It's safer to Wiki than to whistle out loud

Published, with copy-editing changes, in the Newcastle Herald, 10 December 2010, p. 9. Submitted under the title "Why governments hate WikiLeaks". Text omitted in the published version is in red.

Authority isn't really all that keen on transparency, writes Brian Martin.

What to think about WikiLeaks? Many government leaders seem to hate it and public opinion is polarised.

To understand the WikiLeaks phenomenon, it's useful to look at leaking and whistleblowing more generally. Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, typically to expose corruption, abuse or hazards to the public. When management - public or private - is exposed for wrongdoing or poor performance, the reaction to whistleblowers is hostile.

Over the past 20 years, I've talked to hundreds of whistleblowers. Their stories are remarkably similar: they regularly encounter petty harassment, ostracism, reprimands, referrals to psychiatrists, demotion, punitive transfers and dismissal. It is hard to find stories of whistleblowers who were successful in stimulating needed change.

The sagas of whistleblowers are heartbreaking. Many of them naively believed that by providing information to managers or outside agencies, problems would be addressed. Their faith in the system is destroyed when, rather than their claims being investigated, they themselves become the focus of attention.

When someone comes to me and says they are planning to blow the whistle, I say "Don't do it!" - and then provide information about necessary preparation to have even a small chance of success. There has to be a better way.

Rather than speaking out and suffering the consequences, it is often safer to be a leaker: to provide documents to a trusted source - often a journalist - and thus help expose a problem without as much risk to one's career. Many leakers are able to stay in their jobs and continue to expose problems.

Governments often pursue the sources of leaks with ferocity. Indeed, they often seem more concerned about the leaking than about the problems exposed.

The case of Allan Kessing is instructive. Kessing was alleged to have leaked a report on Australian airport security; he denies he did it.

After the report was leaked, the government spent $200m on improving security but, rather than rewarding Kessing, charged him with a criminal offence. The message to other public servants was clear: don't dare leak anything, no matter how important to the public interest.

WikiLeaks, in one sense, is nothing new. It is just another means of getting information to the public that governments and others don't want people to know. However, there are some important differences.

WikiLeaks makes leaking much easier and safer. This is especially true in repressive regimes. Whistleblowers there are liable to end up in prison or dead, whereas leakers have a chance of survival.

Another difference is editorial control. Previously, journalists and editors in the press, radio and television were intermediaries between leakers and audiences. Now, WikiLeaks staff make the editorial decisions, though in some cases they also involve newspapers as well.

Editors have long been criticised for running stories about leaked documents. It takes courage and allies to stand up to secrecy-obsessed governments. Therefore it is no surprise that governments have targeted WikiLeaks. Just as whistleblowers are denigrated and attacked, so Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks enterprise have become targets for reprisals. The usual technique is to attack the messenger. Assange, as the most visible figure, is a prime target for being discredited.

In the old days, the mass media were sometimes hesitant to run sensitive stories, so the running was taken by alternative media such as low-circulation magazines. Today, the Internet has made alternative publishing much easier. Whistleblowers can put up their own websites, and many do. Others prefer to keep a low profile but can provide information anonymously to any number of online outlets.

Governments imagine they can shut down WikiLeaks, but all that will happen is the arrival of alternative avenues for exposing information on the Internet. Be prepared for WikiLeaks versions 2, 3 and more.

WikiLeaks is a symptom of a change in the way information is handled in modern societies. It used to be that powerful groups could control who had access. Even the mass media could be cowed by threats of reprisals.

Digital technologies make it much easier to gain access to and disseminate information. Governments are using these technologies to gather information on citizens. However, citizens also are gaining increased capacity to collect and share information. This could be called the democratisation of information.

Governments have often justified surveillance of citizens with the misleading mantra "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." The tables are now turned. Governments have plenty to hide and, with WikiLeaks and its successors, they also have plenty to fear.  


Thanks to Mark McLelland for helpful comments on a draft.

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