Wikileaks: an unqualified good?
is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor
Is the Wikileaks scoop - those thousands of documents telling the 'real' story of the US intervention in Afghanistan - an unqualified good?
Most journalists will cheer. It's near impossible to keep an informed watch on power without whistleblowers and leaks. And unless you have a vested interest in secrecy, it's hard to contend that this database - or what we know of it to date - shouldn't be in the public domain.
As I argue in a book due to be published in September, the Afghan war is the "unexamined war" - we failed to examine properly why we went, how it served/serves our national interest and how we will end it - and that we journalists are as guilty as policymakers.
What we know of these documents tells us that the actual war is very different from the one that we've been, haphazardly, reporting. As Julian Assange put it in his Frontline Club news conference:
"The real story of this leak is that it's war - one damn thing after another ... small events, continuous deaths of children ..."
Very different, too, from the war that London and Washington wants reported. Among other things, these documents tell us that death in Afghanistan doesn't happen only in the big events that make it into national news bulletins; that it's more usual than even the most pessimistic estimates based on news reporting.
More importantly, if we citizens are going to examine this war, we should be able to know the truth - or as much of it that's documented and reported as possible - to fuel that examination. And to that extent, a rebalancing nudge to the information asymmetry that exists between us and power must be a good thing.
But I wonder if it's that simple.
At his news conference, the Wikileaks editor described how on this occasion he'd worked with three news organisations - in the UK, the Guardian (The Afghanistan War Logs), Germany's Der Spiegel (Explosive Leaks Provide Image of War From Those Fighting it) and the New York Times (The War Logs) - "sharing investigative resources but not stories".
Which sounds, on the face of it, pretty reasonable.
But what was danced around - partly because, at his news conference, Julian Assange bizarrely insisted on just one question per reporter, no follow-ups - was how much the three news organisations were able to verify and test the documents - and, crucially, their exact provenance - to which Wikileaks gave them access. In the way they would if they were dealing direct with their own assessable sources.
How much did they know about the source or sources of the document pile? His/her/their motivation? Track record? What was not there and why not? What was incomplete about what was there?
This matters. A lot. Especially if Wikileaks is to become - or has already become - a kind of stateless brokerage for whistleblowing.
We journalists were pretty unforgiving of the UK government's September 2002 Iraq WMD dossier when it became known that there was just one source for the so-called '45 minute claim' and that British spies didn't think he was telling the truth.
Will we be so unforgiving if - when - the legitimacy of any of Wikileaks' whistleblowers is challenged? Or will we cut them a bit of slack - as 'one of us'.
Accuracy matters - even with a leak. So how do we know that any of the documents in Wikileaks' pile are accurate?
Some, particularly those relating to Pakistan's alleged collusion with the Taleban, seem not to stand much scrutiny. Julian Assange accepts that others are questionable, too - he concedes that some authors will have misdescribed victims or massaged numbers up or down to suit.
All that he will certify is that the documents are not "misdescribed":
"They are legitimate reports but it doesn't mean the reports are true."
We have to think, too, about Wikileaks' release policy. That title - Wikileaks - is just a tad misleading. This isn't 'wisdom of the crowds stuff' like the 'wiki' in the title suggests. It isn't total, unmediated transparency. It's highly controlled - partly because its success has meant a massive backlog of leaks for its tiny staff and mighty band of volunteers to 'process'.
In this case, processing has meant, among other things, categorisation, a degree of redaction and "harm minimisation" - something that tends to be defined by the whistleblowers themselves. Some 15,000 documents have been held back to "minimise harm" - though it's clear that there can be no guarantees that a, possibly innocent, source of information reported in this document pile will come to no harm as a result of its publication.
And this brings us right back to the accountability of Wikileaks once more. What are the criteria on which that backlog is processed? What's urgent and what isn't? What gets to the top of the pile? In whose interest? To what end? Julian Assange tells us his goal is "reform"; his message "transparency". And we have to believe him because ... well, because we have no other basis on which to have any journalistic relationship with Wikileaks.
There are many reasons why Wikileaks is a 'Good Thing'. Any force for transparency has to be better than one for secrecy. And it's pretty clear that, in due course, journalists will be able to scour those 90,000 documents to enable an examination of the Afghan war that has been, until now, lacking.
But we shouldn't lose our journalistic compass. There's much to be sceptical about with a stateless organisation whose purpose is solely to attract what it tells us are leaks and whistleblowing and redistribute them - either on its own account or, as in this case, via national 'retailers'.
If transparency is the goal, then it might be a good idea to start with the transparency of Wikileaks itself.