Sunday 28 November 2010

Revelations will be digitalised

Wikileaks. Who knows? Who cares? Out in the big wide world, who knows of Wikileaks?

Tomorrow morning, I expect to wake up to a BBC who have caught up. I expect there to be feet of commentary on the disclosed cables sent from Washington commenting on hiring hitmen, detailing dealing with defectors and endorsing and condoning the acquisition of passwords and encryption keys of UN officials. I expect analysis and investigation.

Half of me suspects I wont get it. Or, I suppose, fears I wont get it. The fact that the Guardian have been brave enough to pick the whole story up, publish detailed and useful analysis and make all of the cables available has staggered me - yes, they're a national newspaper, and yes, they've still got more credibility and clout than Wikileaks do, but still. Brave steps by the editor.

The sad fact is though, that reported or not, most of the BBC audience simply wont understand the enormity of the cables leaks. They wont understand that the Andy Coulson affair where newspaper reporters hacked voicemails to listen in on telephone conversations was nothing but a flake in a snowstorm. They wont be able to comprehend the jaw dropping audacity of a country encouraging diplomats to acquire intelligence that one assumes would have been used for eavesdropping and hacking UN officials. That's before we've got to the issues regarding embarrassing comments on 'teflon' German officials.

This isn't a revolution. But it is an entirely digital revelation. The enormity of this knowledge escaping into the big wide world will be lost, I think in the noise of the discussion about whether Wikileaks should be allowed to keep running. I think it will be lost in the hunt and the chase. I think distraction will be employed to bury the story by whatever means necessary.

But eventually, the elephant in the room for all governments is going to need to be acknowledged. The horse has bolted. Barn door not swinging any more, but tied on with bits of blue nylon string. Horse now galloping merrily down a beach through crashing waves. It's too late to stop Wikileaks. It's too late to wrest control back from people who don't like the way you do things. Democracy changed. The ways in which your electorate express displeasure with the way you use the power we accorded you, has changed. Scrutiny committees? Inquiries? They will still happen, but the true scrutiny, the real commentary, the ripping apart at the seems of the incessant need to dodge the difficult questions by people in positions of power, is no longer protected by the Official Secrets Act.

The simple fact is, I wont be reading about CIA and FBI indiscretions in 50 years time when Freedom of Information allows documents to emerge into the public domain. There is no buffer any more. No delay. No guarantee that the actions of the dinosaurs at the top will remain hidden until careers are ended and prayers are said for souls long ceded. No. Scrutiny is real time. Answers demanded in real time.

Revelations and revolutions. In real time.


  1. Hi Louise

    Like the post and I'm all for a bit of digital optimism. I agree that shining a light into the workings of those in power is necessary to prevent the abuse of the weak.

    But transparency is not a guarantee of protection, the powerful can use coercion and force even if we can see them doing it.

    It's also worth pointing out that the USA has had far-ranging freedom of information legislation for much, much longer than the UK and that those working for and with wikileaks rely heavily on the protection of the TOR network which was invented by US military intelligence.

    Transparency and secrecy have been in tension throughout human history. They still are.

  2. Hi Ben.
    As someone has just pointed out to me, there are two other considerations to take into account.
    1. If world relations deteriate as a result of these leaks, what then?
    2. Should the Guardian have published all cables, or been selective? Who are the Guardian to filter? Have Wikileaks put the Guardian in a difficult position by giving them all this data? Publish and be damned is all very well, but what if they knew they shouldn't have, but had to because otherwise their integrity would have been called into question as they made a decision which could be seen as being indefensible?

    It's a minefield. A real minefield, with real (nuclear) weapons in it.

  3. @Louise

    I instinctively come down on the side of secrecy being bad and worse the more powerful the secret keeper. If world relations deteriorate this will be as a result of what actually happened not the fact that they've been found out.

    I guess what I'm struggling to say is that I'm basically in favour of leaking embarrassing stuff and I definitely think that journalists should be guided by what is true not by what is expedient.

    I'm just not convinced that the world will be as rocked by the transparency and scrutiny afforded by the internet.