Some thoughts on Wikileaks, the media and the truth

October 26, 2010

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This was the second time I’d seen Julian Assange speak at the Frontline Club. A few months ago, the small club room was lined with TV cameras as the Wikileaks founder launched the Afghan War Logs leak. The audience of journalists that day were sceptical and were looking for a news line – they pushed Assange hard on whether the mass of U.S. military documents contained evidence of "war crimes".

Yesterday’s appearance – in light of an even larger release of war logs from the Iraq war – was a more relaxed affair in front of an audience that seemed sympathetic to his mission. Assange sat alongside an ally – Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon papers whistleblower; the first question from the audience began by congratulating him on his work; and there was a smattering of guilty laughter when another enquired after his "next big leak".  

Critics and "the truth"

I have seen some heated argument at the Frontline Club but we didn’t really get a reflection of the polarisation of opinion over Wikileaks.

Advocates of the organisation welcome its commitment to freedom of information and they see the potential for Wikileaks to fundamentally undermine censorship, halt wars and expose abuses of power.

Its harshest detractors have gone so far as to label it a "terrorist intelligence organisation"; more reasoned critics have questioned what sort of understanding document dumps actually offer. 

If anything, Assange’s public pronouncements confuse some of the issues. Yesterday, Assange described the goal of Wikileaks as "justice" and its method, "the truth". Regardless of the outcome, the truth, Assange argues, is "always the best place to start" and without it "we have nothing".

Powerful rhetoric, for sure, but the nub of what Wikileaks do is more straightforward. As Assange, himself, noted, Wikileaks just "deliver up the primary sources". Even without delving (too far) into the philosophical problems of the nature of truth, the primary sources are not "the truth".

In the case of the Iraq logs it is certain that the truth is both far worse (particularly for Iraqi civilians) and yet far less straightforward than the logs describe. Furthermore, the truth is often a contested result of selection, interpretation, analysis, context, argument and revision (and if something goes awry you might be further away than when you started).

Wikileaks doesn’t offer that, say its critics. But then context, analysis, and interpretation (etc) based on fewer primary sources is surely less reliable? And it seems harsh to criticise Wikileaks for contributing to part of a broader process and actively seeking to collaborate with organisations that might help them fill in the gaps.  

Outcomes and future leaks

Assange offered contradictory thoughts over the importance of the outcome of individual leaks. He might want to see the truth emerge but it seems that getting the documents out there takes precedence and he admits that he simply can’t predict what effect a leak will have.

We do not know if Assange might one day come across a situation whereby the organisation would take the decision that the progress of the truth might be undermined by the publication of a set of documents for some reason.

Although, the irony here of course is that Wikileaks’ mission relies on secrecy. An untimely release of their own organisational documents – whatever they might look like – could presumably scupper it.

But the fear for the Pentagon, and no doubt other organisations, is that they don’t really know what Wikileaks wouldn’t publish and exactly what tactics Assange might pursue. After working with Iraq Body Count for the Iraq War logs, Assange indicated there would be more collaboration with NGOs, human rights organisations and non-traditional media in the future.

The media organisation that refuses to play by everybody else’s rules is still learning its own game.

But more on that at some other point…

Photo: Julian Assange at the Frontline Club, Daniel Bennett, All Rights Reserved.