WikiLeaks and the Politics of Information


It is an uncommon pleasure to see the world’s politicians scuttling around furiously, much like woodlice uncovered by the lifting of a rock. WikiLeaks are the ones who did the lifting, and have exposed for us the working of US diplomacy; the information, intentions and concerns of the world’s dominant power.

It is not surprising then, that WikiLeaks have received hostility from American politicians and apparatchiks, but the extent of their threats is quite shocking. The Right has begun a game of blood-thirsty one-upmanship in their calls for retribution. Sarah Palin has called for Assange to be “pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?”. Her previous contender for the GOP nomination, Mike Huckabee, said that Assange should be tried for treason and executed. North of the border, Tom Flanagan, the eminence grise behind Canadian president Stephen Harper, commented that Assange should be assassinated, saying "I think Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone, or something." Flanagan later retracted the statement, and the comments of Huckabee and Palin can be ascribed at least partially to nationalist showboating, but such threats indicate the strong rightward push of American politics.

While the last leaks were met with the re-inspection of the Espionage Act, such legal niceties are too simpering for today’s bellicose political climate. Sabotage, arrest, assassination; Julian Assange can be judged by the quality of his enemies and the quantity of their threats.

The attacks are practical as well though. Senator Joe Lieberman called for all organisations hosting WikiLeaks to end their relationship with the site, and the domain has been the target of intense cyber attacks. Amazon stopped hosting the website earlier in the week, claiming that it was due to violation of terms of service, not government pressure. Tableau Software ceased its cable visualisation service. EveryDNS, another host, shut down its support of the site. WikiLeaks is back online at, but the attacks will certainly continue. The French Minister for Industry has echoed Lieberman, and called for all French companies cooperating with Wikileaks to cease immediately, or face ‘consequences’.

In parallel, the Swedish police have renewed a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange in connection with charges of rape and molestation. The case is almost certainly baseless. One of the alleged victims, Anna Ardin, had, after the alleged incident, tweeted about her happiness at hanging out “with the world's coolest smartest people”  and had tried to arrange for Assange to attend a party.# Most curious of all, she had attempted to delete the comments from her Twitter account after going to the police. Without going too much into the intricacies of the case, the lack of evidence, the behaviour of the alleged victims and the various about turns of the prosecution service indicate that this is not a charge that should be taken seriously at this stage, except as an attack upon a site that has many powerful enemies.

Curiously, many journalists and news organisations have shown similar hostility to the leak website. Major news organisations shyed away from the content of the cables, focusing instead on diplomatic fallout and the hunt for Assange.# Back in October, a Fox News pundit, Christian Whiton, had called for WikiLeaks proprietors to be declared “enemy combatants”, allowing for “non-judicial actions” against them. Whiton, a State Department official under George Bush is following the line of other conservative writers such as Marc Thiessen,a former Bush speechwriter who called for Assange’s prosecution under the Espionage Act. In addition to indicating the incestuous relationship between the media and the state, we also see a marked nationalism, contrary to the traditional journalistic self-definition in a republican schema; the ‘watchdog’ role, scrutinising power and informing the people.

The response of Time Magazine to Thiessen’s August Washington Post op-ed# is quite telling in this regard, as they chastise the prominent conservative  for his neglect of traditional American values. They point to the Pentagon Papers case, where the Nixon Administration was heavily criticised for its abrogation of free speech in the name of national security.

No one can read the history of the adoption of the First Amendment without being convinced beyond any doubt that it was injunctions like those sought here that Madison and his collaborators intended to outlaw in this Nation for all time. The word "security" is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.

Perhaps the most revealing element of the right-wing hysteria is how deserted a central stage for political discourse has become. In the Pentagon Papers case, to which WikiLeaks’ revelations have often been compared, the deliberation that acquitted Ellsberg made specific reference to the necessity of free flow of information for democracy.

"In the absence of governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the area of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry -- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.. . . . Without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people."

Declining press sales have led to many such homilies from endangered news organisations, but have not inspired these organisations to come to the support of WikiLeaks.

This was particularly noteworthy in the support given by representative organisations to an anti-WikiLeaks amendment to the proposed federal shield law. Since 2004, American journalists have sought such a law for protection from the wrath of governments. This is an increasingly pressing issue, as the Obama administration pursues an unprecedented four simultaneous prosecutions against leakers from the military and security agencies. But in their zeal for protection, legislators and journalists alike are eager to distinguish the journalists that are worthy of protection from those who are not.

As Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told Time magazine, “It’s data dissemination, and that worries me...Journalists will go through a period of consultation before publishing sensitive material. WikiLeaks says it does the same thing. But traditional publishers can be held accountable. Aside from Julian Assange, no one knows who these people are.”

Responsibility is the watchword of the corporate media, but it is always responsibility to power, not to the people. Their eagerness to distinguish WikiLeaks from journalism fits neatly with that of the US Government; State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley commented that “Mr. Assange obviously has a particular political objective behind his activities, and I think that, among other things, disqualifies him as being considered a journalist.”

Jay Rosen, a professor of media studies at New York University has commented that the watchdog press died during the Iraq war, and WikiLeaks has stepped into the gap. We should not over-state the importance of the neoconservative crusade; media subservience to power is nothing new. However, we can agree with Rosen that the mainstream media have singularly and spectacularly failed to fulfill their role in democratic theory.

This is what Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have called the Death of the Fourth Estate. Major media organisations are increasingly captured and manipulated by power bodies, parroting state misinformation and corporate agendas.

The Iraq war was the most notable, but not the only example of the adroitness with which the American state and its various organs can manipulate public opinion to their benefit. This war provided us with the greatest recent example of reporting that never was, as a barrage of misinformation, distortion and outright lies were ferried from the belligerent nations to their populations via the major news organisations. Nonsense stories about Al Qaeda links and 45 minute WMD launch times filled broadsheet and broadcast alike, while the drumbeat grew louder.

There’s billions of dollars tied up in ‘perception management’ and the War on Terror has been big business for the managers, self-styled ‘information warriors’ like John Rendon who bivouac by the intersection of Madison Avenue and the Washington Beltway. Defined as “actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives and objective reasoning” perception management entails the controlling the flow of information and framing issues to shape the target’s response.

While lefties typically blame press timidity on issues such as ownership, dependence on advertising, etc., a large amount is due to the dominant practices of news corporations, which are much the same as elsewhere; more work, less wages. A reliance on and vulnerability to institutional sources, is underpinned by a basic lack of resources for investigating new stories. In a report on media independence by MediaWise and Cardiff University, researchers found that

60% of press articles and 34% of broadcast stories come wholly or mainly from one of these ‘pre-packaged’ sources [PR or wire services, such as Reuters and Associated Press] and also “found that 19% of newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories were verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material, while less than half the stories we looked at appeared to be entirely independent of traceable PR.

The study was commissioned by reporter Nick Davies for his book Flat Earth News, which places the blame for newspaper dependence on corporate ownership and the management practices that come with it, with journalists increasingly incapable of doing the basics of their job.

Assange has commented, “in order to make any sensible decision you need to know what's really going on, and in order to make any just decision you need to know and understand what abuses or plans for abuses are occurring.” In the face of perception management, WikiLeaks is information sabotage; disrupting the control that state and corporate bodies exert over information.

The institutions and organisations that shape and misshape the world are rarely interested in transparency, and journalism’s decline has been a boon for the powerful. They have their ‘information warriors’, but WikiLeaks can make us all into information guerillas. If we want to understand our world better, if we want to manage our own perception, we should support WikiLeaks, we should support whistleblowers, and we should find ways to make journalism work for the people, not for power.