Review: WikiLeaks - Inside Julian Assange's war on secrecy

Opinion

Review: WikiLeaks - Inside Julian Assange's war on secrecy

The one enduring thing Wikileaks has taught us is that the internet works, if you know what you are doing.

So thanks, America. You have given the world an extraordinary medium that has and will continue to change the world in unpredictable ways.

That is why "WikiLeaks - inside Julian Assange's war on secrecy" is guaranteed an audience, especially among the chattering, or is that now the twittering, classes. The book is by David Leigh and Luke Harding, two of the Guardian journalists who were handed "the biggest story on the planet" on a plate, or rather USB memory stick, thanks to Assange.

If journalism is the first draft of history, the book, dated 1 February 2011, illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of publishing a history before the story is finished. Its organisation and repetitious style read as if it were designed for serialisation, or reading on the web.

One can easily imagine an early second edition that reports the results of today's extradition hearing which, if he loses, will see Assange sent to Sweden to face questions over his part in alleged sex crimes.

Assange's sexual behaviour is, in the main, a separate issue to that tackled in the book, but it will surely add to sales, and the authors do not neglect it.

The authors mainly tell the inside story of the publication of details of more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from US sources that revealed intimate, often unflattering insights into how America does diplomacy and what it thinks of its counterparties.

But we shall have to wait for Assange's own book, due in April, to assess the process, for the authors are not unbiased. They make the case, with some justification, that without the Guardian's detailed editing, story selection and cooperation with other publishing houses, the release of the cables would have had less impact.

The revelations, which are on-going, have made Assange candidate for Time magazine's man of the year and brought calls from senior US politicians for his head. So spare a thought for Bradley Manning, who, the book makes clear, copied the information and gave it to Assange.

The internet has given individuals unprecedented capacity to increase their scrutiny on officialdom, to monitor what is being done in our name, and to object if we don't like it. That traditionally, is the role of the press.

Thanks to the internet, the genie is out of the bottle. Despite on-going attempts to stuff it back or to develop an internet "kill-switch", it seems there is no going back. The net is changing the dialogue between governments and governed, between businesses and customers, between the media and audiences, and more importantly, shrinking the knowledge gap between the parties.

As John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, tweeted, "#Wikileaks is the first battleground of the Great Infowar. The Arab Awakening is the second. There will be more."

Despite all attempts to stop it revealing embarrassing details of diplomatic opinion and commercial skulduggery, Wikileaks has continued to receive and post incriminating documents. Its operating procedures, which the authors spell out in detail, are instructive.

The authors paint Assange and Manning as social misfits. In their eyes, the two are stereotypical hackers, smart, technically astute, alienated, even anti-social. But they also show that both came, with good reason, to suspect state authority and to hate the cant, hypocrisy, double-dealing and self-interest that underlie so many dealings between the state and individual, the collusion between the state and big businesses, and the relative powerlessness of individuals against both.

The book shows how the internet can help level the playing field. But Manning is still in solitary confinement after seven months, and Assange faces an uncertain future. Wikileaks has prompted a number of others to set up whistleblower sites, not least one by Assange's former right-hand man. It seems as if the appetite to reveal all is undimmed.

Anyone who has followed the Wikileaks revelations over the past few months will find little new. But the book does show that in having to deal with the huge volume of information, the Guardian has led the way in developing a new kind of reporting, so-called data journalism.

Led by the US and UK, many governments are making available more state-held information. What we make of it depends on developing a new skill, namely, what is the right question to ask a search engine?

Hopefully that skill will lead ultimately to better governance, more accountability, a more tolerant world and less need of whistleblowers.

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, is published by Guardian Books at £9.99.

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This was first published in February 2011

 

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