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Two Australians

For some reason, maybe geography, an event took place yesterday that appears to have escaped the US media’s attention.

Julian Assange wrote in the Op-Ed page of the Australian, Don’t shoot the messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths, December 08, 2010 12:00 am.

He opens his Opinion piece by quoting, “In 1958 a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide’s The News, wrote: ‘In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.’ ”

Rupert Murdoch, born in Melbourne, Australia, of a regional, media-empire owning father, has spent his life building one of the world’s largest media empires, reaching into most corners of the globe. He is best known in the US for his expansion of the Fox TV Network and the creation of Fox News Channel.

Murdoch established The Australian in 1964 as Australia’s first national newspaper. His political support has gone to the Australian Labor Party, the Labour Party in Britain, the British Conservatives and back, more recently, to the Labour Party. He became a US citizen in 1985.

Julian Assange’s background is rather different. Although now aspiring to be a journalist and editor, in his native Australia he was primarily a computer software writer and sometime hacker. He spent is childhood years caught in the middle of a parental custody battle, being moved from place to place, with frequent changes of schools.

Rupert Murdoch’s behaviour as a newspaper owner does not suggest overtly Labour sympathies.

Right Web, the online presence for the Institute for Policy Studies, which describes its mission as tracking “militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy,” ran a profile of Rupert Murdoch, dated July 15, 2009,  in which Murdoch is described as being:

“Considered a close ally of neoconservative activists, Murdoch has helped bankroll neoconservatism’s more important media outlets, including the William Kristol-edited Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and Fox News. A sign of Murdoch’s commitment to this rightwing faction’s causes was his willingness to support the Standard in spite of yearly losses in the millions; the magazine is widely credited as a pivotal force in building support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”

The profile goes on to observe,

“Murdoch is frequently criticized for using his media empire to advance his political agenda. During the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, the editors of Murdoch’s media holdings vociferously supported President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s pro-war campaign. One British newspaper opined: ‘You have got to admit that Rupert Murdoch is one canny press tycoon because he has an unerring ability to choose editors across the world who think just like him. How else can we explain the extraordinary unity of thought in his newspaper empire about the need to make war on Iraq? After an exhaustive survey of the highest-selling and most influential papers across the world owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation, it is clear that all are singing from the same hymn sheet. Some are bellicose baritone soloists who relish the fight. Some prefer a less strident, if more subtle, role in the chorus. But none, whether fortissimo or pianissimo, has dared to croon the antiwar tune. Their master’s voice has never been questioned.’ ( “Their Master’s Voice,” Guardian, February 17, 2003) ”

Julian Assange’s political position is best viewed through the lens of the two papers he wrote in 2006, around the time of the founding of Wikileaks. These are: “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” (10 November 2006) and “Conspiracy as Governance” (3 December 2006).

However you care to characterize Julian Assange’s political position, it surely can be said that his differs from that of Rupert Murdoch’s.

It surely is the height of irony that we have two Australians brought together, as it were, in the same newspaper, forty years apart in age, each a scion of the world in which they play such a large role.

Rupert Murdoch has spent a lifetime creating his vast media empire. In four short years, Julian Assange has led an obscure whistle-blowing website to being the most power journalistic enterprise the world has known, though it could disappear almost without trace tomorrow.

It seems most unlikely, given how Rupert Murdoch’s guiding hand has never been far from his editors’ pens, that Murdoch did not personally approve the appearance of Julian Assange’s writings in The Australian‘s pages. One somehow senses the older man’s glee at the tumult being caused by the actions of the younger man, though there is no foundation whatsoever for saying such a thing.

The Australian political establishment, prior to the appearance of Julian Assange’s Op-Ed piece, has behaved deplorably towards one of its own citizens,  in particular its present Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. At least one politician has broken ranks: see Andrew Wilkie, a former whistleblower of all things,  Wilkie lashes PM over WikiLeaks, December 09, 2010 1:25 pm, his conscience awoken perhaps by Julian Assange’s plea.

Filed under: Culture, , ,

Who Had Prior Access to Wikileaks’ Iraqi War Data?

As I sat down this evening to write the second half of the What and How of the Wikileaks column, I thinking about what I would say and I realized that the story has already gone stale. Two weeks later. Wikileaks is off the front pages of newspapers and dropped from the tongues of commentators.  The most immediate media releases on the Iraqi war data tranche of Wikileaks were on October 22, 2010.

So the column is about something else. The column is about the news behind the news. Armchair journalism, to be sure. But not a rehashing of what said about what was said. Rather what was missed. And what wasn’t said. And we will see, with a little digging and probing, what this will reveal.

In our time I think there is a great deal of concern on the part of thinking people at the veracity of what is reported but also the depth of reportage (or lack thereof). The competition to get news to the front page, to the headlines, to the “this just breaking”  of television, means that speed operates frequently without any thought whatsoever, prior to or during coverage.

For completeness sake, to round off the previous column, we can quickly answer the question still hanging from it: the how of Wikileaks. The questions associated with the how are: How does Wikileaks conduct its business? How ethical is it? How effective is it? Does it live up to the standards it sets itself?

Wikileaks, simply arising from the nature of its mission, should have squeaky clean ethics. Wikileaks fails on two counts. It willfully endangered lives with the lack of redaction of names in the Afghan data. The organization is tearing itself apart as a result. Secondly, the head of such a body should behave with the decorum befitting such a body. Julian Assange’s behaviour, both is words and deeds, leaves something to be desired. He departure from Sweden and his descriptions of those who once worked with him do nothing to add to the stature of Wikileaks. One wonders, in fact, if Wikileaks is not already mortally wounded from internal strife.

A page from reasonably discusses the how of Wikileaks. Bill Thompson in his Digital Planet column at the BBC voiced his concern back in March 2007 before Wikileaks was launched. He also explains what Crytome is and mentions the man behind it.

Now, the story behind the story. First we have to find out if there is one.

In attempting to find the about of Wikileaks, an interesting thing emerges. The original About page of Wikileaks is only available on a web archive.

The present About page of Wikileaks is quite different. A comparison is instructive.

Let’s ask a question. How many people know who Wikileaks handed over the keys of the data to, in advance of going public with the news of Iraqi war data?

I thought I knew: The New York Times, The Guardian newspaper in England, Der Spiegel in Germany and Le Monde in France. You get a prize for being able to include the fourth name. Most newspapers, while mentioning the first three, seldom mentioned Le Monde. Part of the reason lies with the fact that Le Monde was quite at a loss to know what to do with the information. So it did very little. Le Monde felt that the French public would not be very interested and maybe Le Monde was right.

There is still one news media source missing from the list: Al Jazeera. None of the news sources I follow mentioned Al Jazeera. However the Los Angeles Times did: “In addition to the Times, the documents were made available to the Guardian newspaper in London, the French newspaper Le Monde, Al Jazeera and the German magazine Der Spiegel, on an embargoed basis.” This, as we will discover, is not a complete list.

The NYT uses the phrase “a number of newspapers” in most  its articles on the Iraqi war data. The New York Times expands on this only once: A Note From the Editors, (October 22, 2010) ” The New York Times, the British newspaper The Guardian, the German magazine Der Spiegel and the French newspaper Le Monde were given access to the material in June, on the condition that the contents not be made public until now.” No mention of Al Jazeera. Why not?

Al Jazeera themselves stated they had access to the material.

The Pentagon also knew in advance of the public release. How did they know? Wikileaks is itself a very news leaky organization. Best way to get people’s attention. Warn them in advance, though not too far in advance.

The discussion of the media coverage is sloppy. I have found it almost impossible to come across thoughtful discussion. Here is a Columbia Review of Journalism article, A Primer on Early Wikileaks Coverage.

Maybe it’s too soon. To be fair, the CRJ review is datelined October 22, 2010. At this speed of coverage, not even the US Midterm Elections get covered this quickly. “Wikileaks shared the documents with a number of news organizations before they were widely released. Here’s a basic rundown of those outlets’ initial coverage. (The French newspaper Le Monde was also given access to the documents. Unfortunately, nobody here reads French.)

Once again we encounter “a number of news organizations.” Begins to sound like a release from AP. Then the French are completely dismissed: “Le Monde was also given access to the documents.”

Apparently, Le Monde are not a “news organization”. News to the French, and indeed Sarkozy. Perhaps “news organizations” is code for English language news organizations. Moreover, the stunning complacency that is revealed by the wording “Unfortunately, nobody here reads French,” decodes to mean “anything said in the French-speaking world is not important.”

Unintended, mordant humour is at play here as well. We can be charitable and take that the writers, “CRJ Staff,” intend to mean, “nobody here .. in the United States .. reads French,” which is ludicrous.  What I think is actually meant, “unfortunately,” is that nobody on the staff of the Columbia Review of Journalism reads French, which, if true, is horrific! How do they review what comes out of Quebec? Maybe they don’t.

In any case the article in the CRJ then groups its comments under the following headings:

New York Times

Widely criticized for their US government friendly reporting of the Iraqi war data.

The Guardian

Apparently “a news organization.”

Al Jazeera English

Hello, where did they pop up from. Beat the French though.

Der Spiegel

Must also be a “news organization” to be given CRJ’s imprimatur, but no need to be able to read German. The Germans sensibly publish the stuff in English on Der Spiegel’s website, which, actually Le Monde did as well. CRJ didn’t bother to look.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Wait one sensible minute. I thought the CRJ and NYT in chorus said “news organization”? What is this. Who are they. I think we have our story.

CRJ says The Bureau of Investigative Journalism “a U.K.-based nonprofit, had three months to analyze the Iraq war logs.” And what is this? Justin Peters, presumably one of the non-French readers of the CRJ staff, in discussing The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s website coverage says that there is “at least one article that is translated in Arabic.”

What strange arithmetic journalists have: “several news organizations”, “at least one article”. Foxing the newspaper’s fact checker, no doubt.

Chanel 4, UK

Channel 4? “Yeah, BBC wouldn’t touch the stuff”, said a mythical Wikileaks non-spokesperson. There is not immediate indication from the BBC website coverage whether they were given prior access, or, if they were, whether they analyzed it.

So, here we have Wikileaks shopping around the world for “news organizations” to act as the mouth piece for their dubious trove of data. I say “dubious” because what value does the data have without analysis. But if you hand over the keys for others to analyze, you give up editorial control. And the data can be analyzed according to  the editorial policy of the newspaper concerned. NYT  – lush, smooth coverage, Guardian – strident headlines, followed underneath by muted, tentative journalism, Der Spiegel – milking the data to find every possible German angle, Le Monde – treating it as if it were bomb in their lap about to go off, Al Jazeera English – desperately trying to be fair to everyone, including the Arabs, and especially the Iraqis. I am not familiar with either Channel 4 coverage. Their prime coverage was in a television programme which I, living in the US, naturally don’t have access to.

But who else did Wikileaks hand the data keys to? Only trusted organizations, presumably.

In a truly up-to-date fashion, Wikileaks announced by Twitter (2.26pm October 22, 2010): “See TBIJ, IBC, Guardian, Spiegel, NYT, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, Chan4, SVT, CNN, BBC and more in the next few hours. We maximize impact.”

Now we have to decode the alphabet soup of “the several news organizations.” We can dismiss “and more” as advertising spiel. There are eleven named. Eight are readily identifiable. The others take a bit of work. TBIJ – The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, SVT – Swedish Television. And IBC, hmm, IBC …got me stumped. (Iraq Body Count)

If there is a story here, I have not uncovered it yet. But, then again, maybe there isn’t one.

The loss of editorial control is very serious. The media given prior access had three months to sift through the data. Each media outlet chose to focus on a small section, rightly. But what sits on a sever somewhere, or several severs, is a very substantial amount of information. Why is that Wikileaks cannot team up with an organization such as the Pew Charitable Trust? (I give them only as an example) An organization which can properly analyze and report on the data.

But what I have found is that there were more than “the several news organizations” reported by our mainstream media. A seriously deficient form of shorthand was used. Did this slant the story?

Filed under: Culture, , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: Culture, , , , , , ,

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