WikiLeaks and the Disconnectivity of the Web

I am ambivalent about WikiLeaks.

While I go with the undisputed righteousness and emotional pull of principles like freedom of speech, I feel I am being hoodwinked and dragged into a fight that is not my own.

During the '80s I ran a think tank called Conflict and Peace Forums, which promoted amongst other things, the work of the 'Father of Peace Studies', Johan Galtung. One of his initiatives that we helped to develop and pioneer in the British Press was the notion of Peace Journalism. No, this was not a new form of aggression-free writing, but a clear sighted analysis of the news media. What Galtung could demonstrate was that, despite its commitment to neutrality and "just reporting the facts," media outlets always frame the news according to their own sometimes explicit, often hidden, agendas.

Properly examined, much of our media is deeply encultured in and economically underpinned by a war agenda: when conflict arises, we immediately jump to the likelihood of violence. Peace Journalism was, and is, an attempt to develop a style of reporting that allows the possibilities for peaceful transformation of conflict to be the norm.

Galtung's assertion - which continues to be explored and upheld by journalism faculties across the world- was that it is simply not possible to be agenda free: whether as a private individual or a public institution. And certainly as a media outlet, writers and editors see and then report the facts through lenses that they and their readers and advertisers are comfortable with. That can only be ameliorated by the public's growing awareness of their own reading choices -- something the internet has encouraged.

Julian Assange's proclaimed agenda is freedom of speech and information -- but that sounds much like our 'neutral reporters' commitment to 'reporting the facts', claiming an a priori disinterest. Our questions should be what speech, freed to whom and with what intended outcome?

At this point it is important to look at the difference between secrecy and privacy. The cables Assange collected were not secret, which is why they were so easy to collect on the Lady Gaga CD. Secrecy is acknowledged by both government and the public as dangerous, threatening accountability. The revised Freedom of Information Act marks the constantly shifting boundary between ourselves and our elected leaders. Those that have chosen to invoke JFK's speech on secrecy should note that his targets are secret societies and fascist regimes rather than the US diplomatic service which he held in high esteem.

Instead, these cables were largely privately held conversations between both state and private actors. Most of these short exchanges were part of much larger conversations that had been held over months, even years, and constituted slowly forged relationships between unnatural partners. That is the work of diplomacy -- to create means of communication with sometimes hostile representatives of unfriendly nations. Everyone in the communication will be imperfect in a number of ways, all will have agendas. But the aim is to communicate, create a relationship with the other and, through that, hope to gain influence.

Having received what we are told was indiscriminately gathered information, Assange selects some to hand over to selected newspapers -- notably not all of them -- who then make their selection to publish on their front pages. By the time they reach us they have travelled through a number of filters and been presented as secret, controversial and damning. How free are we to receive this information and absorb its true meaning without judgment?

By releasing these cables without their proper context, without being able to identify the goal of the relationship nor the history of previous exchanges, WikiLeaks is much like eavesdropping and not unlike tapping phones. What is the difference between what Assange is doing and what Richard Nixon got fired for? Why, in the UK, does the very same paper -- The Guardian -- hound the Conservative communications director Andy Coulson, for allegedly permitting phone-tapping while he was an editor of a rival paper, yet lionise Assange for lifting private information in an equally shifty manner? What is under attack is not so much secrecy as privacy: are we sure we are ready to campaign against privacy? I'm not.

So what is Assange's agenda? I'm not going to guess. It would be easy to attack him on the grounds of narcissism -going into hiding and not making himself generally accessible to questioning from the outset, could be seen as expert management of his cachet. It's his face, not a nice picture of the globe, that dominates his site.

More perhaps might be made of his general anarchism, for who other than those with power - many elected by a democratic process -- are the target for his attacks? I have my anarchistic tendencies, but it's not my agenda.

In the meantime, there is a broader issue at stake here, to do with the nature of connectivity and what the net can and cannot deliver. First of all, has WikiLeaks really made the world a different, more transparent entity? There are many that would argue that the internet has made that possible without his special intervention. The shift from opaqueness to transparency that he is constantly given the credit for, has surely been one of the most acclaimed - and most feared - qualities of our new connectedness from the outset. From easily hacked mailing lists to excruciating antics unintentionally finding their way from Facebook to our CVs, we have known for some time that it is increasingly difficult to hide where Google lurks.

Has WikiLeaks exposed the true nature of government policy, for example in Iraq? Yes it has drawn attention to some of the unforgivable mistakes, the conflict between the armed forces and government and the suffering of soldiers: but so much of that was already common knowledge. Since Michael Herr's Dispatches (1991) changed the role of journalism in war, we have seen a steady stream of soldiers' blogs and general's doubts expressed in books and speeches. Even right wing papers are as likely to report the increase in cases of PTSD then instances of heroism.The glamour of war is fading, if slowly.

What is still missing however is real insights into the paradoxes and compromises political leaders have to face when they get into power. Traps in the system that make it so unlikely they will be able to deliver on their promises -the kind of information that would help voters to listen more carefully during campaigns and think harder when they vote. WikiLeaks, by whipping up whole-sale distrust of politicians, is not helping us forge new relationships based on better understanding and more citizen engagement, it is deepening the crisis without offering a way forward. And, adding insult to injury, front page gossip on the 'true' feelings of one official or country about another, has lead to less security, not more.

Assange's leaking of bits of information about a person without any context, is surely disinformation -- an illusion of knowledge where there is not enough to make a call? While we are all aware of the social potential generated by the internet, WikiLeaks illustrates well its anti-social potential: sound bites, poorly embedded, leading to complacency. A claim of relationship where there is only a link, a friend where there is only a face, a movement where there is only a website. Yes, I Ning, Tweet and Avaaz with the best of them, but that's no substitute for life and society. And disconnected, leaked cables are no substitute for patient, properly engaged and compassionate democracy.