In an interview today with Julian Assange, BBC Radio 4 reporter John Humphrys brought up an issue that’s been buzzing around the media for the past few days regarding the juxtaposition of Assange’s role in facilitating leaks and his indignantion regarding leaks from the Swedish prosecutor’s office regarding his own case there:
Can’t you see that it’s a bit rum for you to be sitting there under these circumstances. You, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks man, who’s become terribly famous, as has your organisation, for leaking material that other people didn’t want to see published and here you are saying: “They’ve leaked something about me.”
Obviously, there is some irony to leaks being used as a press weapon against Assange, but it does seem to me that there is a distinction to be made between the types of leaks that are released through WikiLeaks and the type of leak that we can see with the accusations leveled against Assange released to the media.
The main issue is the imbalance of power inherent between organizations and individuals. Organizations exist for the very reason that the group is greater than the sum of its parts and thus more effective actors that the same group of individuals acting alone as individuals for the same aim. Or to put it in the words of Julian Assange:
Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to out
think the same group of individuals acting alone
It’s easy to see how holding the privacy of individuals to be sacred while seeking more transparency from organizations would be a desirable given the imbalances of power between the two. This is especially true if you believe, as Assange does that:
Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers.
This is the very motivation behind WikiLeaks and Assange reiterates it in his interview with Humphrys as his response to the question asked by Humphrys above (interrupting question from Humphry’s omitted):
Not at all. We are an organisation that does not promote leaking. We’re an organisation that promotes justice…
… that promotes justice through the mechanism of transparency and journalism.
At the same time that we recognize these differences, it is worth recognizing that the same technology that enables Assange to disseminate secret transmissions within various organizations and governments allows a much greater scrutiny of his own personal life and there is a incongruity between his role pioneering such methods for the sake of journalistic investigation of powerful interests and his maintenance of traditional values of personal privacy and discretion when it comes to the scope of individuals.
While modern technologies of information dissemination can be a powerful tool for enforcing transparency among powerful organizations, and as much as this aim may be desirable, this tool is a double edged sword. One can easily find on the Internet more detailed summaries of the events in Sweden than can be found in traditional outlets, stories about Assange’s pre-Wikileaks online dating profile, and even full contact information of the accusers.
Now, the level of detail that is readily available to the casual Internet browser is obscene. Most people are not used to this level of scrutiny made so easy into their personal lives and in the case of accusations of sexual assault, there are good reasons to promote privacy on both sides, as disclosures of identity and allegations can be enormously damaging both to accusers and defendants, regardless of the truth of said allegations.
We can see the traditional media maintaining the guise of responsible carriers of information, only reporting the bits that have made it onto the pages of similar outlets and maintaining the “Miss A” and “Miss W” labels for the accusers as used by the Swedish prosecutor’s office despite the widespread reporting outside traditional outlets of what “A” and “W” stand for. It seems to me that in the battle to maintain a respectable level of privacy, the traditional media has lost both against WikiLeak’s method of wholesale leaking and the rapid dissemination of personal information across the Internet when a broad market for the information exists.
We live in interesting times.