As I understand it, the ostensible justification of Wikileaks is ‘whistleblowing’ — the revealing of wrongdoing that has been kept secret or covered up.
This is important, because in normal circumstances the breaking of confidences can be considered immoral. Today I received an e-mail (ironically) from the Guardian newspaper group. At the bottom, it contained what is becoming a standard ‘disclaimer’:
This e-mail and all attachments are confidential and may also be privileged. If you are not the named recipient, please notify the sender and delete the e-mail and all attachments immediately. Do not disclose the contents to another person. You may not use the information for any purpose, or store, or copy, it in any way.
Given the actual content of the e-mail, this does seem slightly over the top. Moreover, I generally find myself wondering whether someone I’ve never met who sends me an e-mail I have not requested can place me under such a moral obligation — particularly if they’ve sent it to me by accident.
Nevertheless, I take the attitude that I can interpret the rider as, in effect, a personal request, as if the person at the other end were saying to me, “Look, if we’ve messed this up, please don’t go blabbing it everywhere, and if this is meant for you, please treat this communication as being between the two of us.”
The decision to reveal the contents of the e-mail would therefore be a decision to decline such a request, which puts it, in the end, at the level of other, inter-personal, moral decisions.
However, there are indeed occasions where information one receives ought to be made known to others, even against the wishes of those to who originally divulged it. Sometimes this will be to ‘proper authorities’, but certainly in some circumstances the only obvious route is a general divulgence of this information to the general public. Suitable scenarios are relatively easy to construct.
In the case of what Wikileaks itself is calling ‘Cablegate’, not only the operators of the site, but sections of the Western media have clearly felt that something about the behaviour of the US government has justified just such a general release of information.
And this confidence clearly rests on a presumption of moral fault in what the e-mails reveal. Julian Assange himself is reported as saying that if what some of the e-mails suggest is in fact true, then the newly-elected President of the United States ought to resign — something which would put him in the same category as Richard Nixon, which is scarcely where the world believed him to be just a couple of years ago.
This is why, however, serious questions must be asked following the release of e-mails which detail the nature and location of facilities considered vital to the security of the United States.
In particular, we may ask whether it is a moral fault for a government to compile such a list or to identify such facilities so as to inform its own policies.
If the answer is yes, then of course the release of this information by Wikileaks is just another example of moral ‘whistleblowing’ in an immoral political world.
Yet it is hard to see how the question could be answered in the affirmative. Indeed, it was interesting watching the lawyer for Mr Assange, Mark Stevens, answering questions about this on the ITV lunchtime news. Mr Stevens’s response was that the US government had been given the option to comment on the list and declined to do so, therefore it was appropriate to release the information into the public domain.
His body-language, however, was that of someone who knew he was talking rubbish. As a lawyer, his livelihood depends on being able to spot a non sequitur, and clearly this is one.
If I said to someone, “I have information about how much you get paid, would you like to comment?”, the answer “No,” is not a justification in itself for me telling the world. There may, of course, be other justifications, but these would depend on factors other than simply a refusal to comment.
Up to this point, the ‘Cablegate’ episode, including the involvement of some of the Western media, has relied on the general justification that immoral actions have been concealed and should be brought to universal public attention.
If part of the intention of this is to generate a debate, then it seems fair also to debate whether that is the real motivation, given the nature of what is being revealed.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
6 December 2010
6 December 2010