What next for Wikileaks?

Did you think that Wikileaks was last year’s drama? Think again. In the next few weeks, there’s going to be a lot of Wikileaks about. Julian Assange’s own book is due for publication at the end of the first week in April. Whatever else may be said of Assange, his ability to detonate high explosive in public life is beyond dispute.

For those reading this blog in Britain or the US, it’s worth remembering that the gradual disclosure of the US diplomatic cables continues piece by piece around the world. I was in India last week, where Wikileaks’ editing-and-publication deal is with The Hindu and the open disclosures from a set of just over 5000 cables set off a storm. Among other things a member of the staff of the American embassy in Delhi reported being shown cash which he was told was to be used to bribe members of parliament to support the government in a close vote in 2008.

Fascination with the spectacle or with the implications of Wikileaks runs as strongly as ever. Is this what journalism is going to be like in the future? Does Wikileaks signal that in the digital era relations between government and the governed will be changed? These were the kind of questions kicked around at a seminar convened by Polis director Charlie Beckett at the LSE last night, when I lectured on Wikileaks at the Xavier Institute of Communication in Mumbai (slides here) and in a draft paper by Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Centre. A few points to watch:

  • Wikileaks holds a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables. With only a few (but significant) exceptions, a relatively small number have been published under the supervision of established media, who staff have redacted sensitive names. One person with good knowledge of Wikileaks estimates that something above 5000 have now been released. Perhaps, he speculated, the total published via major media outlets might be 15,000 in all. There’s only a certain number of newspapers and magazines in the world with the staff and the interest to go through and “redact” such bulky material.
  • All of which begs the question about what happens to the remaining 235,000 cables, many of which may contain sensitive names and details (of US informants, for example). This is apparently under discussion inside Wikileaks, with voices in favour of complete, unredacted release and voices against.
  • Quite apart from very likely getting people killed, the unedited release of such a cache would provoke a completely new kind of reaction. That assumption is based on the US reaction to the limited and relatively careful release so far: a wide array of government opinions (Benkler is very good on the dissenting opinions of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who quietly insisted that the damage to the US was being hyped; Gates has of course announced his retirement and has nothing to lose), private-sector attempts to harm Wikileaks and political figures calling for Assange to be either prosecuted or killed. Would the American government unplug the internet? Could it? The consensus on the second is a resounding “Yes”.
  • Wikileaks has now spawned many imitators, local and global. Will they go commercial and become more like exsting media operations? Or will such sites, whose key asset is their digital indestructibility and ability to hide a source, act as a leaking route of last resort, a compliment and accompaniement to more conventional media?
  • There seemed to be general agreement that governments would now bolt the stable door. Documents of the kind that Wikileaks has surfaced would be harder to extract and seen by fewer people on the inside in the first place. The ship of state may have sprung a leak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be patched.
  • That’s all fine in liberal societies to the west of here, said one Indian student in Mumbai. But is it right for Wikileaks to be tolerated by open societies when those societies are up against aggressive, ruthless closed societies? I began on a pompous answer about how liberal societies have to take risks that closed societies don’t, stopped and asked him if he had any particular closed society in mind. China, he said firmly.

 

 

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