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As most of you will be aware, last night Julian Assange surrendered to police in London on sexual assault charges. Like many others I’m deeply perturbed by this development, especially given the pretty clear evidence the charges are weak at best and that the Swedish Government (which has been significantly embarrassed by the revelations in the latest round of document dumps) has interfered with the process underlying them.

For what it’s worth, my views about Wikileaks are complex. I’m not convinced total transparency is either practical or desirable. But by the same token confidentiality and control over the flow of information is one of the tools governments and other interests employ to control the public and manipulate public discourse and opinion.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying Wikileaks is an imperfect creation, but one of immense importance. It heralds a profound rewriting of the relationship between the individual and the state, the governed and the governing. By fatally undermining the capacity of the powerful to mislead the public it embodies precisely the values a free media – and by extension a free society – should aspire to.

This is not to say it’s perfect. Unlike the evidence of malfeasance and illegal action by governments around the world, I’m unconvinced much of the tattle in the diplomatic cables is valuable or newsworthy. But that’s not an argument against Wikileaks more generally: freedom of expression and a free media necessarily assumes ongoing debate about the limits of public interest, and commensurately, errors in judgement about those limits. A free media is by its nature a ragged and disputational creature.

Part of what makes Wikileaks genuinely revolutionary is its refusal to accept that there is a public interest beyond the right to know. By rejecting this notion they also reject the collusive relationship with power that undermines the effectiveness of so much media. This fundamentally alters many aspects of our public discourse, and will, over time, alter the very nature of society, both for the better and, I suspect, the worse. It is also, to my mind, an unsustainable and utopian ideal: the proper functioning of democratic society is incompatible with total transparency. But by redefining the limits of our right to know it creates a new standard to which free societies should aspire, and simultaneously provides a disruptive corollary to that freedom which will help safeguard it.

That our politicians have been slow to grasp the larger implications of Wikileaks is hardly surprising. I think it’s increasingly obvious we’re in a moment of historical transition, a transition which will be shaped both by forces beyond our control, such as climate change, and by the economic and social effects of new technology and global media. Neither our governments nor our political and social institutions are showing much sign of being up to either set of challenges, and our politicians are manifestly inadequate to both.

Here in Australia the response has been slipshod and cynical, demonstrating the worst aspects of the Labor Party’s increasingly reactionary and paternalistic mindset. Prime Minister Julia Gillard looked ridiculous last week parroting the American line that Assange was a criminal, and compounded the blunder yesterday with her assertion that the release of information was illegal because it relied upon an illegal act.

The exact seriousness of the threat to Assange is unclear, and will in the first instance depend upon whether British courts uphold an extradition order to return him to Sweden. What is clear is that a writer and journalist has been imprisoned on charges which are self-evidently connected to his work as a writer and journalist, and to his part in revealing evidence of illegal and unethical behaviour by the powerful. In such a context the obligation upon the Australian government, and indeed all people who claim to support freedom of expression and the free media is to protest as loudly and as vociferously as possible.

Having been involved  off and on with Sydney PEN Centre over the years, I’m painfully aware of the difficulty of embarrassing governments which abuse freedom of expression. But I’m also aware that protesting does help, and that despite its statements to date, the Australian Government and Prime Minister Gillard may yet see their way to do what is right by Assange.

To this end I was one of the more than 200 people who signed the open letter to Prime Minister Gillard by Jeff Sparrow and Lizzie O’Shea that was published on the ABC’s The Drum yesterday.

Open letters of this sort always seem to me to be oddly quixotic creations, more symbolic of the powerlessness of those who sign than any real influence. But this time I’m not so sure. As of a moment ago there were more than 4000 comments, and the response was overwhelmingly supportive. That’s not to say there aren’t detractors, but it’s difficult not to wonder whether Assange’s newfound celebrity will prove a lightning rod for the changes that are clearly beginning to take place. As the events of the last two and a bit years and from the GFC on in particular have demonstrated, the rules that have defined our world for the best part of half a century are breaking down, and the relationship between the public and those in authority is growing increasingly poisonous.

This isn’t always a good thing – certainly the crazed, reactionary convulsions of the Australian and American political landscapes in 2010 have not made our societies happier or suggested our politicians and media have any real idea about how to deal with what’s happening. But it’s also increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

Having said all that I’d like to ask three things. The first is that you visit The Drum and read Jeff and Lizzie’s letter, which makes a series of unexceptional demands relating to Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen, and the obligations of the Australian Government to safeguard his liberty. As it indicates at the beginning, many of the signatories are not uncritical of the larger Wikileaks project, but the principles set out in the letter transcend those differences.

The second is that you take a few minutes to read some of the better commentary about Wiileaks. I’m going to suggest you begin with Assange’s own essays about authoritarianism, conspiracy and transparency. As anyone who reads them will be able to see, Assange is neither a terrorist nor a Cold War villain out of a James Bond movie, but a serious thinker with profound and revolutionary ideas about the relationship between the state and information. If the essays themselves seem too daunting I’d urge you to at the very least skim the analysis of their content on zunguzungu.

I’d also suggest reading three pieces by Guy Rundle, Bernard Keane and Clay Shirky, all of which offer interesting and provocative perspectives on the question (Rundle and Shirky in particular do useful work placing the events of recent weeks in historical context and trying to think through their larger implications).

You should also be sure you read Assange’s op-ed in this morning’s Australian, which was written in the hours before his arrest. Given The Australian’s behaviour and pronouncements during the Groggate and TwitDef scandals of recent weeks it may come as a surprise to many that it’s clearly placing its not inconsiderable weight behind Assange (though perhaps not as big a surprise as it may have been to many of its subscribers, who are no doubt choking on their cereal as I type). But I’m not sure it’s that surprising, not just because it’s a reminder of the The Australian’s more general mercurialness, but because as Assange himself points out, a belief in the importance of a free and unfettered media is one of News Limited’s fundamental principles (even if it’s not always demonstrated by their actions or drive for market dominance).

Finally, the third thing I’d like you to do is suggest things you’ve seen or read that add substantially to this debate. I’m sure the days and weeks to come will produce a torrent of coverage, and it’s be nice to aggregate – or indeed wiki – it here. So if you have links, bring them; I want to see them.



22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kate Harding at Salon – ‘The rush to smear Assange’s rape accuser’:
    @thepipingshrike: Wikileaks doo-dah misses the point
    @abcthedrum: Luke Walladge says #wikileaks founder Julian Assange is not your friend (via @kumudu)

    These are three I read this morning.

    I am still forming my thoughts about this. Personally I find Assange nutty and more than a little bit creepy. However the underlying principle of making news more accountable for its sources and the way it reports the news is not a BAD one. And yet, the way the news media is reporting on Wikileaks (like the bitchy, petty, ultimately pointless articles about Kevin Rudd in the Age online this morning) doesn’t fill me with confidence that Wikileaks is ushering in a brave new era of accountability. There is something prescriptive about his modus operandi that doesn’t quite promote – as far as I’m concerned – agency or freedom of information.

    I am deeply uncomfortable with the way the wikileaks scandal has become enmeshed in his sexual assault case. It’s created a paradigm by which you have to decide if he’s “guilty” of both or neither and taken a personal assault and turned it into a public witchhunt in which both alleged perpetrator and victims are already being tried by pitchfork wielding mobs (or their online counterparts). I cringed at the Age’s likening of Assange to Ned Kelly (but I have always had some doubts about Kelly’s status as folk hero, so perhaps it’s not entirely off the mark).

    However, I am also appalled by the language of violence directed towards him (and his son) and where this might ultimately lead. I don’t like Gillard’s knee-jerk assertion that his behaviour is somehow, vaguely criminal. Words like terrorist undermine the actual terror that terrorists deal in.

    Anyway, like I said my thoughts are still nebulous. But that is them as of 2.27 this afternoon.

    December 8, 2010
  2. Thanks James and Penni for dissecting … I’m still trying to get my head around it.
    The timing of assange handing himself in for sexual misconduct charges means the charges will be inevitably mixed up with calls for him to be charged with espionage, treason and generally embarrassing everyone. So … no conclusion sorry.
    Your article was very good James. I was planning on writing something far more inflammatory and far less informed and now I’m feeling like I may have to do some research first! Cheers for the links.

    I do think this whole is a chance, though, for the Australian government and especially Gillard to start leading and stop following.

    December 8, 2010
  3. I started to leave a comment earlier, but became bogged down in the sexual assault issue. Penni, however, has summed up that problem perfectly, and I’ve said my own piece about it on my blog. So I shall move on.

    Today, through a trackback, I found this: Nudge-winking or How not to protest an obvious injustice -> “I think that it’s not an occasion to show how much we enjoy the idea of positioning ourselves against a dystopian sci-fi world of the not-too-distant-future. Again, it’s not that such worlds won’t exist (or even that they don’t exist now) it’s just that our –recognising- this fact isn’t the same as us opposing it, or working towards a different future.”

    I sympathise with that. When I think about what the impact might be, I am less than optimistic about broad change, for better or worse. There is a kind of jubilation in the air, and a gleeful celebration of destruction. But nothing has been destroyed, and it doesn’t even reach the depth of Kropotkin’s idea that the act of destruction is also an act of creation. It certainly doesn’t come close to incorporating the depth of Assange’s own thinking.

    It feels like I’m standing amidst a crowd by a guillotine with everyone calling for blood. But no one has noticed the tumbril is empty.

    Or perhaps I am just feeling really negative today because the level of misogyny has been rising in tandem with the furore and that effectively excludes me from the “revolution”.

    With more detachment, I suppose I think of Wikileaks not as a vehicle for change, but as a unifying symbol of what has become difficult to ignore over the last decade: That neither our votes nor our money imbue us with any power. That capitalism and democracy as it exists bears little resemblance to the political and ethical philosophies which supposedly underpin it.

    Symbols feel like power, and sometimes they are power. Whether this one will be consumed, or corrupted, or utilised for change is anyone’s guess.

    But, of course, it will do all those things at once.

    December 8, 2010
  4. The best article I’ve read on this so far was in The Economist.

    It “gets it” I believe, because it is not focussing so much on Assange the individual (did he, didn’t he, is he, isn’t he) or even so much on the quality of the information (who said what about whom) but more on the reality, that this is now how information can be stored, stolen, sold, secreted and that there are going to vast and varied reasons why people in the future may want to leak, whistleblow, inform, whatever if they have access to that information.

    The final paragraph nailed it:

    “If we take the inevitability of future large leaks for granted, then I think the debate must eventually centre on the things that will determine the supply of leakers and leaks. Some of us wish to encourage in individuals the sense of justice which would embolden them to challenge the institutions that control our fate by bringing their secrets to light. Some of us wish to encourage in individuals ever greater fealty and submission to corporations and the state in order to protect the privileges and prerogatives of the powerful, lest their erosion threaten what David Brooks calls “the fragile community”—our current, comfortable dispensation.”

    For mine – I signed the open letter. The matters that letter was calling for were unimpeachable, much as the call for a fair trial for David Kicks was unimpeachable.

    My instinct tells me that the concept of Wikileaks is something that deserves protecting because if we don’t it may be a while before we get the chance again.

    That gut instinct is being strengthened by witnessing the speed and aggression and escalation with which organised power is being marshalled against Wikileaks.

    In the last few days we’ve moved from a Denial of Service attack, to denial of hosting rights, to denial of an isp address, to freezing of assets, to denial of the ability to fund the organisation if you so choose by shutting off Paypal, then Visa and other credit accounts.

    We’ve seen the British Police, who to date have still failed to act against the phone-hacking perpetrated by News Ltd journalists against an array of public figures, but who have acted with alacrity to start extradition proceedings against Assange.

    Finally, I can’t help but contrast the extreme response that embarrassing western diplomats has provoked, and compare it with what happened when Wikileaks released information that embarrassed Kenya politicians, effected the outcome of an election and won Amnesty International’s New Media Award.

    Seems Wikileaks is tolerable if it sticks to outing the usual suspects … but intolerable if it turns the lights on a little closer to home.

    December 8, 2010
  5. The Kate Harding piece articulates a lot of my unease over the reaction to the sexual assault allegations very well. I find it very difficult to believe they’re not politically motivated, but by the same token they’re serious charges, and deserve to be dealt with on their merits (though if you read the sequence of events, and the spiking and subsequent resurrection of the charges, it looks pretty clear the process has been interfered with. I have no idea how you reconcile those two demands, especially when, as they already are, you have the US pushing to have him extradited to America.

    And Pam, your observation about the change in sentiment about Wikileaks is very telling.

    December 8, 2010
  6. Another excellent piece, this time by Glenn Greenwald in Salon:

    “One could respond that it’s good that we know . . . specific things, but not other things WikiLeaks has released. That’s all well and good; as I’ve said several times, there are reasonable concerns about some specific disclosures here. But in the real world, this ideal, perfectly calibrated subversion of the secrecy regime doesn’t exist. WikiLeaks is it. We have occasional investigative probes of isolated government secrets coming from establishment media outlets (the illegal NSA program, the CIA black sites, the Pentagon propaganda program), along with transparency groups such as the ACLU, CCR, EPIC and EFF valiantly battling through protracted litigation to uncover secrets. But nothing comes close to the blows WikiLeaks has struck in undermining that regime.

    “The real-world alternative to the current iteration of WikiLeaks is not The Perfect Wikileaks that makes perfect judgments about what should and should not be disclosed, but rather, the ongoing, essentially unchallenged hegemony of the permanent National Security State, for which secrecy is the first article of faith and prime weapon.”

    December 8, 2010
  7. The core issue goes beyond Assange and Wikileaks … it’s the internet. The net allows ordinary people to connect, compare and compete against the corporations as well as government. And when whistle blowers use the internet — Wikileaks — to expose lies or hypocrisy, obviously the powers-that-be get unhappy.

    Hence the unholy alliance of US government and corporations cooperating to remove the Wikileaks domain and force the relocation of their servers etc. All in the name of patriotism. No mention of serving their own interests by trying to shut down an uncontrollable communication channel. Hence also our government trying to dump a filter on us, without clarity about exactly how and who decides what it stops.

    Sure, there have always been leaks in the media, journalism etc, but the internet is different. The laws on what can and cannot be published don’t work in cyberspace. And we still need professional journalists. I’m not going to read all that stuff. I’m not going to be able to make sense. We need commentators and contextualisers, now more than ever. Wikileaks themselves know that.

    Wikileaks or its successors will go further than US diplomatic cables. Wait ‘til we read about Australian oil industry cartels or how the banks stitch us up, or even how supermarkets really operate. All this could — and should — come out on Wikileaks. Just need people to step forward. Or even just the threat.

    Is it really so bad? Enforced honesty? Years ago I once I made a terrible email blunder replying to an work email without realising that the person I mentioned in a negative light was on the cc list. My bad. He was very reasonable. I try now to write/speak as if everyone involved was there listening. It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s a bit like Buddhist mindfulness. Tough but rewarding.

    So. Wikileaks is bigger than US cables. It isn’t a threat to anyone except people who hide information or attempt to spin. With luck, the pointless spin-drivel that currently passes for a lot of our journalism might be seriously redacted by the simple truth. I live in hope and, yes, I am an idealist.

    December 8, 2010
  8. Lee #

    Thank you for this post. Many of the lit blogs I follow seem to be avoiding this discussion.

    December 9, 2010
  9. In the interests of making your wiki complete: this is funny.

    December 9, 2010
  10. If you haven’t read this one yet, I’d recommend it…
    Is the Wikileaks we see the Wikileaks we need?

    I think it sums up both the seductiveness of and hope in Wikileaks well but, like me, wonders about the “real world”; the one in which “people read The Herald-Sun”.

    As for the glee I mentioned earlier, I have to admit I’ve been indulging in some over the actions of Anonymous, despite the pointlessness? of that.

    Perhaps I am actually more hopeful of seeing at least a little change than I’ve confessed. It has certainly been interesting watching those who’ve had a little cable-pain this week, and I think in their defensiveness they might be speaking a little more truth than intended.

    December 9, 2010
  11. blurose #

    I am in favour of Wikileaks.

    Thomas Jefferson imagined a democracy of yeoman farmers informed of the affairs of their state and government. A full elementary school education of the late C19th was designed, when you look at the tests, to enable a farmer or small business-owner (the stock and seed store, the hardware store) to converse and put a point of view equally well to his neighbour and his senator.

    By the end of the first decade of the C21st, we have a governement operating in almost total secrecy, and journalism as sycophantic, self-interested and uninvestigative as Pravda. After 40 years of consolidation every newpaper is owned by a corporation totally dependent on the Federal goverment for its powers and profit: Fox News and the rest depend on broadcast licences controlled by the FCC (buy those Commissioners!); the other networks, owned by comglometates which are ultimately heavy weapons-systems manufacturers, utterly dependent on Pentagon contracts.

    Such confluences of interest do not make for transparency; political donations and spin in return for money is too simple and compelling an equation in a culture where the quarterly profit-sheet is literally the most important thing on earth.

    Most large corporations pay no income tax: the profits are in off-shore tax-havens. The electorate has to be kept in the dark about the spin, about the bank-government financial deals, about the significance of the congressman-senator/congressional aide / lobbyist revolving door and what it costs (health-care, education, infrastructure). Because the electorate pays for it all. And because it pays for it all, he electorate has to be told that the war, the privation, the lack of education, health-care, infrastructure, housing, retirement, pensions – are all for its own dire and immediate good; belt-tightening for the war on drugs, the war on terror, the children, the troops, the flag, freedom, the continuance of the American way in the greatest nation in history. There is no heavy engineering here except for weapons-manufacture – aerospace companies, helicopter gunships, smart bombs, stealth bombers, military space-shuttles. The bridges need repair? The States and Counties don’t have the money, even if the original engineering firms still exist. The too big to fail banks have that money, because Congress and a President gave it to them, against the will of the people, and another President surrounded by bankers goes on giving it to them.

    Frontline reveals to us that our tax-dollars pay for baka bazi boys for the Afghanis we need on our side: sex-slavery and gang-rape of minors. Baka bazi’s been a Central Asian custom for two thousand years. Well, we are great respecters of custom, here: secret and undeclared war is a custom; dropping drone-bombs on wedding-parties is a custom; training the military and police for South American dictators is a custom; indefinite detention is a custom; rendition is a custom; torture is a custom; bailing out billionaire bankers is a custom; shooting and killing old women after breaking down their doors because the FBI had the wrong address for a drug-bust is a custom; arresting and killing people for driving while black or hispanic is a custom; death in custody is a custom; promoting the killer cop is a custom; generating homelessness through catastrophic illness is a custom; homelessness by fraudulent mortgage is a custom; death by denial of medical insurance is a custom.

    The U.S. government has become an outrage against its own citizens and everybody else.

    Wikileaks is an extreme reaction to an extreme situation, a perfect case of Yin and Yang.

    The leakers are not spies. They have not sold secrets, in secret, to a foreign power. Bradley Manning is in jail. His target was the electorate, the people who pay and do not know what they are paying for, and how. The leakers are employees of the institutions they disclose from; in the military they are often from military families, brought up on the sacredness of the flag. If these are the people disgusted, in my book that adds up to the standard of “the reasonable person”.

    Leakers are not spies; they are whistleblowers. Assange is not a spy; he’s a publisher. His target is the electorate. He’s absolutely correct in regarding the U.S. government as a conspiracy. The essence of conspiracy is concealment. The only counter to that is publication.

    As for links – I always look at Glenn Greenwald’s blog. He’s a constitutional lawyer, given to clear legal argument.

    December 11, 2010
  12. bluerose #

    The Frontline link:

    December 11, 2010
  13. Adster #

    An old article now (June 7), but still by far the best piece of journalism, as opposed to commentary, on JA and WikiLeaks:

    Assange comes across as nuanced, paranoid, and insanely hard working: ““If it feels a little bit like we’re amateurs, it is because we are… everyone is an amateur in this business.”

    December 11, 2010
  14. Standing on my chair clapping & whistling at bluerose – cogent, sustained and righteous rage.

    Thank you.

    December 12, 2010
  15. A few others, including James, have already mentioned Glenn Greenwald, but I think it’s worth noting that he has been a staunch defender of Wikileaks even before they released the Apache video in April. is down at the moment so I can’t link to it, but back in March he wrote a piece titled “The War on Wikileaks And Why It Matters” that’s well worth reading.

    I’ve been quite heartened by the display of support Assange is receiving in Australia, since a good chunk of our population usually seems to be quite authoritarian. Most of it is probably kneejerk patriotism and anti-Americanism, but it’s about time that was useful for something.

    December 14, 2010
  16. James, thanks for this summary and analysis of the Wikileaks situation. I agree with Lee that the lit blogs seem to be ignoring this topic – perhaps there’s a general fear out there that something terrible is about to happen so it’s best to avoid saying anything about Wikileaks in case we get entangled in the fall-out (if indeed it’s possible to get ‘entangled in fall-out’).

    Re. ‘I’m not convinced total transparency is either practical or desirable. But by the same token confidentiality and control over the flow of information is one of the tools governments and other interests employ to control the public and manipulate public discourse and opinion’. I agree. Democracies can only work effectively when the populace is armed with information and the truth – surely we learnt all about this in the 2010 Australian federal election, which was a dreadful state of affairs. However, there are times – perhaps very rarely but they do exist – when containing information is an altruistic action.

    So perhaps that’s the question: is this latest release of classified information by Wikileaks an altruistic action? My conclusion based on the limited reading I’ve done so far is yes. But can I really be sure?

    I do have a great fear around all of this, however: that governments of all colours and stripes will in future be even more controlling of information, and even more spinny with their communication. So I agree with Mark above that this issue is essentially about the internet. The internet is the community’s tool, and collectively we’ll use it in countless ways to obtain and distribute the information we need.

    The best result from Wikileaks would be if there’s a genuine debate about how government’s control information and how much information the community really wants to know. Perhaps at the end of the day we’re just interested in the price of flat-screen tellies and the cricket score rather than whether or not we are being told porkies about the wars in which our country is involved?

    December 15, 2010
    • Thanks, Nigel, and thanks everybody else, and my apologies for being so absent (slightly gruelling few days with children and work). I’m planning to collate the links above into a post today or tomorrow, so they’ll all be in one place.

      In terms of specifics, it’s interesting to me how strong the public feeling about this is. I get the distinct impression there’s widespread sympathy for Assange and support for Wikileaks, which makes a change from the usual, rather more authoritarian responses people tend to have to these things. I may be wrong – I certainly haven’t seen polling on the subject – but I do think we’re seeing people (The People?)’s growing dissatisfaction with government (not the government, but government more generally) beginning to coalesce into something more organised. Where that goes from here I don’t know – certainly the scale of revelation in this current dump of cables isn’t going to be an ongoing feature of our lives – but the genie is very definitely out of the bottle.

      December 15, 2010
  17. Jenn Godiva #

    For those living in Melbourne:


    Friday 17th Dec 2010, 5.30pm @ State Library of Victoria (cnr Swanston & La Trobe streets, city)

    After two rallies in Melbourne of over one thousand people we need to continue the fight to defend freedom of speech and to defend Wikileaks.

    In Sydney the protest was attacked by the police. Oppose such flagrant violations of our rights.

    Julian Assange is still in prison and his bail hearing is on Monday. We need to continue to pressure the Australian government to support him. We need to continue the mobilisations on the streets to defend our rights to freedom of press, freedom of association and against the worldwide hysteria and persecution of Wikileaks.

    Last rally over 3000 people said they were attending! Lets make it more.

    For more information, please email Colleen:

    The organisers would also like to invite anyone who is interested in forming a campaign group to organise further actions to defend Assange and Wikileaks to our first campaign meeting, Thursday 16 December at 6pm at Trades Hall, crn Victoria and Lygon Sts. All welcome.

    December 16, 2010
  18. blurose #

    Ways to contribute to Bradley Manning’s Legal Defence Fund (h/t to Glenn Greenwald):

    (& thanks for the thread, James!)

    December 18, 2010

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The cyberwars have begun (and reprise the culture wars) « Impossible Beast
  2. Wikileaks are not terrorists…or perhaps they are? « Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot
  3. Book mulchings 2010 – Culture Mulcher

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