Wikileaks - in the Public Interest, Not Leaks for Leakings Sake
Last week, WikiLeaks began releasing documents from a trove of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables.
The results have been stories in news outlets around the world. Some are in the public interest, some just of interest to the public or what The Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins calls “high-grade gossip”.
Those that pass the public-interest test include revelations of tactical failures in the Afghan war that may have cost the lives of British soldiers and the Bush administration’s pressuring of Germany to not prosecute CIA officers who tortured a German national.
Among the tittle-tattle is the view of a US embassy staffer that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is “thin-skinned” with an “authoritarian personal style”.
News items still refer to WikiLeaks as a whistleblowing website but all references to whistleblowing – the act of informing on an individual’s or institution’s corrupt or illicit behaviour – seem to have been removed from the site.
Instead we learn that the organisation’s goal is simply “to bring important news and information to the public” through leaks.
We are told that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people” and that WikiLeaks brings “truth to the world without fear or favour”. In cringeworthy text accompanying the embassy cables, the US government is reminded of the lesson of George Washington, the country’s first president, who “could not tell a lie”.
Media and governments aren’t lying when they fail to fling into the public domain every document they write, any more than you and I are being dishonest when we fail to speak every thought aloud or decline to repeat the confidences of close friends to a football stadium of people.
There is a legitimate role for editorial judgment and a need to protect individual privacy in media and corporate dealings, not to mention sometimes a requirement for secrecy in military operations, intelligence gathering and diplomatic negotiations. The arbiter for disclosure is the public interest.\ It is vital that WikiLeaks not become about leaking for leaking’s sake. It must not abandon its fight against corruption in defence of the public interest to favour what the Federation of American Scientists calls “an assault on secrecy”.
Instead, WikiLeaks must ensure it continues to grab headlines with the same stories that have won it awards from Amnesty and made its name. These include images of the Baghdad air strike and documents about extra- judicial killings and disappearances in Kenya.
WikiLeaks is a game-changer, providing the raw data that can be used to shine light into the dark corners of corrupt corporate and civil institutions. It can be expected to change the way governments and businesses operate. In the future, openness may be the default and arguments made about why something should stay secret. This profound and important paradigm shift is largely down to WikiLeaks.
This is why I hope the organisation will move to protect is own legacy, and the public support required for its continuing influence, by sticking to the task of whistleblowing, not just divulging secrets because they’re interesting or because it can.
Tell us secrets but only those in the public interest, Sydney Sun-Herald
05 Dec 2010
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