by Fabio Chiusi
Nothing describes Charlie Beckett‘s new book WikiLeaks. News in the networked era better than a quote from it: «The partisan approach to judging WikiLeaks has plagued the debate» about Julian Assange’s controversial organization. Co-authored by the Guardian data journalist – and former wikileaker – James Ball, the book tries to understand the importance of WikiLeaks for journalism and its relation to power while being faithful to a motto that Beckett, director of POLIS at the London School of Economics, writes for those who will report on future developments on this constantly evolving topic: «instead of taking sides, we should be taking notice». Beckett agreed to discuss the contents of his book and the latest Stratfor release by WikiLeaks in a Skype interview with the International Journalism Festival. He will speak at the IJF in Perugia, Italy on 26 and 27 April 2012.
Mr. Beckett, let’s start from the end. Your book ends with a question: after the full release of the cables in unredacted form, «will anyone trust [WikiLeaks] with a serious leak again?» Apparently, Anonymous did.
The point wasn’t to say that nobody would trust them again, I was literally asking who would trust them. And I think Anonymous coming along and trusting them exactly answers the question. Which was: the kind of people that would feel comfortable working with WikiLeaks won’t be mainstream media so much in the future. The kind of people who would trust them, or at least want to work with them, would be groups like Anonymous who I’m sure would be the first people to say that they are quite different from mainstream media, that they are basically a group that actually goes further in some ways then previous whistleblowers. They’re not whistleblowers, they’re people who hack into other people’s systems and steal information. They get information they’re not supposed to be making public. So that’s quite a different kind of person or group to be working with. Especially because they are a group that aren’t an institution. They are a very loose collective of people. They are unofficial, unstable and very interesting – I’m not making a judgement about what they do. I’m just saying something has changed from going to work with the New York Times, which is a bastion of mainstream media, to working with a group who see themselves as outside of things.
But what’s the real difference between a whistleblower and Anonymous? In the end, they are both anonymous sources.
A whistleblower is somebody who is normally almost accidental. Is somebody like for example – allegedly – a soldier in the American army who over time becomes more and more disillusioned, almost by chance has an opportunity to take loads of information out of the American military system and makes it public. But they don’t have a lifetime career, it’s not what they do as a living. They do it for a personal reason, a political reason, and they decide they’ve had enough and they want to make public information that shouldn’t officially made public. It’s quite different to a group of people who do it for a living, they’re organized for that very reason. Anonymous are breaking into systems rather than being part of those systems and deciding to blow the whistle on it. And also Anonymous is different to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is changing over time, as I show in the book: it isn’t stable. It started off with the ambition of being a straightforward leaking platform, then it does this kind of networked journalism deal. Julian Assange talks about WikiLeaks as if it’s a media brand like any other. And yet at the same he wants to be outside of the law. He wants the protection of the law, in terms of freedom of expression, and at the same time he says ‘we have the right to do what we want’.
In the epilogue you write that WikiLeaks, with the hotly debated full release of the Cables, was going back to being a pure whistleblowing site. Still, the partnership with mainstream media – though changed – remained in recent releases (SpyFiles, GIFiles). Does this mean they’re a «networked news agency» again?
Yes, that could be true. Again, as I wrote in the book, WikiLeaks is a pretty new phenomenon. And it constantly changes. In the epilogue, when I said it was going back to being a kind of pure whistleblowing site I meant by accident, in the sense that most people keep referring to the previous WikiLeaks releases – the Iraq, Afghan and the Embassy Cables – as a ‘data dump’. They say ‘they threw all of this stuff on the Internet’. But they didn’t. WikiLeaks has never done that. WikiLeaks has always checked things to make sure that a leak is genuine. With the major releases only a small fraction of information has ever been made public. It’s only when things went wrong at the end, when they lost control over security that it became a pure whistleblower site and all that stuff was ‘dumped’ on the Internet. That was never done before. Now, with the Stratfor releases, again, they’re not putting all the information out there, straight away, but gradually. And in that sense they’re going back to networked journalism because they’ve always dealt with they claim 90 other media organizations around the world that they hope will dig into this material and publicize it as well. This is a model that combines networked journalism working with the mainstream media with another kind of networked alternative journalism working with Anonymous.
And how does that model work?
I think the option Assange is pursuing at the moment is more an ‘ad hoc’ one. He’s trying to do deals, trying to show that they can act as a kind of radical news agency that can accept this kind of information. Considering the pressure that’s on WikiLeaks and Assange personally the big questions are: are they able to organize this information properly? Are they really able to dig out stories or revelations that are really substantive and justify the claim they’re making that they are somehow an extraordinary enterprise? To me they’re becoming a little bit niche, they’re drifting off into that kind of intelligence conspiracy world. We’ve seen this with the GIFiles. They really are exaggerating quite painfully the degree of importance that Stratfor has in the world.
In fact many, from Foreign Policy to the Atlantic, downplayed the importance of GIFiles. Others, however, condemned the lack of coverage from sources like the New York Times.
I think there’s some irony in the fact that WikiLeaks is moaning at not getting enough mainstream news coverage after having fallen out with everybody. On the other hand there’s been a paradox throughout all of this. When WikiLeaks first released the Iraq and Afghan war files, the American military said it was outrageous, it was going to cripple the American military effort, it was about to expose intelligence and prevent diplomacy from ever happening again, that they were terrorists. And the next minute they were saying ‘well, actually there’s nothing in it, it had no impact at all’. They have to make their minds up, really. I think a similar thing goes on with the latest releases. Journalists are terribly jealous. You don’t often hear a journalist saying about another journalist’s work how marvelous it is. But I think there is a real problem, which is that WikiLeaks does have to see itself as the center of the universe and the most dramatic thing going on, because first of all it has to justify itself to its supporters, who have huge expectations. They really believe Julian Assange when he says ‘we can bring down America, we can stop wars and change global destiny’. But they didn’t have that impact. And in a way thank God! I think it’s a terrible world if anyone needs an organization to have such a major impact. But they haven’t had. And these latest files have some interesting stuff but there’s not much terribly front-page. In a way this may be the point, which is this kind of disclosures feel less dramatically interesting to me than to Assange. When we saw the Embassy Cables it wasn’t that it exposed great scandals, certainly not in American diplomats – they came out rather well – but it showed you how power thinks. And it revealed how power to a degree operates sort of behind the scenes. Not killing people and skulduggery, but it just showed you a pure picture of the way things operate. And in that sense I think the GIFiles are interesting. It’s quite fun to see how people who work for Stratfor think. Sometimes they think perfectly intelligently, quite a lot of the times they’re pretty mundane. And occasionally what they say is worrying, and therefore they should be accountable.
Partners have also changed. With McClatchy’s departure, only Rolling Stones is left in the Us, and no media organization has been found in the UK. What’s happening?
Again this is not about personalization, but Julian Assange embodies WikiLeaks. He’s a hugely talented, committed person. And he’s got the charisma to bring in these partners. Unfortunately he finds it almost impossible to work sustainably with external people. If you have long term, institutional partnerships with other organizations you get dragged into all the responsibilities they have: the legal, the commercial, the political. Restrictions that a normal newspaper or tv station has. They’re subject to pressures from their own governments and from their own advertisers, and from their own audiences. Julian Assange doesn’t want to be encumbered by that. And so I think the partnerships are very ‘ad hoc’, very loose. The Hindu is terribly enthusiastic about WikiLeaks, partly for political reasons. But they are not involved integrally in the way that they don’t really shape the WikiLeaks editorial policy, it’s very much a question of WikiLeaks saying, a bit like a news agency, ‘we’ve got this material, if you want to come in offer us a deal and we’ll work on that basis but don’t expect to have any influence over us’.
And ‘don’t expect to be able to critique us’.
That’s absolutely forbidden. WikiLeaks just isn’t remotely interested in a discussion about how it operates, or what it does. It wants other people to be transparent and accountable, but it isn’t. And I can understand why: if you are a secret organization that’s leaking secrets it’s difficult to be open. I think people should not expect WikiLeaks to be something it’s not. It’s not the Guardian, it’s not the New York Times. It is journalism, undoubtedly. It has an interesting role. Some people who have been supporters I know now are very distressed about how it behaves. But also I think that they are saddened that it’s not been able to fulfill its potential. So there’s a kind of sense that people regret that it’s not grown in the way that they hoped.
Quoting Tim Wu’s ‘Master Switch’, you argue that «we are at a defining moment where the Internet may evolve into a much more controlled space. WikiLeaks is a kind of test case for this thesis.» Given the enduring ‘banking blockade’, the US plans to charge Assange – confirmed in the GIFiles – and Manning’s risks of life imprisonment, can we say Wu was right – and WikiLeaks proves it?
It could be. Tim Wu is not a technological determinist, he doesn’t say that things are inevitable but he does make a very compelling case that corporations – and I would add governments – , when new technologies around media arise, and there is this wonderful explosion of expression and creativity, inevitably start to assert control again. We’re definitely seeing that happening now, and in some way you could argue that it’s not a bad thing. We needed some control over the Internet, for example, to set up domain names, to make the system work. There has to be an agreed order to it. The Internet is particularly successful when it’s not controlled. We see that around the world: the Middle East, for example. And I think ultimately it’s going to be very difficult to control it. WikiLeaks shows that actually, just by all the efforts by Amazon, PayPal, American intelligence to try and stop it, it published a lot of stuff and it continues to go on. In that sense is shows there is still resilience out there on the Internet, that it’s actually a very difficult medium to control. But it also shows that if you are going to live outside the law, then you actually have to have your own rules. If you are going to choose to break the law, you really have to have an ethical justification, and it has to be consistent. And it that sense you are accountable even more than a conventional politician or journalist. And I don’t think WikiLeaks has quite worked out that kind of rules or codes for itself. That’s why it might not be sustainable, but there will be lots of other people or organizations that keep pushing the boundaries and keep trying to use what the Internet allows us to use.
Even though it’s not likely it will be OpenLeaks or SafeHouse.
I’m not a technologist, so I can’t explain why these other imitators of WikiLeaks haven’t really taken off. It could be a genuine problem of actually coming up with a safe system that really does protect the source and that can work. Also, is there really the information out there that is this kind of silver bullet? And it’s very difficult to get information out of places like China or Russia. And that’s where you really want to get the information from. I still await the fantastic ‘wikileak’ from Beijing, or Moscow. Another point is: just getting stuff out isn’t enough. The really effective radical leaking journalism is when you leak with a purpose, when you know what that information is and why it matters. The famous Watergate was a small bit of information but it was absolutely critical. It wasn’t a big data file. And I think leaking with a purpose is a thing WikiLeaks isn’t able to do. Anonymous in a strange way is a little bit better there: they target people they don’t like, so they have perhaps a more focused strategy about why they are going to leak something and how they hope that might have an effect. And in that sense they’re a bit more political.
Shouldn’t journalists oppose more firmly the indictment against Assange for espionage?
In a sense there is a responsibility: if you are a journalist, or an individual frankly, and do something illegal you can’t just claim immunity. With rights come responsibilities. You can’t say ‘I’m going to publish unredacted information or information that may endanger people, but I also want to have the protection of public interest’. Personally I think that Assange shouldn’t be indicted. I think it’s a waste of time, Americans are just going to make themselves look stupid, it’s going to be ineffective and a distraction, really. And it’s bad for the Americans to pursue him when they’re complaining about other regimes around the world locking up journalists and pursuing dissidents. So as a journalist I certainly oppose it, but as I said, just because you think you are right doesn’t give you the right to act completely irresponsibly. I’m not saying Assange acted completely irresponsibly, but he has responsibilities as well. And the same with the personal case in Sweden. I think it’s irrelevant to the considerations of WikiLeaks, it’s a private matter, but it reminds us that you can’t expect to be above the law just because you think you are on a moral mission, and you can’t expect that alone makes you immune from those systems.