Hard News by Russell Brown

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Book review: 'Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy'

I have read Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, and I would recommend it. Not, of course, as the final word on a story that continues to sprawl -- it's a Guardian Books quickie, and much of its content will be familiar to those who have followed the saga in the Guardian itself.

But it does place events in context. Yes, it is the context perceived by The Guardian's journalists -- David Leigh, Luke Harding, Ed Pilkington, Robert Booth and Charles Arthur all get authors' credits -- but any context is useful in a sphere of fractured accounts, of claim and counter-claim.

I have emerged from the book with a renewed admiration for Julian Assange's talent and commitment and a better understanding of his politics. I've also had some of my misgivings confirmed.

Assange's supporters are fond of pointing out that Wikileaks is in the business of exposing public secrets, not violating individual privacy -- as if there was always a clear difference between the two. On the contrary, it sometimes seems Assange himself has trouble telling the difference.

An early hurdle in establishing Wikileaks' partnership with The Guardian was that Assange "had already positioned himself as an ideological enemy of Davies," the Guardian investigative reporter who brought him in, over Davies' own pursuit of the News of the World phone-hacking story.

The News of the World had conducted a despicable and corrupt campaign to illegally access the mobile phone messages of perhaps thousands of people in the news: not, in general, in the public interest, but in search of personal scoops. One victim rushed to hospital in response to a message that her young daughter had been injured -- only to find a paparazzo waiting for her.

A bizarre lack of interest in the matter on the part of the Metropolitan Police was thrown into perspective when it emerged that the officer in charge of the inquiry was subsequently hired as a columnist by the NOTW publisher, Rupert Murdoch's News International. As a result of The Guardian's investigations, the NOTW's former editor, Andy Coulson, was finally forced to resign last month as Prime Miniser David Cameron's communications chief. It was a prodigious calling to account.

And yet, the book says, Davies' work:

had previously been denounced by Assange as a contemptible attempt by "sanctimonious handwringing ... politicians and social elites" to claim a right to privacy. Assange had accused Davies of "a lack of journalistic solidarity" for criticising the News of the World – calling it merely "an opportunity to attack a journalistic and class rival".

I wasn't aware of this and in a way, it shocks me more than anything else in the book -- because it completely undermines Wikileaks' claim to virtue in favour of something unpleasant and, at best, naïve. (Assange's belief that the "social elites" had it coming is also ironic given his later embrace of the support of wealthy socialites.)

The fond belief that "information wants to be free" is sufficient in itself crops up again in the transcripts of the fateful conversations between the alleged source of most of the past two years' leaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning, and the man who turned him in, Adrian Lamo.

What he had, gushed Manning to Lamo, was "Climategate with a global scope, and breathtaking depth. It’s beautiful, and horrifying, and it’s important that it gets out."

Climategate, you say? Wikileaks did actually publish the trove of emails hacked out of the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, although it was neither the first or the most important publisher. The greater influence was wielded by a bunch of corporate-backed liars, who were able to present a swathe of data so as to serve their ends.

Successive inquiries have criticised the CRU's inability to respond to a tide of requests for information, but failed to find evidence of scientific fraud, or that the climate change consensus was undermined in any way. But they came too late for the Copenhagen climate change summit, which was critically wounded by the carefully-timed leak. It is not unreasonable to say that the victim in this case was the entire human race, and generations yet unborn. Such can be the reality of the "truth" being out there.

The book is hardly flawless -- the authors stray into uncomfortable territory where they dress up the narrative with spy-novel flourishes -- but it does do a good job of weighing the journalistic and ethical questions in this extraordinary affair.

The sheer weight of expertise marshalled by The Guardian in interrogating the databases that were the source of stories for the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries, then the vast quarter-million Cablegate trove, is impressive. The journalists' techno-shock on embarking on their task is amusing. The blossoming of global journalistic joint ventures is fascinating -- and, as the protagonists discovered, hard to pull off.

The book, of course, covers the events that have threatened Assange's freedom: the rape complaints by two women in Sweden. It's hard to tell if his alleged actions would have formed the basis for a rape complaint in another jurisdiction, or even if they will secure a conviction in Sweden. But on the evidence, Assange seems like a sexual creep.

On the evidence, there is also no indication that this was a "honeytrap" on the part of the CIA or anyone else. The way Assange's lawyers have consistently suggested otherwise is troubling -- the vigilante campaign again the complainants on the part of his many acolytes no less than sickening.

It is essential to separate Assange's personal issues from the important stories his initiative has allowed to be told. But I have little patience with those who claim his personality is irrelevant. Assange has been in a pivotal and powerful position. His caprice may have had consequences. This passage quoting Guardian journalist Declan Walsh warrants quoting here at length:

"I told David Leigh I was worried about the repercussions of publishing these names, who could easily be killed by the Taliban or other militant groups if identified. David agreed it was a concern and said he’d raised the issue with Julian, but he didn’t seem concerned. That night, we went out to a Moorish restaurant, Moro, with the two German reporters. David broached the problem again with Julian. The response floored me. ‘Well, they’re informants,’ he said. ‘So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.’ There was, for a moment, silence around the table. I think everyone was struck by what a callous thing that was to say. 

 

 

"I thought about the American bases I’d visited, the Afghan characters I’d met in little villages and towns, the complex local politics that coloured everything, and the dilemmas faced by individuals during a bloody war. There was no way I’d like to put them at risk on the basis of a document prepared by some wet-behind-the-ears American GI, who may or may not have correctly understood the information they were receiving. The other thing that little exchange suggested to me was just how naive – or arrogant – Julian was when it came to the media. Apart from any moral considerations, he didn’t seem to appreciate how the issue of naming informants was likely to rebound on the entire project."

It also morally undermines any objection to the despicable treatment of Manning in US custody, which seems aimed at breaking, and hence turning, him. If the Wikileaks founder can airily declare that informants "deserve to be killed", then his American opponents might well observe that Manning is getting off lightly with a little psychological torture.

The backdrop to the saga is, of course, a media divorce. Assange is now providing (and probably selling) stories to the paper of the establishment, The Daily Telegraph. Last week, via Twitter, he claimed that the Guardian book contained "malicious libels" and promised legal action against the authors. The irony of the free-speech apostle threatening to use Britain's odious defamation laws against his critics was not lost on David Leigh, who invited Assange to bring it on.

But the world has changed, not only because of the stories broken, but the new practices and techniques developed to tell those stories. Al Jazeera -- again in concert with The Guardian -- recently made a bravura job of its own leak in the Palestine Papers. It simply would not have happened as it did without Wkileaks.

For every questionable Wikileaks associate (the vile Russian fixer Israel Shamir) there is a partner like Nicky Hager, whose stewardship of the cables on behalf of New Zealand media has been responsible and informed by his own experience.

The same cannot be said of all the local papers: the Sunday Star Times appears to have chosen the non-story of public exchange schemes solely because it involves people who are on television.

The Wellington cables have also highlighted an important Cablegate caveat. The US ambassador for much of the period, Charles Swindells, was a chump appointed because he donated to the Bush campaign (sadly, Obama has continued this terrible practice, with terrible results). Swindell's self-aggrandising communications ought not be mistaken for factual accounts.

Other cable authors -- in more interesting countries than ours -- have emerged as noble and professional. The book makes particular note of US ambassador to Moscow William Burns' "Dagestan wedding" report: "Were it not for the fact that they were supposed to be secret, his musings might have earned him a Pulitzer prize."

After I finished the book last night, I mused on a thought experiment: if a great state was behaving entirely virtuously, and in accordance with its public positions, would its foreign service officials still sometimes need to speak in confidence, if only to help and protect human rights and democratic activists suffering under less enlightened regimes? I suspect they would. Wikileaks itself could not operate without its thoroughgoing internal secrecy. Investigative journalists could not work if they could not keep their sources secret. Clearly, not every secret is a scandal.

Others will disagree. But for the time being, it probably doesn't matter so much: there is plenty of malfeasance to go around. And many more leaks to be turned into stories.

----

We'll be discussing Wikileaks, the book, Al Jazeera, Egypt, Rupert Murdoch and one or two other things on Media7 this week.

My guests will be Toby Manhire, the former editor of The Guardian comment pages, who edited the Wikileaks book at a house around the corner from me in the heat of last month (just to be clear, he's neither an author or a protagonist, but for our purposes an informed commentator); and Trish Carter, the founder of Al Jazeera English's Asia bureau.

If you'd like to join us for Wednesday evening's recording, we'll need you come to the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ from about 5pm. Try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming.

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