Do whistleblowers make the world a safer place? Even if you get some learned people on both sides of that debate on a public stage to agree and vehemently disagree with that proposition, you won’t be any closer to finding out.
For that was the Oxford Union-style motion put before some 850 people at Kensington Town Hall last night, in a debate organised jointly by the New Statesman and the Frontline Club (where I used to work).
The star turn was Julian Assange, editor-in-chief and founder of Wikileaks, who has been supported by the Frontline throughout his bizarre rise to infamy. It was a great supporting cast too, featuring people who genuinely do not believe whistleblowers are a good thing. Here’s my brief take on the speeches, with some audio thrown in for good measure. All my Audioboos are here if that’s all you’re after.
(Apologies for the occasional poor sound quality – you can make out what is being said, but less so with the more mumbly speakers)
1. News Statesman editor Jason Cowley’s introduction
2. Clayton Swisher, head of Al Jazeera’s transparency unit
Swisher was the part of the team that produced the Palestine Papers in January, but is also an ex-federal investigator, giving him an interesting insight on this debate. He was convincing in his argument that only journalism – in partnership with people leaking massive amounts of data – can get close to what governments are really doing. Here’s what I thought at the time:
Swisher puts open disclosure in the context of liberal democracy – he stresses the vital role information plays in society #FCNSdebate
And here’s the audio:
3. Sir David Richmond
“Not everyone who leaks is entitled to call themselves a whistleblower,” argues Sir David Richmond, a former director for defence and intelligence at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
This is a good point – what are the motivations for leaking? Almost by definition a whistleblower already has a political axe to grind by wanting certain information to be released. Should we always trust their motives. Sir David had other very good points too, as I pointed out (although my iPhone decided to get his name wrong):
Richard makes fair points: parliament, courts and media should be more democratic do there is less need for leaks #fcnsdebate
Here’s the boo:
4. Julian Assange, Wikileaks
Rapturous applause greeted Assange’s appearance – whatever anyone might say about him, he is wildly popular with many people (though the liberal-minded New Statesman reading crowd may not be the toughest critics).
It was a somewhat subdued Assange performance: he has a slow, languid speaking style and prefers to let facts speak for themselves, so he comes armed with some to use. Lots of them.
“I ask you: How are we going to know if the [government] secrecy process is working nor not?” He said. “The only way we can know if the information is legitimately kept secret is when it is revealed.” (The emphasis is mine)
There was a nervous laugh from the audience at this, but he is not joking. Assange never jokes: he is utterly unaware of the ludicrous irony of his position. The Guardian’s book on him and the Wikileaks phenomenon is titled “Julian Assange’s war on secrecy”, which is entirely accurate. That is how he views his job: to attack official secrecy in all its forms.
He genuinely believes that whistleblowers can and should avert wars. What would have happened, he asks, if someone had leaked something proving there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002?
This is a naive view of international relations and the myriad reasons states choose to invade other states, in which there are short-term tactical advantage and longer-term fundamental strategic reasons for military action.
Assange is entirely right that the reasons for going to war are kept secret and the public has a right to know. But his assertion that whistleblowers can – assumedly if they choose to leak to Wikileaks – create world peace and prevent all government wrongdoing does not stand up to scrutiny.
Where Assange is on stronger ground is on the affects Wikileaks has had in Asia, Africa and across the developing world. Certainly among cynical hacks in the London media jungle (or rather, thoses that don’t work for the Guardian), there is a feeling that the “cablegate” leaks didn’t contain much of interest. Though embarrassing for the US State Department, there was a lot of nonsense too, such as the revelation that French premier Nicolas Sarkozy once chased a rabbit around his office.
But Assange pointed out that the Indian national paper The Hindu has put cablegate leak-based stories on its front page 21 times in the last six weeks – Indian readers are fascinated by the revelations on Indian government corruption.
Assange argued “it is obvious that whistleblowers make the world a safer place,” but added that “doesn’t mean is that everything governments do should be exposed.” He wants the idea of secrecy to be redefined.
Or to put it in blunter terms than he himself did – he wants official secrecy to obliterated.
5. Bob Ayres
Slightly bad sound on this one – but you can just about hear the former director of the US Department of Defence Information Systems Security Programme telling Assange to “sit down!”. Ayres pedantically questioned Assange’s chronology on the Vietnam war, at which the Wikileaks man leaped to defend himself. In football parlance, it was a case of “handbags at ten paces“.
Essentially, Ayres things people who “break this oath of secrecy to leak documents” do so for “revenge, ideology, fear or ego”. He says leakers are more commonly called “rats” or “traitors”.
6. Mehdi Hasan, New Statesman
Technically the best speaker of the night – I’m going to let his speech speak, so to speak, for itself. A very impassioned and convincing defence of principled disclosure for the greater good, in the face of government secrecy and wrongdoing.
7. Douglas Murray, writer
Coming from a more, shall we say, right-wing perspective, writer Douglas Murray closed the debate and made some of the evening’s most important points. Such as:
Douglas Murray to Assange: ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ in relation to middle east foreign policy #fcnsdebate
This is a key point and I don’t think Wikileaks supporters – I broadly include myself in that camp – have an answer. “What about the collateral damage?” he asks. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing when you release an element of chaos into the Middle East, an area that doesn’t need any more conspiracy theories.”
Here’s the boo, containing some interruptions from Assange
I abstained from voting on the motion. I’m not certain the case was empirically made that whistleblowing has made us safer – the motion’s proponents make intellectual defenses for leaking as a noble, worthwhile practice.
Douglas Murray asked some very awkward questions of Assange – where are you based, who funds you, what is your motive, are you sure you know what you’re doing – and along with others I felt his answers weren’t enough.
Murray also brought up the infamous conversation with Assange and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, which was dismissed as a “personal” question.
Having said that, the amount of lies and misinformation that Wikileaks’ activity has uncovered in the past six months – particularly in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – easily justifies its existence and I’m glad it exists. I don’t think we’ll understand the full significance of these leaks for a number of years.
– We’re not picking up reports from this event as such, but TheMediaBriefing (which I edit) has links on Wikileaks from a media industry point of view.
– Listen!“>Halucigenia has a comprehensive account too.
Speaking of which, here’s a widget showing all the tweets in one place.
(picture is via isriya on flickr)