Opinion: Interesting proposal, Mr Kendall, but who is “us”?

George Kendall’s piece on Julian Assange was quite good. If it wasn’t I’d scarcely bother replying. And no, I am not Mr Assange’s spokesman, but as Mr Assange’s spokesman is quite busy I thought I’d jump in and attempt a defence.

Firstly I think Tunisia is a bit of a red herring here, and it would in any case provide only an empirical proof to say that Wikileaks is good or bad based upon one revolution or several. It would say nothing about the general morality. I’d much rather argue from general principles, as George Kendall then goes on to do.

As I can see it there are two elements to his proof:

  1. That some things do need to be kept hidden
  2. That the decision as to what those things should be should be taken by elected leaders.


Now firstly I would argue that that is precisely what happens now: Wikileaks is just a website, it relies on leakers just as we did before Wikileaks – it just makes the leakers jobs technically easier. Wikileaks doesn’t mean all information is publicly available, it just means that anything which is leaked has a home on the internet. Legally and morally, leaking is just as difficult as it ever was. Information laws still exist, and those who break them take an extraordinary risk in so doing. You might think leaking was easy for Assange, it certainly wasn’t for Bradley Manning.

Leaving Manning aside, these rules are – in the UK at least – put in place by elected governments, and enforced by a judiciary supervised by an elected government.

Maybe that is the way the law needs to be. But here is where I have a problem with the attitude behind these laws – and where I side with Assange over Kendall. Freedom of information legislation stems from an elite discourse. It is predicated upon discussions between the political, civil, and occasionally military elite, behind closed doors, and using by examples of which – until Wikileaks – we simply had no ken.

Seeking to persuade our representatives will do nothing to change the nature of that discourse – it doesn’t intend to. And we can see from the Wikileaks cables how wrong our representatives are on this – and of the damage a solely elite view of what is and isn’t in the public interest can have. What made me angry, furious, about the Wikileaks cables was how many of them were utterly banal. Why should the news that the Americans complained that Little Mosque on the Prairie contained a “rude and eccentric depiction” of an official at a U.S. consulate, be a classified state secret? Or that the French felt sorry for Stephen Harper? Or that Ed Balls is uninspiring? Or that Sarkozy looked bored on a state visit to Saudi Arabia?

A democratic government, admittedly for the most part not ours, determined that these “secrets” should be buried forever lest they damage our society irretrievably. The elite had become so blaze about depriving us of information that they were making everything confidential, whether it was merited or not. But that should not be a surprise: that is what any discourse which is not challenged does (and elite discourses rarely are). And the effect is that we slip ever closer towards a government that admits nothing, that does not allow the citizen to form a view of its actions. As I said in the comments to the original article, this leads to Rousseau’s worst fear – an elective dictatorship.

Wikileaks engendered a mass discourse. It offered a challenge to the pervading orthodoxy. It forced the argument into the open. It required it to be had with people who weren’t of the elite. It offered us – the citizens – the chance to develop an informed answer to the question. And whilst it may have caused some problems for diplomats (but has diplomacy ever not been an arms race between secret-keepers and secret-breakers?) I cannot think of another way in which that discourse could have been engendered.

Gramsci described hegemony as the ideological dominance of society. Our elite had imposed their hegemony upon our view of what should and shouldn’t be talked about. Now that hegemony has been shattered and we can build a new hegemony – only this time it will have to come out of a mass discourse. And that, for me, will be worth everything.

Fred Carver is a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Camden. He blogs on world elections and politics at Who Rules Where.

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6 Comments

  • David Allen 17th Feb '11 - 6:57pm

    The language of “rights” suggests an absolutist position – the idea that either freedom of information, or alternatively privacy, should be considered absolutely right or absolutely wrong. It ain’t so. Both the advocates of freedom, and the representatives of governments who would like to reach decisions by private negotition, have a case. They can’t both win.

    If we let government decide the issue to suit themselves, and government means a tyrannical despot, or just a cosy rich cabal, then we permit injustice. What about when there are some elected representatives around? George Kendall says that this makes all the difference, presumably because they can be trusted to decide wisely. But what if those elected representatives are largely powerless, a figleaf allowed to exist so as to create the appearance of democracy, when the reality is autocracy? Surely that’s not the same.

    So, we wouldn’t trust the MPs in Zimbabwe, or Iran, for example.

    How different, in fact, is Britain?

    Powerful vested interests hold sway in Britain as in most of the rest of the world. In that situation my sympathies are with Wikileaks. It’s like the Robin Hood story. If governments are unjust, outlaws deserve a chance to put things right.

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