Opinion: Interesting proposal, Mr Assange, but when will you let us vote on it?

Wikileaks has a theory, that “if acting in a just manner is easier than acting in an unjust manner, most actions will be just.”

Their argument has been strengthened by what has been hailed the “first Wikileaks revolution” in Tunisia. For those who want the corrupt autocracies in the middle East replaced with democracies, this may be seen as a ringing endorsement of Wikileaks.

But is it as simple as that?

Wikileaks talks about the “unintended consequences of failing to publish”, but, of course, there can also be unintended consequences to publishing.

When diplomats of a democratic country send frank briefings to their superiors, they are frank, because they believe what they are writing will not be released to the public. When these diplomats are told things in confidence, who has the right to decide whether that confidence should be broken?

I think the answer is simple. Let the people decide.

It’s for the electorate to vote in representatives to consider all the unintended consequences both of making these briefings public and keeping them confidential. And then let them introduce freedom of information legislation which puts that balance into law.

There is an exception to this. If a democratic government is involved in breaking laws, then whistleblowers are an important means of holding that government to account. This is as long as they are releasing evidence, rather than leaking a diplomat’s personal opinion.

Wikileaks takes a different view. As well as releasing information of illegal activities, such as the “Collateral Murder video”, they release anything that might be of public interest, from the entire unit by unit equipment list of the U.S army in Iraq, to a list of potential terrorist targets.

Where Wikileaks has a vital role to play is in exposing the corruption of undemocratic governments, where using the vote to bring in freedom of information legislation is not an option. If their focus were on exposing corruption in Burma, North Korea or China, then this would be a laudable goal. So it is interesting that, in a summary of their exposées, Wikileaks does not mention those countries once.

In the UK, and across the Western world, there are mature democracies, where our representatives continue to debate the benefits and risks of more extensive freedom of information legislation. I would favour this legislation going further. But, even more than believing in freedom of information, I believe in democracy and the rule of law. In my opinion, when
Wikileaks unilaterall y releases information which is not evidence of illegality, but which compromises the ability of our foreign diplomats to do their job, then they are also undermining democracy.

Julian Assange, you’ve taken the easy route of unilaterally releasing information which you think should be in the public domain. Why not, instead, take the harder democratic route, and seek to persuade our elected representatives to adopt more far-reaching freedom of information legislation? And, if they refuse, why not start up new political parties which will campaign to have the law changed?

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18 Comments

  • And the same applies to companies does it? He should persuade them to release information of their wrongdoings to the public? Even if that were possible, it seems likely only to punish honest companies, unlike their current model which puts pressure on companies to act responsibly (“if acting in a just manner is easier than acting in an unjust manner, most actions will be just.”).

    Legislation can help but it can’t change the fact that governments will never want to reveal what they’ve done wrong. Our government, for example, often does as much as it can to obstruct legitimate FOI requests. How are they ever going to release anything truly scandalous?

    Yes, perhaps Wikileaks, like other journalists, needs to be more discerning about what it releases. But it’s not a black and white world of corrupt vs democratic governments in which journalists should only expose illegal activity. It’s not ‘illegal’ to casually underestimate the number of civilian casualties but it’s certainly immoral.

  • Andrew Wimble 11th Feb '11 - 3:11pm

    I think you largely miss the point by talking about Julian Assange. he is just one man running one web site. Wikileaks may have been the first site to make public documents that their authors would have preferred to keep private but he will certainly not be the last. if Assange has a change of heart tomorrow or the authorities succeed in shutting down wikileaks it will make no difference. New people and new sites will spring up in their place. The debate about if these things should be made public is pointless. The fact is that they will be. The debate now has to be how to handle the new reality.

  • I see no Iceberg 11th Feb '11 - 4:01pm

    “If their focus were on exposing corruption in Burma, North Korea or China, then this would be a laudable goal. So it is interesting that, in a summary of their exposées, Wikileaks does not mention those countries once.”

    Bit pointless since those countries are surrounded by an impenetrable internet firewall against such information.

    “Why not, instead, take the harder democratic route, and seek to persuade our elected representatives to adopt more far-reaching freedom of information legislation?”

    Bit pointless since that’s supposed to be the politicians jobs in the first place.
    Those politicians committed to freedom of speech. You remember them ?
    They used to be called Liberal Democrats.

    He’ll also find it difficult to persuade anyone of anything if the Coalition decides to allow him to be extradited where he may eventually end up in the jail of a furious bullying U.S. Administration.

  • Depressed Ex Lib Dem 11th Feb '11 - 4:23pm

    “There is an exception to this. If a democratic government is involved in breaking laws, then whistleblowers are an important means of holding that government to account. …”

    Only if a government is breaking laws? How about if a government is just lying to the people without breaking any laws? What legitimacy does a government have if it’s been democratically elected on the basis of lies? (Sorry if this is a bit close to home.)

  • The only way to hold anyone to account is to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are going about it. We cannot hold a government to account if they hide away documents in cupboards, or seal them under secrecy. Waiting 50 years to see how decisions are made doesn’t give the electorate or anyone else a chance to hold anyone to account.

    Every single thing that is released about a government gives us insight into how it operates. You talk of evidence, well the private opinions of our diplomats are evidence. They go towards how we form policy. Can we trust the person we are talking to? How are they likely to react to this or that proposal. All those things come from the private opinions of our diplomats and form the basis, or contribute to decisions. That makes them all evidence.

    I think the legislative route is always a good idea, but the law is unfortunately formulated by the very people who have a self-interest in keeping things secret. It’s why prompts for transparency always comes from the opposition. They aren’t making the decisions, but they do want to see the government’s revealed; as soon as they get into power it’s time to hide things again. It’s why freedom of the press, and freedom of speech, is the cornerstone of a good democracy, it us the opportunity to reveal that which the politicians want hidden. Wikileaks is the epitome of freedom of the press/speech.

    All the anti-liberal and freedom destroying laws enacted in recent years dance behind the refrain of “if you have nothing to hide”. Well perhaps the governments need to swallow more of their own medicine.

    Transparency, and freedom, is always a two-edged sword, but in the end I believe openness is always preferable and promotes integrity. Integrity is something politicians and governments could do with much more of. The more that is hidden the less accountability there is.

  • I see no Iceberg 11th Feb '11 - 9:05pm

    “As I understand it, one of the criticisms of WikiLeaks is that it has concentrated on exposing the secrets of the USA, and not the likes of China, Burma and North Korea.”

    Chomsky gets hit with that all the time by his detractors. (usually staunchly pro-American/Neocons)
    If I remember rightly his reponse is that there are others better suited to digging around those places, the Western Media has few qualms about airing critiscism about such countries and the corruption and human rights abuses are blatant and often not even hidden. Chomsky prefers to concentrate on a critique of the troublesome facts and abuses of a country like the U.S. because it’s far more cleverly hidden, so few ever do and such criticism will rarely if ever be shown on the Media.
    (It seems gross discourtesy to misquote Chomsky when his reasoning was obviously infinitely more eloquent than my own, but I think that was the gist of it from memory alone)

    Anyway, I think we can apply some of that to Assange’s motives but he does still have to take what he’s given. So if he’s given one of the most incredible leaks of U.S. information in History, I for one am not too surprised if it is, by it’s nature, pretty much focused on the U.S.

  • Ed The Snapper 12th Feb '11 - 8:27am

    But I do not think that Wikileaks has failed to publish material from undemocratic governments. Is it true that the first Wikileaks material was in respect of the government of Sudan?

  • Depressed Ex Lib Dem 12th Feb '11 - 10:24am

    I think the best test of whether the government’s behaviour is sufficiently unacceptable to justify a breach of the official secrets act is the jury system. This happened in the famous Ponting affair in the 1980′s, where a civil servant leaked information that indicated that a Tory minister had been deliberately lying. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_Ponting
    The government tried to prosecute him under the official secret’s act, but the jury acquited him. In my opinion, a triumph of the judicial system.

    That’s a particularly bizarre example to raise, considering that as a result of Ponting’s acquittal the “public interest” defence was removed by subsequent legislation!

    In fact, you’ve provided a perfect illustration of how inadequate reliance on the “rule of law” is, when politicians can legislate to conceal their dishonesty.

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