Due West: The tabloid freedom of WikiLeaks

I sincerely congratulate the United States government over the WikiLeaks disclosure scandal. No irony is meant here.

I sincerely congratulate the United States government over the WikiLeaks disclosure scandal. No irony is meant here.

Several years ago it set up a computer network for officials from the Pentagon and other government bodies to facilitate information exchange and overcome departmental rivalries. If, after years of this intranet serving two or three million officials, the only information that leaked out is that published by Julian Assange and his followers, then the US government bureaucracy is one of the best motivated, team-spirited and conscientious in the world.

It is actually possible that the single source of the leak is a former US Army intelligence analyst in Iraq, Bradley Manning, who is in detention now. If so, the US achievement looks even more awesome. With such a system there should have been dozens, if not hundreds of leaks – and much earlier than now.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the release of State Department cables the “September 11th for world diplomacy”. Even if in symbolic terms it may be true, in reality, it will probably not change much, apart from making governments the world over more attuned to the risks of the digital age and more inventive in shielding their secrets from the public eye.

As someone with nearly twenty years of journalistic career clocked up on my dashboard, I have to admit that I consider what WikiLeaks does akin to journalism – but journalism of the lowest sort. It isn’t opinion writing (that’s what actually most of the bloggers do). It is not news reporting. And it is not investigation. And this is the most troublesome thing. Facts are delivered to the public in bulk, without proper checking, source corroboration, any attempt to dig deeper and find out more, any attempt to get the other side’s comment – all of the above being the hallmark of proper investigative journalism.

In this respect Wikileaks resembles the tabloids that will rush into print any sensational stuff – like the famous “news” about Gorbachev’s forehead birthmark gradually disappearing or photos of Princess Diana exercising in her gym. The fact that Assange and Co splash out US Army documents and not salacious gossip is irrelevant, because the attitude is essentially the same.

Moreover, even “Reporteurs sans Frontiers”, the organization that was supposed to support WikiLeaks, condemned it for putting people’s lives in danger by de facto revealing names of NATO’s Afghan informers to the Taliban in its earlier publication of Afghan War documents.

The US State Department batch of documents will do potentially even more harm. Take for example the US Embassy cables from Baku, which describe activities of the Iranian intelligence money laundering and sanctions-busting network in Azerbaijan. There are informers’ descriptions that even without names added could easily be identified. Not to mention that mullahs in Tehran will now withdraw their assets and start rebuilding the network, thus making things more complicated. Are we all better off after these revelations?

Assange himself admitted in the New York Times that he is partially motivated by dislike of America, which, in his view, is an increasingly militarized society and a threat to democracy. Hence Assange’s choice of partners, who include such prominent left-leaning publications as Britain’s “The Guardian” and Germany’s “Der Spiegel”.

Assange thinks of himself a some kind of Internet-age messiah, but in fact his worldview is not much different of your average salon leftie from Harvard or Islington, ever ready to believe any smear about the United States and to apologize for any tyrant, as long as the latter claims to be a socialist and dislikes the US.

If anything, the whole WikiLeaks saga has proved how infantile such an attitude is. The “bien pensants” of the Western left think that their governments are wicked – despite leading prosperous and protected lives under those same governments.

All the euphoria about the “brave new world” of Internet transparency in which governments are becoming accountable is completely misplaced. In our age it is democracies, with their free flow of information even on government intranets, that will be in permanent danger of being put in the dock by the likes of Assange and the global Left. Somehow, I do not expect many cables from the Burmese Foreign Ministry (or Myanmar if you like it) or minutes from North Korea’s Politburo meetings to be revealed any time soon by WikiLeaks.

Because in such regimes punishment for leaking even the menu from the government canteen is death. So dictatorships are at advantage here – they are quite good at protecting their secrets, because they have no compunction to kill.

In a sense, the WikiLeaks story and the Internet storm it has provided (look at the gloating at Washington’s humiliation in hundreds of thousands of chat rooms) has proved: millions of people in the world hate America not because it has invaded Iraq, or supports Israel, or had George W. Bush for president. Now Barack Obama is in the White House, but no amount of his apologies for the alleged wrongdoing by the Republicans diminishes the degree of dislike felt for his country. It is disliked because it stands for something and has the strength to stand up for what it stands for.

I do not know what the Americans should do with this knowledge. But this is a point that the US administration would be better off making as soon as possible.

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What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.


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