With Thanks to Wikileaks

These revelations give us deep factual insight into political discourses, allowing us to make more informed decisions

Opinion | Dan Davies | March 2011

A response to the editorial Betrayal of ‘Truth’ (VR Dec 2010) by Justin McCauley

Wikileaks has accomplished a great feat – and one equal to many journalistic achievements in the history of the modern press. Simply to argue whether leaking technically is journalism, or to throw ad Homonym attacks at its figurehead is to overlook its worth.

Since its inception in 2006 Wikileaks has provided the public with unadulterated information: It has uncovered killings in Kenya and scrutinized Scientology. However, its efforts have been recently focused on governments, providing us with details of deaths in Iraq and, presently, American diplomatic cables.

Justin McCauley in his editorial "Betrayal of ‘Truth’" (10/12/10) criticized the actions of Wikileaks, and attacked its leader Julian Assange as being rash, irresponsible and compared to common journalism, not conducive to a liberal society. I thoroughly disagree.

Liberal societies require individuals to aim towards making rational decisions. Freedom of speech, expression and press all protect the individual, and try to maximise ‘truth’ within society. Even commonly held truths should be allowed to be challenged by groups who think otherwise, to preserve any value in the contrary views and to make people aware of the stronger rationale behind the widely accepted view. The focus on truth and scrutiny benefits the individual, allowing them to make freer, more informed and better decisions.

Wikileaks fully serves this ideal: It provides us with a deep factual insight into political discourses, allowing us to make more informed decisions on, for instance, whom we vote for.

Fundamentally, the debate should focus on what information is safe to release. Political philosopher John Stuart Mill, a great defender of liberalism, argued that liberty should be restricted insofar as it causes harm. Inciting violence outside a corrupt politician’s house, rather than publishing an expose in the press can be condemned and stopped.

The leaks can be judged in the same way. If direct harm to an individual can be foreseen then perhaps a document should not be published. McCauley argues this harm is "an inevitability." However, even after requests, no U.S. spokesperson has been able to name, hint at or give an example of someone who has been harmed or is in danger of being harmed.

To minimize possible harm to individuals, Wikileaks actually worked in conjunction with several journalists; firstly to distribute the information to media outlets in order to publicize it, but also to jointly remove the names of people deemed at risk. This includes German political contacts who happen to note that they believe Merkel’s coalition to be fractious: perhaps they would loose their job, but clearly not their life. This is why the documents have been hoarded until relatively recently, so as to allow a thorough examination of damaging content.

Many of the documents are embarrassing, rather than dangerous – Prince Andrew and his jokes regarding the French, for example. Or they reaffirm what we already knew, thereby giving the insights more credence – such as Russia being a highly corrupt state and the power relationship between Medvedev and Putin.

Some other cables are more revealing, even though none were of the highest classification and therefore not truly endangering diplomatic exploits. Also when considering the deadlock in North Korea, the Middle-East Peace Process and Iran, little seems to have been at risk. In fact, many of the revelations may improve issues. Ahmed Wali Karzai  may finally be tackled as the U.S. is clearly aware of his links to the heroin trade. Iran may also be more cooperative now they realize the U.S. has had to resist repeated Arab calls for a more ‘active’ policy.

You may be inclined to argue that because journalists were involved, the website may never have needed to publish the documents themselves. However, one of the benefits of being able to access the original documents is that you can develop your own opinion from the facts therein. The press has a limited capacity to provide details, and a limited time-frame in which they will actively draw readers. But it is pure facts that are necessary for a liberal society, facts that are sometimes obscured by media sensationalism, that are twisted or simply are not reported.

Journalists alone cannot have the onus of scrutiny. The individuals, NGOs, opposition political parties and a whole assortment of other groups must do so too.  Journalists do not always protect nor do they always report correctly. The publication of anti-Indian rumors claimed to be leaks in the Pakistani press was only disproved because of the access to online originals. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to have groups like Wikileaks to present us with clear information on which to base our decisions and scrutinize decision-makers.

It is clear Wikileaks and Assange were well aware of the seriousness and the importance of their actions, and a better-informed public has been the result, which is well within a liberal conception of society. It is, in fact, the lack of prior analysis and editing, save the names of those in danger, that increases their value in comparison to the print press. They have not put people at undue risk nor will any of the leaks have disastrous diplomatic consequences. And as such, we should all be thankful for Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and those at Wikileaks, and be aghast at the huge political pressure currently being exercised to silence them.

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