With Wikileaks now discredited and still struggling to help Julian Assange avoid criminal proceedings, what next for the new generation of journalism? We think there are no easy answers – but lots of questions.
Wikileaks have managed to discredit themselves through the untrue information they have been spreading, and their smear attacks on:
- the plaintiffs (trigger warning)
- the whole of Sweden
- the (highly respected) Swedish legal system
- anyone else who calls for due process not to be bypassed in one single case.
Wikileaks may keep releasing data – but with so many untrue statements coming from them in the last two years, how can they be trusted?
They have caused some problems at the grass roots level as well: activists such as Peter Tatchell, Women Against Rape, GetUp, and even Amnesty International have publicly aligned themselves with some of the Wikileaks disinformation – damaging their reputations in the eyes of the people who have been following the case and who know both the facts and that what the activists are asking for is not legally possible and indeed unnecessary.
But we believe that there are important lessons to be drawn from this whole débacle – for activists, media, leakers, and everyone else.
The information age has unquestionably changed the way we communicate and what we expect to be told. We demand information from those in positions of influence or authority, and justification for their actions. We want to hold them to account for the things they do – especially the bad things.
This is why the idea of Wikileaks was so strong, and so important. While leaking has always happened, and leaking on the Internet is by no means new, Wikileaks (despite not even being the first leaking website) were the first to forge a strong media presence and to bring the attention of the whole world to the scandals that they made public.
When Wikileaks first became big news, they were greeted with a range of reactions, from open arms to threats, and everything in between. A small number of voices made a more cautious welcome, and pointed out the precise flaw that would ultimately see the organisation brought to its knees: their own lack of accountability. More recently, David Allen Green made this point exceedingly well.
Since Wikileaks famously leaked their own donor list after an amateur mistake (not their only such mistake), they have grown ever more secretive – even insisting that their own volunteers sign a gagging order so severe that it has little chance of ever actually succeeding in any court. While claiming to want transparency, they fight against it themselves:
“WikiLeaks has become what it despises: a repressive organisation, using restrictive contracts to gag its staffers, cultivating intransparency and unaccountability”
– Daniel Domscheit-Berg
And this is the flaw that brought Wikileaks down. They became by turns defensive and aggressive, then cutting off their partners one by one, in what appeared to be a name-calling and blaming excerise. They became not a source of (previously) secret information, but of untrue propaganda about Sweden, legal processes, sexual crimes in general, and feminism.
Rather than have Assange temporarily step aside (as would be normal) until the matter was resolved, Wikileaks turned simple criminal allegations into a complex conspiracy theory that even a dedicated “911 truther” would have difficulty swallowing. So one really must wonder just how much damage Amnesty, Tatchell, ABC Australia and others are doing to their reputations by continuing to lend the theory credibility.
It now seems clear that Assange the man controls the organisation, and that it has started to reflect his own (very human) failings. And nobody can hold him – or Wikileaks – to account, despite the very public nature of their behaviour. Assange was quoted in “Inside Wikileaks” as saying:
I am Wikileaks.. if you don’t like it, fuck off
We can’t say if the quote is accurate – but we can say that this is clearly how Wikileaks now behave; surrendering truth and facts to try to protect Assange from facing the criminal proceedings when there is no risk of extradition to the USA from Sweden – and attacking all dissenters – even their own. Yet still the untruths are tweeted from the official feed (Borgstorm isn’t a prosecutor in this case and read the article to see how the context was heavily altered by the tweet).
The volunteers at Wikiwatch have different perspectives on Freedom of Information and leaking, which cover the whole spectrum. So we won’t advocate here for any particular model. But when considering the words attributed to Juvenal:
Who guards the guards?
we should also bear in mind the words of Lord Action:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority…
At wikiwatch, we all agree that accountability is a good thing, and a necessary thing – including of ourselves. We do that voluntarily, and invite feedback. But what of organisations that don’t? The lesson we must all draw from Wikileaks is that accountability and transparency must apply as much to leaking organisations as it does to those they expose: perhaps even moreso, to prevent leaking in order to pursue a hidden political agenda.
How can you establish trust and know that a source is accurate and reliable? How do you know that they remain accurate after you checked? What happens when that source goes off the rails? And when you establish that they are no longer to be trusted, do you simply keep quiet and stop mentioning them, or do you expose them so that the activists who saw the initial verification of reliability also find out the unpalatable truth and can make their own (amended) judgement calls?
We were warned of this sort of behaviour by various sources – from Heather Brooke to former Wikileaks volunteers Daniel Domscheit-Berg and James Ball to old-school leaker Ian Hislop of “Private Eye”. So why were Wikileaks still trusted for so long? And why is the untrue information they disseminate still being reported as fact by news sources such as Bloomberg?
So who guards the guards who guard the guards? And who guards them? And when somebody in the chain is deemed unreliable – how do we get the word out? Despite the quite horrifying semantics of that first question, it is perhaps the most important one that those of us living at the birth of the Information Age must answer. If we fail, we may indeed end up living in the even more horrific
“once-imagined futures of our darkest science fiction”
– Julian Assange
So answer it we must. Thus far… we have not been doing terribly well.