Opinion: for the want of a nail

Joining the traditional Nativity story of revelation followed by deliverance, this festive season we have been able to enjoy even more revealed truths about our world courtesy of Wikileaks, the Daily Telegraph and more or less any senior Army officer near a microphone.

Although there are moral and technical differences between these sources of information, they have each attempted to lift the veil to reveal the ‘truth’ behind the public face of diplomacy, coalition governance and military strategy. But have we liberals been consistent in our responses to these revelations?

With the diplomatic cables released through Wikileaks, there’s been a strong temptation to indulge it as ‘plucky campaigner for transparency and accountability’ or ‘21st century Internet democracy’ against the ‘superpower with hidden agendas to protect’. But what have we gained from the revelations? Predominately, it seems, we’ve learned some stuff we sort of knew already and that diplomats are doing precisely what we expect them to be doing, but would not want to have to do ourselves nor have to directly acknowledge is going on in our name.

A lot of it is perhaps ethically grey, but probably necessary. We must ask ourselves if in government we would not want the same information to support our international strategies, even if we had to deny it in public – some level of secrecy and discretion is needed in diplomacy or we will be outmanoeuvred and fail – and we will lose the trust of our allies.

When we hear army officers on Today criticising the government’s strategy in Afghanistan, are we appalled by their indiscretion will harm our military efforts on the ground, or pleased that the army is reinforcing our views about a conflict we’ve always been a bit uncertain about and which is lacking a strategy? Possibly both, and there’s no doubt that it could be damaging to our relationships with our allies and could expose our soldiers to danger, but more importantly, it undermines the trust between the government and the military leaders and makes find a political solution to the conflict harder. We may not have a good (or any) political strategy for the Afghan conflict – and in politics we should be able to criticise and challenge this – but revealing the splits between the military and the politicians won’t help.

The Daily Telegraph’s scoops about Lib Dem ministers’ views on our coalition partners contain few surprises, and the journalistic tactics have been widely condemned by us and others. We’ve criticised the newspaper for undermining the atmosphere of candour in an MP’s relations with their constituents. We’ve complained that nothing worthwhile has been revealed (aside from Vince’s faux pas), that differences between two parties in coalition are not new or unexpected and that we should be expected to fight our corner in government. Disagreements in Cabinet are quite usual and as long as collective responsibility is maintained and a unified public face presented, it’s perfectly acceptable. The public unity is necessary for effective governance, for public confidence and to wield influence.

So, are we being consistent? Wikileak’s revelations are a triumph for democracy, but the Daily Telegraph’s exclusives are travesty of journalism; Army officers criticising strategy on public radio are whistleblowers, but are also undermining the chances of resolving the conflict; publishing diplomatic cables strains international relations, but we can’t stand the thought of the façade of agreement inherent in coalition government?

One of the major political themes of our party is accountability of the government by the governed and transparency of public decision making. But to govern effectively, we will need to – usually on a temporary basis – restrict access to some information. What this pool of restricted information should include, and what accountability measures should be in place, is a matter for debate.

We cannot deny, however, the need for some secrecy by governments – our reaction to the Daily Telegraph’s revelations show this, but we should be consistent when it comes to other secret revelations: the leak of diplomatic cables will be damaging to international relations and serving army officers criticising strategy in public will make finding a political settlement in Afghanistan more difficult. We should be prepared to say so; a party of government must be able to govern.

Alex Feakes is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Forest Hill, southeast London and was the candidate in Lewisham West & Penge in the 2010 general election. He blogs here.

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  • @Alex Feakes

    This reminds me of the film “Casualties of War.” Sgt Meserve (Sean Penn) leads a patrol that kidnaps, rapes and murders a Vietnamese girl and then conspires to cover up the dirty deeds. Private Erikson (Michael J Fox) finds himself in a dilemma and eventually reports the atrocity to his superiors. It’s met with indifference; disinterest. They try to minimise it: Sh*t happens. No big deal. etc.

    The events on which the film was based took place in 1966. There was a Private Erikson. The film wasn’t made until 1989.

    Private Bradley Manning (half American, half British – he used to live in Wales) joined US Army four years ago aged 18. When he was sent to Iraq he was ordered to round up and hand over Iraqi civilians to the new Iraqi forces, who were torturing them with, amongst other things, electric drills. He reported his concerns to his military superiors. He was told to shut up and get back on duty.

    Alex Feakes, who are you with on this? Are you with those who try to minimise these incidents? As you’ve gone to the trouble of writing an article, perhaps you’re with those who actively try to conceal and allow them to continue?

  • Peter Welch 25th Dec '10 - 5:32pm

    Good article, Alex.
    Part of the issue for me is that the dt stories are essentially tittle-tattle. Only one element possibly met a public interest test. So an invasion of privacy for nothing. Wikileaks has much more significance buy is also indiscriminate.

  • George Kendall 25th Dec '10 - 10:57pm

    @Alex Feakes
    Well said.
    Obviously, a few of the revelations of wikileaks are entirely justified, because they are whistle-blowing unethical behaviour. But where they are not, your comments are entirely justified.

  • Don't need to know 26th Dec '10 - 5:07am


    It could only be considered ”whistleblowing” if it wasn’t released as a massive dump of data. There is no way that Manning and his probable associates could be described as releasing information because of the individual content. The sheer volume of material that was released cannot possibly have been reviewed by those who exfiltrated it.

    Whistleblowing laws look at motivation, and depend on the whistleblower having made a considered judgement of the information and the effect of releasing it.

    The leaks have exposed some issues where citizens of the US, and others, have reason to be concerned about the behaviour of their representatives, both elected and appointed. That’s more by luck than judgement.

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