Wednesday 8 December 2010

Some random thoughts on Wikileaks and Assange

Christmas is coming ever closer and with it the overload of work that Santa seems to have in his bag these days, Matron's brain is fried from trying to get to grips with teaching, government consultations, job interviews and an excess of travel. As a result she has - to the best of her abilities - tried to inure herself from the wall-to-wall coverage of WikiLeaks, the US Embassy cables and the allegations against Julian Assange if only to allow her to get on with some stuff.

But it is getting harder to escape all that coverage and woman is a processing, pattern-making animal, so random, if often rather conflicting, thoughts on this have arisen and are taking up valuable brain space. Each of them longer than 140 characters but not really enough for a coherent blog post, they still want to be released. To make it more interesting, Matron has given them "Yes Minister" titles. Feel free to ignore; normal service will be resumed in the new year.
  1. The Right to Know: While the disclosure of the documents on Iraq took the public interest hurdle with some ease, Matron can't help feeling that a lot of what came out of the Embassy cables is just a smidgen, if at all, above the tabloid newsworthiness threshold. Most of it seems to concern statements made by the No-surprise-there-department (sub-section Duh!) that inhabits a basement in the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. Yes, it is lovely to have your prejudices about Prince Andrew, the Rich and Powerful and those stupid, arrogant Americans confirmed, but beyond that Matron would pay good money for someone that pre-selects from those cables the things that will really make a difference to our perception of the way things are done and our willingness to do something about them. They are probably there, buried within a mountain of information, but it is terribly difficult to find them in all that gratuitous gossip. So, here's an idea for the movement: rather than going for the shock and awe effect (you've done that now and the whole world bought the bloody t-shirt), maybe next time it would be more useful to concentrate on selectively disclosing the things that really matter.
  2. Power to the People: Having said all that, Matron completely agrees with many of the punters that by far the more interesting aspect of this whole affair is not what WikiLeaks has done, or even what the people whose behaviour has been exposed have done, but how the US and other countries reacted to it. Even discounting the hysterical reactions of US senators (which are unlikely to be taken seriously by many on this side of the Atlantic), the steps taken against WikiLeaks say more about the state we're in than a million indiscrete cables. It is quite clear that those whose actions have been disclosed by WikiLeaks are far more upset about the fact of disclosure than the content that has been made public. It's the paradigm change in relation to the way in which information is, can be or should be controlled that is the real issue here. As one very sensible blogger put it, being told by our masters that we can't handle the truth just doesn't wash any longer.
  3. A Conflict of Interest: But at the same time, with great power comes great responsibility and Matron can't help feeling that WikiLeaks and those who support it currently get carried away just an itsibitsi tiny bit on a wave of their own omnipotency. As a privacy advocate, Matron has always fought the corner of those who argue that while transparency and freedom of speech are among the most important rights in a democratic society, they are not the only rights. They have to be balanced against other rights, freedoms and interests and figuring out how that balance should be achieved is a difficult and time-consuming process that we may just be by-bassing when pressing a button to disclose another 250,000 documents whose full contents we will not have been in a position to fully know or appreciate. Taking just the privacy argument as one example, there may be stuff in those cables that relates to private matters that the public really has no right, nor a need, to know.
  4. The Smoke Screen: With the combined coverage of the WikiLeaks and Assange affairs seeimingly taking up every available inch of colunm space at the moment, is Matron the only one thinking that this would be a great time for governments the world over to bury bad news? In fact, here's a conspiracy scenario to think about while we're at it: imagine someone in the US government thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if we fed an organisation like WikiLeaks a lot of mindless chitchat that won't disclose a lot about us that people aren't already thinking anyway but that will keep the hacks and the geeks and pretty much anyone with a halfway functioning brain gainfully employed for weeks on end? Just imagine what we could get away with while they are all busy loooking the other way." In the area of IT and Cyberlaw alone, we currently have a plethora of really rather alarming proposals on the table that may change the way in which we can live, work and play, in which we can interact with each other and our governments, the extent to which those governments can exercise control over us and our actions and the extent to which we can resist that control. Yet, pretty much ALL the good brains Matron knows in this area are currently using most of their processing power on exchanging URLs for WikiLeaks mirror sites. I'm not saying that you're not doing an important job, boys and girls. But you know what? Job share! We need some of you for other stuff!
  5. A Question of Loyalty: Matron admits it: when the sexual assault allegations against Assange first made the press, her immediate gut reaction was to think, "Now that suits the powers that be a little bit too much to be mere coincidence". We leftie liberals are hard-wired for conspiracy theories; the more outlandish the better. There is something about us that loves the feeling, as Technollama put it on Twitter recently, that we live in a Stieg Larsson novel. And maybe we do. But in the same way that we should try very hard not to suspect conspiracy when incompetence will do, we should not loose sight of the fact that good people sometimes do bad things. And that, consequently, we should not automatically assume that someone like Assange couldn't possibly be involved in something like a sexual offence, or that the laws of a country that allege such a thing must by defintion by wrong and illiberal and that the US must obviously have exerted great pressure on that country to bring down the full force of the law on one it now clearly views at its enemy no.1. That may all be the case, but it is no more likely than the alternative, because, at this stage, we don't know. If this had not been the founder of WikiLeaks, those allegations may still have been made and the appropriate judicial procedure might still have been employed and the people making the allegations would have been given the opportunity to prove them without being vilified as instruments of state oppression and the accused in this case would have been given the right to defend himself without his private conduct being closely linked to his professional role. While we do not know an awful lot about the charges that have been brought and the evidence available to prosecutors at this point, we should not fall into the trap of canonizing an individual in ALL areas of his life because we feel that he has acted like a saint in ONE of them. And we should not make feminist leftie liberal women feel like traitors to the cause if they cannot subsume their instinctive feeling that allegations of sexual misconduct need to be taken seriously whoever the alleged perpetrator. Julian Assange is innocent until proven guilty, but the two Swedish women and the Swedish prosecutors have every right to try to prove his guilt.
  6. The Bishop's Gambit: Finally, to all those people who cannot distinguish between the charges against Assange and the charges against WikiLeaks: be concerned, be very concerned about the dangers of personificating a movenment. As many others more familiar with the ins and outs of how WikiLeaks functions have already pointed out, WikiLeaks is more than Assange and will and should continue regardless of what happens to him. Those who tie his lot together with that of the movement he helped found play into the hands of those who try to argue that the discreditation of the man will automatically discredit the movement. If he is found guilty, and at this stage this is as likely as the possibility that he will be acquitted, because WE JUST DON'T KNOW, then there will be no shortage of people saying that WikiLeaks is irrevocably tainted by his actions and that his failures in one area of his life must mean that there is no moral justification for the work he has done in others. Don't do their work for them! Make sure you separate the man from the mission.

And so on to all the other things on Matron's to-do list that are not WikiLeaks. Which, sadly, is still most of them. In the meantime, have a merry festive season!