Sunday, 12 December 2010

Another day, another reason to dislike WikiLeaks

Listening to Radio 4’s Sunday programme this morning, there was an interview with Andrew Brown from the Guardian in which he said something like this: that the reason the WikiLeaks cables were so useful was that, unlike journalists, they could disclose their sources, because those who sent them assumed that they were speaking confidentially — “But of course, they were not.”
Now this was interesting, coming as it did from a journalist. I don’t think Andrew was saying he wished he could be as frank about his sources. Rather, the point seemed to be, isn’t it great when we can do what judges and politicians often wish they could do, namely find out who is behind a story or comment.
The sense of unease was further increased when the word ‘gossip’ was used — whether by Andrew or the interviewer I can’t right now recall. In effect, the point was made, we are listening to gossip.
So, broken confidences and gossip are the essence of the journalistic use of WikiLeaks material.
Though I listened on to find out how the interview ended — and also because, with church coming up, I didn’t want to fall back to sleep — I once again felt uncomfortable about how we are all being drawn in to something which has a worrying agenda and operates on a principle which ought to require a high level of moral justification.
Earlier in the week, I read an online article in the Sydney Morning Herald describing a meeting between the journalist Philip Dorling and Julian Assange himself. You can read the article here, but Dorling describes how it took,
Six months of emails, clandestine meetings and confidential exchanges ... before arrangements for a visit to Britain were locked in.
And, ironically, he adds,
WikiLeaks takes security very seriously, and it is right to do so.
So, is it WikiLeaks conspiracy ‘good’, government conspiracy ‘bad’?
This is a serious question, given the apparent basis of WikiLeaks in the principle that good governance can only come about through degrading the ability of governments to  ‘conspire’ through secure communications.
I have no doubt that bad conspiracies happen in governments. But that has always been true of all governments. There are bad conspiracies amongst political activists of all kinds. (Indeed, a useful debate for the future might be ‘Is politics a force for good in the world?’ I’d like to hear Christopher Hitchens on that one.)
The fact is, WikiLeaks is a ‘conspiracy’ in its own terms, at the head of which is a ‘man with a mission’. And we have all become players in the game.
Unless, of course, we choose to turn off the radio.
John Richardson
12 December 2010
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15 comments:

  1. Of course journalism often uses broken confidences. That's how we found out about how Nixon was breaking confidences himself. Not to mention using lies, dirty tactics etc. That's how we found out about Contragate, Republican deals with Iran, etc. etc. etc.. So you need to factor in lesser harm to an adequate degree. And by the way, one concrete result of the recent Wikileaks has been the sacking of one junior German governmental figure, who was revealed to be dabbling in espionage on German government matters for the USA. Another is that we all now know that many Arab governments would only be too happy were the nuclear program of Iran stopped by the West.

    Despite an earlier denial of yours, it seems you really are making an overall argument from distaste, against never breaking confidences, not even leavened by some genuine entry of recognition of "lesser harm", not even tackling the fact that a good deal of the Wikileaks cover what are themselves broken confidences -- just for example, documented in the Wikileaks the probable misreporting of the British amabassador to the Vatican, in that ambassador's alleged remarks re the Vatican and Anglo-Catholics.

    As I remarked before, fine, as long as it's open what you are doing; but you seem to be advancing that argument where your theology is based on your distaste (rather than the other way round; an important point in itself) while wrapping it up in an unconnected set of assertions alluding to utility. The mismatch between appeal to basic principle, then covering it by appeal to alleged utility, makes it all rather lopsided.

    This is a long reply of mine, so I will put the rest of it in another comment.
    ~ Gurdur, Germany

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  2. "The fact is, WikiLeaks is a ‘conspiracy’ in its own terms, at the head of which is a ‘man with a mission’."

    Someone else made that argument recently, in the Guardian no less, :-p. And my reply is, "And? So what?"

    You appear to think that describing it that way disqualifies it completely. Really? Can't see that. Lesser harm again.

    "Indeed, a useful debate for the future might be ‘Is politics a force for good in the world?’ I’d like to hear Christopher Hitchens on that one."

    A point to you; finally, finally, finally, some theist comes up with the rather obvious counter-argument to Christopher Hitchen's main point.

    I was only remarking to someone else, a Christian, 3 days ago how I was surprised no Christians seemed to be coming up with that rather obvious response.

    Yet it really does not go far enough at all. Tony Blair made another obvious step in retort to Christopher Hitchens when Blair replied it was up to us all to work together to make religion less toxic and good.

    I do not know what Hitchen's reply was to that; but the rather clear counter-move to that is simply, "Who's this 'we', kemo sabe? As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger".

    Or, in other words, to defeat ultimately Hitchens' argument that all religion is on the whole toxic, then religion itself has to show that, to show a positive overall effect, and it's not up to us unbelievers to do it for the sake of believers.

    Should you ever wish to have a very proper interblog debate on this all, I would only be too happy; to debate on the Hitchens/Blair points. I always felt Hitchens not to be complete enough, not to mention I rather greatly disagree with Hitchens on a lot of things; but the wholly inadequate complacency advanced by Blair is no good answer whatsoever.

    Back to Wikileaks:

    "And we have all become players in the game."

    Who's this "we", kemo sabe?

    This is the brokeness /corruption argument of yours coming up again; I reject it utterly. I reject it for numerous reasons:

    1) Claiming all people are "broken" or "corrupt" only serves to banalize into meaninglessness the concepts of brokenness and corruption.

    2) It mocks the pain and circumstances of those who are truly broken.

    3) It is an emoting ethical cop-out, an excuse for inaction.

    4) Excuse me, but I most certainly don't play any part in the Wikileaks game. While the underlying theology and atheology rather greatly interests me, or, IOW, not the thing but the reactions to the thing.

    I would love a proper debate on the brokenness thing. I would suggest though Wikileaks be left out of it, or we'll all be arguing till eternity.

    Cheers,
    ~ Gurdur, as ever direct from Solingen, Germany

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  3. Hi Gurdur. In response to your comments, one thing I’d want to emphasize is that I’m not aiming at a ‘conclusive’ argument — a set of premises which end ‘WikiLeaks is bad’ QED.

    You refer to “an unconnected set of assertions”, to which I would respond, “Exactly.” These are reflections and questions — yes, coming from a dislike of Julian Assange as he comes across publicly, of his agenda as it appears in his earlier writings, and of the WikiLeaks phenomenon (in which I include the response of the global media), but also aware of my own biases

    Take the instance of confidentiality. Yes, my feeling was, and still is, distaste. This is because the word ‘confidential’ has a semantic range which includes a moral dimension in a way that the word ‘secret’ doesn’t necessarily. Thus we might say Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly had a ‘secret’ plan to bomb Stockholm, but not a ‘confidential’ plan.

    When someone talks about ‘divulging secrets’, therefore, we are potentially in very different territory from someone ‘breaking confidences’. I think it is perfectly legitimate to explore whether we are dealing with the latter rather than the former in the case of the media handling of WikiLeaks material, for example when the Guardian carries on the front page of its website material from the cables about the McCann family whose daughter was abducted in Spain some years ago. Nice for them to read!

    However, as I have also observed, that doesn’t really matter to Assange’s declared agenda, since this is fundamentally about breaking down communication within government structures so that they cannot ‘conspire’. You are right at this point to raise the ‘lesser harm’ question — is it less harmful to allow WikiLeaks to ‘conspire’ successfully but to disrupt the ability of governments to ‘conspire’, but that is not a debate which is happening in the public domain. That’s my response to the ‘so what?’ question.

    As to us all becoming players, are we not ‘playing’ right now? We are not necessarily willing players, but the ‘game’ is on and we are all involved.

    Finally, although you reject the notion of universal corruption and brokenness, perhaps I should just say I know it includes me and everyone I’ve ever met — but maybe not everyone.

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  4. " ... Finally, although you reject the notion of universal corruption and brokenness, perhaps I should just say I know it includes me and everyone I’ve ever met — but maybe not everyone. ...."

    What does that actually mean? I would assume your theology would dictate all living humans are broken. It is after all a rather large part of that branch of theology. As said, it's one I reject, for the reasons given, and it would be nice if you would respond to those reasons given.

    "... As to us all becoming players, are we not ‘playing’ right now? ..."

    No. No, we are all are not playing right now. For the vast majority of humans, the Wikileaks will not affect them in terribly direct ways at all, and they are not playing this particular game to any meaningful degree.

    And neither am I. The Wikileaks matter itself interests me rather little; what interests me is theology and atheology overall, and dealing with the question of governance, leaks and ethics is only one small facet of that.

    You could try saying I am playing the game by replying to these posts of yours, but that is rather meaningless when you see I am driving at something far broader than this narrow one single issue of Assange and the current Wikileaks.

    "... We are not necessarily willing players, but the ‘game’ is on and we are all involved. ..."


    No. We are not all involved. For many of us, whether there will be a air-strike on Iran given its nuclear program is a question that will proceed totally regardless of the fact that now owing to Wikileaks we are aware that many Arab governments are only too in favour of such an action.

    As for the McCann's; I would predict their feelings would have been far more affected far earlier when at least one British tabloid years ago immediately assumed their guilt in its frontline stories.

    As for outrage over the media: there's the angle that I would say is far more important than this angle that has so concerned you over five dedicated blog posts of yours; the power that has been given to the British tabloids is something far more morally worrisome than the Wikileaks and Guardian saga.

    The tabloids love to push sides right from the start and without any real consideration of all sides; as I am sure you saw, the Guardian was careful to include much context in discussing that particular Wikileak about the McCann family, yet at the time that the actual investigations were acute and ongoing, it was tabloids who screamed the McCann's guilt or innocence before all facts were in (and since it seems now that all evidence any which way is inconclusive, then any question about guilt or innocence is probably not going to be answered within our lifetimes, and so we go back to presumption of innocence).

    You know that governments lose trust for a reason; this is why things like Wikileaks happen, and Wikileaks itself cannot be judged in full isolation.

    And as ever, my main interest here is the over-riding principles involved (and why you think as you do, and if you and I can still discuss this and get somewhere productive) and not the specific case. You may feel caught up in the Wikileaks, I don't.

    To me, Wikileaks is just one story among many, and my thoughts today are in fact much more bound up with whether I should criticise myself for not doing a blog post, and the question of randomicity and what randomness means for theology, atheology and daily living. Then the question of whether you and I can disagree in ways that constructively produce insights.

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  5. Hi Gurdur. Clearly on this one we can disagree - I'm just not sure it will be, as you put it, "in ways that constructively produce insights."

    Given my interest in the WikiLeaks phenomenon, and your avowed disinterest (plus the lack of other comments here), perhaps the best thing is to await another, more obviously 'theological' occasion for explorations.

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  8. For some reason, this comment from John Lee didn't post (though he sent it twice). I am putting it up myself as I received it in e-mail form.

    john lee has left a new comment on your post "Another day, another reason to dislike WikiLeaks":

    Hello John

    Late to the party, but have been reflecting on your posts and comments. There is lots of sense in what you are saying, but of course there is a much wider context to consider. It's the bigger picture I'm interested in.

    When the printing press was invented, it was deemed a threat to princes and popes - not immediately, but only as soon as information could be distributed and dispersed in an organised manner. I don't need to remind you of its significance for the Reformation.

    Assange is an objectionable character, but the 'Mein Kampf' comparison of your earlier post is risible. But you're right that focusing on Assange is a distraction. The internet revolution is as significant as the printing press, and until now the people's use of it has been relatively benign as far as incumbent governments are concerned (China and other repressive regimes obviously excepted). The massive significance of Wikileaks (which this article highlights) is not Assange, but how it illustrates the latent ability of the net to create powerful global direct action protests very quickly.

    I don't believe Assange wants to bring down a government, or attack democracy per se, but he is quite right to provoke the system into reform. My children's generation are totally disengaged from politics, and direct, instant reaction by governments to shifting opinion, channelled via the internet could get them engaged again. That is surely the future of democracy - the equivalent of political pamphleteering of the 18th century, or manning the barricades in the 60s.

    I stand by my assertion that governments and institutions should have nothing to hide. In step with the Reformers we would have claimed that for the vernacular Bible in the face of banning by the Roman Catholic Church, wouldn't we?

    So I feel we need to be careful that our objections to the democratisation of information are not for Christians just the 21st century equivalent of objections to the printing press. It may even be that Assange's aim will open up a potential benefit to the church and a new more open, more direct means of proclaiming of the gospel.

    John, Manchester

    Posted by john lee to The Ugley Vicar at 14 December 2010 20:54

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  9. john lee has left a new comment on your post "Another day, another reason to dislike WikiLeaks":

    Hello John

    Late to the party, but have been reflecting on your posts and comments. There is lots of sense in what you are saying, but of course there is a much wider context to consider. It's the bigger picture I'm interested in.

    When the printing press was invented, it was deemed a threat to princes and popes - not immediately, but only as soon as information could be distributed and dispersed in an organised manner. I don't need to remind you of its significance for the Reformation.

    Assange is an objectionable character, but the 'Mein Kampf' comparison of your earlier post is risible. But you're right that focusing on Assange is a distraction. The internet revolution is as significant as the printing press, and until now the people's use of it has been relatively benign as far as incumbent governments are concerned (China and other repressive regimes obviously excepted). The massive significance of Wikileaks (which this article highlights) is not Assange, but how it illustrates the latent ability of the net to create powerful global direct action protests very quickly.

    I don't believe Assange wants to bring down a government, or attack democracy per se, but he is quite right to provoke the system into reform. My children's generation are totally disengaged from politics, and direct, instant reaction by governments to shifting opinion, channelled via the internet could get them engaged again. That is surely the future of democracy - the equivalent of political pamphleteering of the 18th century, or manning the barricades in the 60s.

    I stand by my assertion that governments and institutions should have nothing to hide. In step with the Reformers we would have claimed that for the vernacular Bible in the face of banning by the Roman Catholic Church, wouldn't we?

    So I feel we need to be careful that our objections to the democratisation of information are not for Christians just the 21st century equivalent of objections to the printing press. It may even be that Assange's aim will open up a potential benefit to the church and a new more open, more direct means of proclaiming of the gospel.

    John, Manchester

    Posted by john lee to The Ugley Vicar at 14 December 2010 20:54

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  10. Hi John

    I, too, am interested in the bigger picture re WikiLeaks - especially in the lack of media attention being given to it!

    You've twice said that my 'Mein Kampf' comparison is "risible". Just for clarity, this is what I said, "Like Hitler when he wrote Mein Kampf, Assange has previously made his attitudes and intentions abundantly plain to those who would care to read. Yet like so many throughout the subsequent war years, it seems that those who ought to be most aware of what is going on have not cared to read."

    I can't honestly see that this is risible, given that it is true. In fact, when I read the articles by Assange to which I referred, my reaction was, "Gosh, this is just like I felt when I read Mein Kampf - how could anyone not get what this guy is up to?"

    I agree Assange is not trying to attack democracy "per se". But he states clearly in those articles that he wants to degrade the operations of Western governments - his express focus in the articles is on the US government - to the extent that they no can longer function in the way to which he objects.

    He views them as based on 'conspiracy' and in this sense, he wants to 'bring them down'.

    What bothers me is that this is not being acknowledged or aired. Instead, we are being distracted by the content of the cables, when we should be focusing on the purpose of releasing them.

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  11. Hi John

    I've deleted what are now duplicate posts!

    We agree on the need to keep the bigger picture, but I hear your 'big picture' objection as being about putting the cork back in the internet bottle. For me, I see an attention-seeking adolescent - a hacker, basically - enjoying his moment in the limelight, and a hugely disparate set of people jumping up to support him.

    The fact is that the process of leaking and posting information will now accelerate, followed by countermeasures of injunctions and prosecutions. But, to draw an analogy with suppression of printed matter, the vested institutions won't be able to 'burn the books' fast enough. (For the 'Roman Catholic Church' read 'US Supreme Court'.) Now I believe that if governments were truly good there should be no need to stop it, and within a year or two I predict there will in fact be no need to stop it. By a combination of reclassifying what a secret is together with more transparency they will manage the risk of leakage.

    In opposing the principles of new publishing methods, aren't we in fact in danger of failing to embrace the full potential for the proclamation of truth in this age? Wikileaks shows how a culturally subversive message can be disseminated by new media. We need to watch and learn, and not lower our sights to mere moral outrage at their publishing technique. I think exploiting new technological methods in opposition to corrupt, deceptive institutions is exactly what the Reformers did in their day.

    John, Manchester

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  12. ... and so fundamentally I think the nations will get better government because of what Assange's organisation is doing. And I think Christians may have a chance of furthering the cause of the gospel by understanding his methods.

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  13. Thank you for your attention to "confidentiality": it would be interesting to see it pursued further. It strikes me that one of the things going on is a radical attack upon the possibility of confidentiality. As you say, the content does not matter. What matters is the appearance of - and perhaps the aspiration to - a 'lordship' over confidentiality. As if to say, "The only confidentiality there will be (beyond that I have not yet penetrated) is that I choose to permit." And, "If I choose to attack Government A, while doing nothing to expose anything about mass-murdering Government B, so be it! Big Leaker knows best."

    To play upon related words, it seems radically a sort of "confidence trick" as well. Just as the sort of content does not matter most, neither does whether it is something really pilfered and leaked, or something having the plausible appearance of being so (whether in fact 'merely' selectively edited, doctored, etc., or a 'whopper' made up out of whole cloth, or a melange of both).

    What might Governments do? If Mein Kampf was 'open', Nazi practice was richly the opposite - systematic euphemism, no written orders, nice notes home about how sad it was all the 'euthanatized' bedwetters had died in hospital, etc.

    And then there's the possibility of 'Black Ops' - a fierce version of 'Mission Impossible' where leakers have accidents on the basis of verbal orders...

    Why would anyone expect better government as a likely outcome? (Maybe there's a good case: if so, what?)

    A high degree of striving to be Biggest Leaker is in any case likely. And perhaps a considerable 'achievement' of anarchy: but who is that likely to benefit, except the boldly, ruthlessly abusive?

    Psolomon Psmith
    Psecretary
    Psociety Psupporting Psalutary Pcyber Pseudonymity

    Momentarily Somewhere in the (all-too-aptly-named) Low Countries, in Darkest postmodernly 'Enlightened' Europe

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