Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Wikileaks, the moral high ground, and the question of accountability

Julian Assange was swamped by a media scrum at the end of his talk
"Who put Wikileaks on the moral high ground?" A very interesting question indeed, posed by the right-leaning Times columnist David Aaronovitch at a debate to which I was invited at City University last Thursday evening, where, as a lot of people who read this probably know, I've just started a journalism MA course.

Wikileaks claims to be "an organisation to promote justice through the sharing and communication of knowledge". This, it has done, through the release of many hundreds of thousands of classified documents, emails, reports and correspondence: from Sarah Palin's Hotmail to shocking footage of a US helicopter attack killing innocent Baghdad civilians (note my deliberate value judgment there - I'm not in the game of criticising those who hold to account those who have been perpetuating barbaric and illegal wars).

I can't say I've looked at the site more than once before, when it leaked a slightly out-of-date BNP membership list, which was covered by a BBC News article amongst many other outlets. It has, after all, become something of an essential item in the investigative journalist's toolbox. But, like many people, I wondered what made Wikileaks tick. It is broadly seen as having a left-leaning, anti-war agenda, so there's an obvious political ideology in there somewhere. And, if so, who are the ideologues who call the shots? Who redacts information from the thousands of leaked documents that could be deemed to put peoples' lives in danger? More worryingly, is Wikileaks completely indiscriminate in the way it simply takes information from many, many sources and publishes it without making any kind of judgement on it first?

Taking the view that it would be preferable to pick up on and quote from aspects of the site first hand, I've unfortunately found it rather frustrating to write this blogpost since Thursday's debate because the site has been shut down for 'scheduled maintenance', making it difficult to make a more rounded judgement on what Wikileaks is all about, and why it exists.

The debate was framed by David Aaronovitch, who posted his own thoughts in Saturday's Times, as well as Julian Assange, the curious, evasive, and socially awkward face of Wikileaks. Chaired by the veteran broadcaster and panel chair Jonathan Dimbleby, I came away from this bizarre event not that much more aware of what the raison d'etre of Wikileaks actually is. The audience, of mainly students, academics and other journalists, consistently asked questions about what keeps Wikileaks going in the background (apart from its indeterminate number of volunteers), and consistently, didn't really get any answers.

And, like most of the rest of the audience - a sizeable chunk of mainly journalists or journalism students - I wanted to know what editorial judgements Wikileaks makes, if any. When faced with serious accusations that the actions of the site you run has contributed to civilian deaths in a warzone, you might be expected to respond to those accusations robustly, and with empathy. Someone asked whether it was a goal of Wikileaks to have people protected, and if so, how did they do this? What did they actively do? Did we trust Assange's 'harm minimisation?'

"We are a publishing organisation - we do nothing else. The public decide whether to fund us. You decide whether we continue on this course of action, looking at the fruits of our labour.

"I find it hard to see another organisation which is immediately accountable to the public".

This last point was fascinating, because, despite being asked at least once, Assange couldn't reveal a list of donors who funded the organisation. Maybe this is for a very good reason, but it's clear that a set-up of this nature can't compete with the likes of established national newspapers and mainstream media outlets. We know who runs them, we know who funds them - we quite often disagree with those who are in charge of these organisations and the political line they take, but it's pretty much all out there in the public sphere.

Assange wouldn't be drawn on whether Wikileaks was being bankrolled by the Chinese government, as has been rumoured, nor would he comment on any of the increasingly public disagreements with former volunteers such as Daniel Schmitt (also known as Daniel Domscheit-Berg) who, as a BBC Radio 4's PM programme pointed out last week, has had some serious disagreements with the way Wikileaks is being run, to the point where Assange has suspended him - and it doesn't look like he'll be going back.

"Fundamentally, [Wikileaks] needs transparency in the way it is working, and the way it deals with its finances" said Schmitt, suggesting that Assange, as the leader of the organisation if such a figure really does exist, needs to "focus again, calm down and get a holiday". Schmitt claimed also that the people he had been working with "are no longer involved as far as I can tell".

Responding to the allegations, Assange denied there had been any mass departures: "There have been no resignations other than a media statement. We're a complex organisation with a large, extended network. We make no apologies for not being transparent about the protection of our sources.

Asked whether Wikileaks was too focused around himself, Assange said "Of course it is founded around me. I started it." He also claimed that the level of public interest in Wikileaks was "annoying". Assange is beginning to panic now that the spotlight is beginning to shine very brightly on him. And, until someone more credible than Assange is put up by Wikileaks to defend the organisation and its guiding philosophy, I can't square that question of accountability.

Update on 13/10/10: City have now released the full video of the event, available on their website.

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