For a paper that so fearlessly fought the previous Government over its Iraq war decisions, I am surprised by the Independent‘s coverage and comment over Wikileaks. It seems to present no more than rather superficial discussion of the deep issues at stake, equivocal over freedom of information and blasé about the philosphy behind Julian Assange’s actions.
On Saturday, Christina Patterson finished her column on Assange with this paragraph:
I thought that power without accountability was dangerous, and that politicians are accountable to the people who elect them, and people who run websites aren’t. I thought that people who are themselves very secretive probably shouldn’t tell people who need to keep some things secret that they can’t. And I wondered if the man with the website realised that what some people called “freedom of information” was quite likely to make people more paranoid. It was quite likely, in other words, to make people less free.
This is a terrible Apples vs Oranges comparison, which I suspect was included to round off a wry column with something profound. While it is true that The Media has some power, it is a different sort of power to that wielded by Governments with armies and a secretive security apparatus at their disposal. The ‘accountability’ we require of each is therefore very different… but in any case, the founder of Wikileaks has answered questions put to him, both online and in person.
Second, the leaked documents are state documents, taken from state archives. That’s not the same as revealing private documents, about yourself or anyone else. Everyone understands that these days.
Finally, the assertion that “Freedom of Information” makes people more paranoid seems without basis, as is the idea that paranoia necessarily makes people less free. In both cases, I think the word ‘paranoid’ is inaccurate and misplaced. Instead, I would say that Wikileaks has made people less trustful, more suspicious and more enquiring about their government’s actions and motivations. This is healthy and liberating, and I am surprised that an Independent columnist does not recognise this instinctively.
In the same paper, Howard Jacobson falls for a similar conceptual trap to Patterson. In a column entitled ‘It’s much better you don’t know my secrets‘ he also sets about equating the release of restricted government communications with private details about individual citizens, which is an illiterate understanding of what Wikileaks seeks to achieve. Jacobson goes on to write:
If there is a difference between Wikileaks and a hostile intelligence agency I am unable to see it.
This is preposterous. The difference is that Wikileaks hews closely to the idea that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, sharing everything with everyone. That is 180 degrees different from an intelligence agency, hostile or otherwise, which keeps what it learns to itself.
The way that Jacobson rounds off the column, staking the claim on some uncharted moral high ground, is similar in style to Christina Patterson:
But there is such a thing as an enemy. And there is such a thing as aiding and abetting him, and making him strong at our expense. Openness is a fine ideal, but it is criminal folly to embrace it unconditionally. Unconditionally revelling in the right to know is not a lot of use if others unconditionally employ that knowledge to destroy us.
Yet this is an argument which Julian Assange has already pre-empted and rendered void. Before the State Department cables were released, he asked them to suggest which ones should be redacted. They refused to answer this request. Meanwhile, no-one has presented evidence that previous leaks, on Iraq and Afghanistan, have “aided and abetted” the enemy or put people in danger.
Both these columns, which parrot Government talking-points, feel like great examples of what Jay Rosen calls the ‘Church of the Savvy’, that kind of superior and knowing journalism which eschews idealism and higher thinking about the big philosophical questions of our age. It is in stark contrast to the more principled stance we have seen elsewhere.
Having said that: Here is my own ‘savvy’ and sneering concluding paragraph. Why this attitude prevailing in the pages of the Independent, so recently the most principled and combative of the broadsheets? Why are the editors and columnists straying so tragically off-brand? Could it be because the paper was scooped to the leaked memos by the Guardian?