomatic cables to get early attention was the one from the US Ambassador in Tunis which mentioned seeing the pet tiger kept by the President’s son-in-law (and possible successor) and glimpses of the son-in-law’s “over the top” lifestyle. In a less gossipy despatch a year ago the ambassador put Tunisia’s problems in a nutshell:

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Dec 10

Wikileaks and the cables: what changes, what doesn’t

The release of a quarter of a million American diplomatic cables has generated some fascinating discussions about diplomacy, government, truth and journalism. The ones about journalism have been some of the least important.

That’s because the three Wikileaks releases of huge document caches (Afghanistan and Iraqi warlogs and diplomatic cables) are essentially about a new form of contest between computer hackers and government, in this case the American government. News media are bystanders to the main event. That’s by way of explaining that the questions, anwers and links below here are only partly about journalism.

1. Do the cables change geopolitics? It’s hard to see that any international configuration or balance of power is significantly altered by what has been revealed. Or likely to be.

2. Do they change anything? Definitely. American diplomacy on the ground gets harder, at least for a few months. (See this delightful post on the “Tobermory Effect” from the fine Crooked Timber blog). I drew attention the other day to Marc Lynch’s insight on the longer-term political effect of this in the less democratic regimes of the Middle East. The pendulum effect will now be visible in information-sharing policy inside the US government. The fiascos of failures to share intelligence information in advance of 9/11 probably contributed to more data being available lower down in the system. That might well now reverse (£). If the Wikileaks release pushes the US and other governments to reconsider how they classify documents, that would be a good outcome. The biggest beneficiaries of all are historians, who gain most from being able to use a written record to check against competing versions of the truth.

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Nov 10

Wikileaks, Arab governments and new media

One early thought about the Wikileaks release of the US diplomatic cables. There’s been debate for years about the effect of new media on authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Would satellite television, the internet or Facebook break the monopoly of power held by the Chinese communist party? Could bloggers laugh Hugo Chavez out of power?

The answers which slowly emerged to these questions showed a variety of effects. China’s rulers mounted a colossal effort, mostly successful so far, to restrict the political effects of peer-to-peer communication. In relatively open democracies, social media will make changes to political discourse but they don’t look drastic or sudden so far.

But the countries in which the effects of new media are going to be most dramatic and visible are those with traditional oligarchic media and limited democratic mechanisms. The rules which govern the political space in Arab societies are being put under severe strain.

Mainstream Arab media are now faced with a bulk load of awkward stories they might prefer to ignore or play down while the same material races round the developing Arab blogosphere. This is all explained with helpful links by Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy (I’m new to this blog and so cannot yet explain its mysterious subtitle: Abu Aardvark’s Middle East Blog). I think Lynch is exactly right, not least in focussing on the test for Al-Jazeera, based as it is Qatar, whose ruling family are likely to feature when the whole document dump has been fully searched.

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Oct 10

Wikileaks and the Iraq warlogs

Three days after the release of almost 400,000 pieces of US Army data about Iraq between 2004 and 2009 it is already clear that what Wikileaks has done is a game-changer.

The leak will permanently alter how the Iraq war is seen: take this striking example from the Daily Telegraph. It may not shift the opinion figures on whether or not the war was worth starting in the first place. The detailed revelations are, I’d guess, less important than the massive accumulation of hard detail. Despite being reported in machine-prose, the logs paint an appallingly vivid picture of the careless brutality which flourishes not only in any war but particularly when an army is trying to work out counter-insurgency as it goes along.

Fiction could not compete with the surreal dialogue in which a helicopter pilot asks what he should do about suspects on the ground who are trying to surrender. The lawyer says they can’t surrender to a chopper, comes the reply. The helicopter with the callsign “Crazyhorse” blows the men to pieces.

As the experienced military commentator Robert Fox says, the axis of the information war has shifted. The public can now see the war with a sharpness and depth not possible before. (For the wider context of cyberwar read Seymour Hersh here and on military classification culture a Stratfor analyst here.)

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Oct 10

Wikileaks at City: last footnotes

The twitterstream arguing about Julian Assange’s appearance at City University is still active I see. So here are two footnote links, one from an Assange supporter GeorgieBC on the “new journalism“. That very phrase has of course been around a bit before now. I’m still not in sympathy in the least with the hacker outlook, but this is a calmer insight into a quite, entirely different philiosophy from journalism.

Second and last a post from Padraig Reidy of Index On Censorship on the the dilemmas which arranging Assange’s debate posed for an organisation devoted to open access. Even leakers want some media control.

Update 6/10/10: good post by Paul Prentice, one of the City University students who listened to Assange.

Oct 10

Assange fans and the supercilious weasel

In my last post, I was drawing attention to the gulf which separates the core Wikileaks philosophy and its roots in computer hacking and the set of assumptions which have driven journalism for the last couple of centuries or so. It was this vast gap which struck me most forcibly when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke London earlier this week.

I could not have looked for a better illustration of the distance between the two positions than the post-debate reaction of a couple of Assange’s fans. For Rixstep (“a constellation of programmers”), Assange is the Robin Hood who will help to dethrone the established media. It therefore follows that all that the established media write must be manipulative lies. Worse, as Rixstep wrote in a separate post, I’m defending “yesterday’s media” and don’t realise that its time is over. I am, “wittingly or not” an oppressor and part of a “power establishment”. (In real life, I’m a professor: see here).

A twitterer who enthusiastically agreed with Rixstep called me a “supercilious weasel” – I’m tempted to use that as the new name for this blog – and seemed very angry that some City University students didn’t think much of Julian Assange’s answers and had the temerity to say so. Naturally, they are dupes of The Establishment (me).

I rest my case.

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Oct 10

Assange of Wikileaks, reflections on “truth”

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.

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Jul 10

Wikileaks Afghan war logs: update

I was going to add these links to earlier posts about the Wikileaks Afghan war logs but interesting new items keep appearing, so I’ll group them here.

  • Will the disclosures bring the war to an earlier end? Alexander Cockburn of firstpost.co.uk asks whether disclosures end wars and, having consulted (that dispassionate and disinterested witness) Noam Chomsky, he concludes they rarely do.
  • The Times has developed its earlier story that the documents put the lives of Afghans in contact with the US or British forces at risk. Plus angry editorial. (Payment required for both). Update 30/7/10: free version of this angle from Channel 4 News.
  • It might be expected that one of the best in-context reflections on the significance  of the leaks would be from Ahmed Rashid, and so it proves (from The Spectator). The opening of this piece also sorts the new material from the not-so-new in the leaks.
  • In her comment on my post looking at the implications for journalism, my City University colleague and our Visiting Fellow Heather Brooke thinks I was underselling what we already do on data journalism.