Towards Better Democracy

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Fuzzy Thinking and Wikileaks

In considering the question in the car on the way home from the office the other day; what do I bring to writing? it struck me – an analytical mind. Why is this valuable? Because so much that I read, even from highly educated, even gifted, writers contains fuzzy thinking.

Now fuzzy logic is legitimate as a science.  But fuzzy thinking is helpful to no reader.  What fuzzy thinking indicates is that the writer has not thought clearly what he or she is trying to say; is being lazy in not taking the trouble to examine the topic, concept or idea thoroughly to the extent that the topic and the reader deserve. Fuzzy thinking can also, more egregiously, indicate a willingness to swallow some given material whole. I don’t wish to single out an individual example of such writing.  Let’s instead look at example topics. There are so many of them in the current public discourse: Wikileaks, War in Iraq/Afghanistan,  the war on terror.

In taking any of one these examples, or any other, the objective is not to argue what is right and what is wrong but to sort through the topic in a more objective way.  Emotions notoriously blur our thinking.  Highly emotional states lead to the suspension of rational thought. Which is not to say that emotions do not have their place. Absolutely they do.

However, an emotional appeal on the part of a speaker or writer should be placed to one side as one considers the merits and demerits of whatever it is that the speaker or writer is trying to persuade us of. Usually, such emotional appeals are connected with a call to act. For any of us to act without clear knowledge of why we are acting is to act dangerously. Quite apart from other considerations, if we are to act on emotional appeals without due consideration for our responsibilities connected to the act, our act will certainly result in unintended consequences. And, on occasion, the consequences can be harsh indeed.

Wikileaks. It seems to me that the what of Wikileaks constantly gets conflated with the how.  No real discussion on the value or otherwise of Wikileaks can take place without the separation and examination of the two aspects. The what of Wikileaks will sort wheat from chaff.  If you believe in open government, and in oversight of government, then the what of Wikileaks will be central to the discussion.

If, on the other hand, you believe that government knows best, or in any dilution of this view, then discussion of the what of Wikileaks is rendered moot and any discussion of the how of Wikileaks made irrelevant.  If you disagree with the first. then you will certainly disagree with the second.

If, however, you agree with the first proposition, the what of Wikileaks, then question of the how of Wikileaks becomes vital. If you conflate the two, you seriously undermine the possibility of debating the issue at all.

Why is the what of Wikileaks important?  Because Wikileaks, as presently constituted, has never previously existed. Wikileaks is not like a volcano which suddenly pops up out of nowhere, during the night.  No need to debate the what and how of the volcano.  Just get out of its bloody way and be as quick as you can, while you can.

In other words, we need to take the time and trouble to consider what Wikileaks is. Only in this way will Wikileaks be properly and responsibly absorbed as a permanent feature into society.

I don’t know if we will get to the how of Wikileaks in the space of the present discussion. Whether we do or not, the what of Wikileaks is the place to start.

So what is Wikileaks. The Wikileaks site says, “Our goal is to bring important news and information to the public.”

This is a little disingenuous. This is their primary goal? Lots of outlets do this already but they are not like Wikileaks. Many news organizations, as presently constituted, published leaked information, frequently at governments behest. Is this what Wikileaks exists to do? Prior to the existence of Wikileaks, the most spectacular leak in recent times, to my mind, was the Valery Plame affair. How would Wikileaks have handled that? Of course, we don’t know. For the most part, other than reporting leaks from government insiders released for political advantage, the media, as presently constituted, is not much given to reporting leaks.

What the traditional media does do is to take a leak and subject to one of the most valuable activities that we in a democracy can hope to have: investigative journalism. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Pentagon Papers.

The New York Times and The Sunday Times in London have, over the years, conducted substantial investigative reportage. A very limited number of television programs have conducted similar exercises. Not all investigative reporting results from leaks, naturally. The Hitler Diaries, for example, did not.

Then again, for a variety of reasons, I am quite sure that not all substantial leaks received by such newspapers are investigated. And, furthermore, I am equally sure, that not all such investigative efforts get reported. The Sunday Times has suspended a number on the basis of cost, time and, probably most crucially, patience. Papers have deadlines. News quickly becomes history.

It is telling that the first thing that Wikileaks did with both the Afghan material and the War in Iraq data was to contact the New York Times, The Guardian in England and Der Spiegel in Germany. All three newspapers were given privileged access to the information. In other words, before Wikileaks publicly announced they had the material. The condition for access by the three newspapers was not to publish in advance of a date set by Wikileaks.

Astonishingly, this aspect of Wikileaks behaviour has been very little discussed, if at all. Each newspaper, naturally, prepared an article discussing why it agreed to partner with Wikileaks in the exposure, the Guardian’s being quite the best of these. Elsewhere the question does not appear to have been asked, with the notable exception of “Wikileaks: Three Digital Myths” by Christian Christensen, published by Le Monde Diplomatique, English Edition, August 9, 2010.

Before we look to what, if anything, Le Monde brings to the table by way of argument, let’s note the following.

Wikileaks without these newspapers is a fatally flawed data dump. You can offer free sand, but if people don’t have trucks with which to haul it away, you’ll be left with tons of unwanted sand on your hands.

I don’t know what the gigabyte size of the 92,000 files deposited with Wikileaks is. What I do know is that few people have the resources, willingness and sheer ingenuity which the Guardian exhibited in conducting an analysis of the first set of material (the Afghan files).

You begin to see why so many writers and commentators have conflated the topic. To get to the quick quickly. It is an exhaustive process. That is why debate on the topic is so important, No one person can bring all the candles to the table. I bring one candle with this article and Christian Christensen at Le Monde brings another.

It is notable that Wikileaks carefully chose its newsboys. The cache of gold standard journalism lends a credibility to the whole exercise that a digital outlet might not. Credibility is perhaps at the centre of the whole exercise as Christensen rightly observes (Three Digital Myths).

It is also notable that the three newspapers in question, and again, this is an essential ingredient in the mix, have a substantial, well established, online presence, each having its own particular strength.

Not central to the present discussion, but worth noticing in passing, is Christensen’s astonishment at Bill Keller (the head man at the NYT)’s role in mediating with the powers in Washington before publication. Newspapers, and media generally, are already a free (as in the government doesn’t pay, we taxpayers do) information arm of government to be freely used whenever the government chooses. The press never says no.

Consider just a few examples: the now established practice of embedding journalists in war (American led?) reporting, the government ordered news blackouts during anti-terrorist activities. the swallowing whole and reporting completely undigested of government press releases and press statements.

Bill Keller’s role is indeed unenviable in this affair. He has one eye on appeasing government and the other eye on advertisers, some of whom have a substantial political presence in Washington. Any one of them can threaten to pull the financial rug of advertising from under the NYT‘s feet. Such power can be savoured by those who have it. And the NYT differs in kind from Wikileaks. The NYT has, in effect, a host government. No wonder Bill Keller shoots off to Washington. His company is both registered as a commercial entity within the US and bound by US laws. The NYT is a good American Citizen like any other.

But what is Wikileaks? Good question. For now, I don’t think we know. We have established that Wikileaks does not “bring important news and information to the public.” Others, appointed by Wikileaks, are doing that. More accurately, Wikileaks brings the story to the newspapers and they decide whether, and in what form, to publish. Just like any reader’s letter.

So, if Wikileaks does not “bring important news and information to the public,” what does it do? Well, it says, “We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box).” Oh yes, it does this and how! It does this in spades.

Julian Assange, as the editor of Wikileaks, may not be the most effective leader, but as the master mind for “innovative, secure and anonymous” depositing of anonymous material he is without peer. Can the organization run without him? Different question, can the organization survive without him? Difficult to know. He always has to stay at least one step ahead of those who would seek to shut Wikileaks down.

And the future for Wikileaks? Pirate music on the web has been destroyed by a determined music industry association. Pirate video has been met by strong laws (in the US) and careful encryption of source material. Pirate software … I would say the jury is still out on that one. In this, the example of the music industry’s behaviour is salutary. Successfully prosecute a few 18 year old students and 84 year old grandmothers, and scare the pants off millions.

And here’s how the US will do it. Casablanca style, round up a few suspects, subject them to interminable courts cases using obscure and little known laws and scare potential leakers into silence. Consider the laws used in the successful breakup of the Mob. Arcane to say the least. But effective. Took years, too. And here is the secret ingredient of success. Governments have staying power in the pursuit of their objectives. Tie your adversary up in court long enough and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

So the question of the what of Wikileaks can be couched in this way: If Wilikleaks is to be seen as an adversary of governments as powerful as the United States’, its future seems dim. If I were in Washington, with as many secrets as the US Government has to hide, some of them earth shattering were they to be leaked, I would not feel comfortable wondering when the next data bombshell will burst. Washington has been nonchalant over this particular burst (the Iraqi war files). It may not be over the next.

Is there a different role for Wikileaks. Well, that is a different what and a different debate. A question that can be asked is: Is the present role of Wikileaks valuable and, if so, to whom? That would have to be subject of another column.

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