The Weight Of The Word

Are Julian Assange and WikiLeaks really doing anything that unusual? After all, leaks are one of the foundations of contemporary journalism. Leaks are one of the best techniques we have to peek behind the curtain of government. So the aggressive political reaction to WikiLeaks is very disturbing.

Governments, whether democratic or totalitarian, do not deserve a presumption of secrecy. Few people objected on a philosophical level to the leaks out of Labor’s cabinet during the federal election. Few people have principled objections when the press releases documents they’ve received from whatever legal or illegal source.

There’s no question Assange is a media publisher. He describes himself as a journalist, albeit of an unconventional type. So the only material difference between what WikiLeaks is doing and “normal” leaking is scale. The diplomatic cables have dominated global politics for two weeks, but we’ve only seen the contents of just over 1000 of them. There are 249,000 to go.

The slow (and for US diplomats, excruciating) drip-feed is far from the “data dump” critics have accused Assange of doing.

Few of the cables have been released without first having been given exclusively to the mainstream press. The Sunday Age has some today. These papers have been vetting the documents for sensitive or risky information.

WikiLeaks only publishes the edited cables. WikiLeaks even asked the US State Department for help editing unnecessarily risky documents, a practice common when the press deals with classified material. The State Department refused. The Pentagon has had to admit there is no evidence anybody has ever been harmed due to a WikiLeaks release. Yet the WikiLeaks cables depict more than just “gossip”. They reveal things we didn’t know and shed substantial light on things we thought we did.

For instance, it’s one thing to hear commentators and self-aggrandising leaders in the Labor Right say Kevin Rudd was a control freak. But it’s quite another to read it in a private internal memo of our closest ally. We now know that Rudd’s freakishness was affecting our relationship with the world.

Since the cables have been released, we’ve learnt that: Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin have a relationship bordering on corruption, US diplomats have been asked to spy on UN leaders, the same US diplomats believe a disturbing number of foreign leaders have mental health issues, and the US pressured Spain to shelve human rights cases against American officials. There will definitely be more.

To oppose WikiLeaks is to oppose freedom of the press and, more critically, free speech. Strip away Assange’s revolutionary libertarian rhetoric and inflated sense of self, and what we have is a media outlet that’s innovative but is not really doing much different from what the press has been doing for centuries. Which makes the events of the past week particularly significant.

Corporate support for WikiLeaks is being stripped away., which was hosting WikiLeaks for a short time, dropped its account. The company had received calls from staff of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security: asking “Are there plans to take the site down?”

Another company, Tableau, which was providing software for WikiLeaks to visualise the data, was also contacted by congressional staff. They severed their relationship with the site too.

Visa and MasterCard followed suit, banning donations to WikiLeaks. So too did the Swiss PostFinance, which held a WikiLeaks bank account. PayPal suspended payments to the site because it felt threatened by a letter implying WikiLeaks had broken an unspecified law.

There are too many volunteers and donors and copies of the site around the world to fully shut it down. But these political attempts to choke WikiLeaks’ funding and foundations are a clear breach of freedom of the press. They illustrate the use of political pressure to silence a media outlet that has done no more wrong than cause embarrassment to the United States government.

Sure, PayPal and could have refused to co-operate. It is not at all clear that WikiLeaks has broken any US laws. But put yourself in their shoes: would you defy Congress, the 535 members of which could destroy your business model with the stroke of a legislative pen?

After all, if we give governments power to make or break businesses through tax and regulation, we also give those governments power to threaten and cajole those businesses into co-operating with their political aims. This is a far more disturbing turn of events than highly publicised rantings of bloggers calling for Assange’s assassination.

Assange may be reckless. From the US government’s point of view, he is virtually stateless.

And the retaliatory attacks by the independent internet hacking group Anonymous on those corporations gives WikiLeaks an unjustified veneer of illegality.

Yet it is not the job of journalism to make the diplomacy easier, or to grease the wheels of communication between foreign leaders. Nor is it to protect diplomatic privacy.

The US government was unable to secure its internal communications. Whatever the long-term repercussions of the diplomatic leak – and they may be substantial – that colossal failure is to blame; not a journalist who, having received newsworthy information, publishes it.

The last thing we want is our media to be deferential or subservient to the interests of the state.

Of course, the battle between governments and the press is an old one. In a moment of well-timed irony, this week the US Department of State announced it would be hosting World Press Freedom Day in 2011.

No matter how new the medium, or how irresponsible its publisher, it is an absolute and fundamental infringement of free speech when a government tries to gag a media outlet it doesn’t like.