Two Cheers for WikiLeaks
Well, nothing much there. But then we’ve only, so far, been given a few tasty morsels picked by the editors of the newspapers that were favoured with a preview of all this stuff: selected by criteria of their own (usually what would make the most interesting headlines in their countries); and apparently heavily ‘redacted’ by the editors themselves. What more is to come we can’t yet know. (I’ve tried to get into the Wikileaks site directly, but can’t. Is it my ageing computer? Or internet traffic congestion? Or is someone blocking it?) But it is unlikely to be the really damaging ‘top secret’ stuff, which apparently is more secure.
What we mainly have, judging by my dips into it, is frank gossip, and things we knew already. The gossip is obviously embarrassing, and doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the subjects of it: do you care if Colonel Gaddafi is accompanied everywhere by a ‘voluptuous Ukrainian nurse’? Do you believe it? On the other hand it might tell us a lot about the mindsets of the gossipers; especially when the unguarded opinions of US ambassadors in London, say, can all be brought together. I found this when I was researching the private letters between the Foreign Office and various British ambassadors in the 1850s: letters accompanying the official despatches, but not to be – as the latter could be – revealed to parliament. The system of prejudices they revealed made a lot more sense of their policies than the official arguments for those policies did.
As for ‘things we knew already’: well, yes, some of us did, but remember how often things we ‘know’ are officially denied at the time, and – worse – attributed to leftist paranoia or ‘conspiracy theory’? Usually it takes at least 30 years for historians to reveal that, yes, the much maligned left was actually right about one or two things. (Or the right in some cases: for example, the old CPGB’s ‘Moscow gold’.) By then it’s too late for anyone to care. And so the bastards have got away with it, again.
Instant revelation makes that less likely. It’s what I suppose justifies the release of this latest huge tranche of semi-secret US diplomatic records by Wikileaks. But there are problems with it. One has to do with its sheer scale. How can we make real sense of it? Historians – if this material had come out in thirty years time, year by year – would have had time to sift it, and would already have stitched together from other sources, if only provisionally, a historical context for the bits of it that interest them. They would also have the whole of the US ambassador’s dicta before them. That’s how measured analyses are made. A second problem is the way this information is bound to be received by the press and its readers: looking for ‘revelations’, the sexy bits, probably with keyword searches, and straight away. Instant responses (though hopefully not this one) encourage this. The third problem is that now that these people know their unguarded gossip can be accessed in this sort of way, they won’t gossip so much, or not so accessibly. So historians won’t be given as much information about their prejudices and motives as in this – probably last – outpouring of them.
None of this is meant as an argument against the present revelations. I wouldn’t want to place my interests as a historian above those as a citizen. I’m having as much fun reading what so-and-so thinks of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy or whomever as the next curious newspaper reader. I like the way some of the revelations seem to be casting doubt on the myth of the Anglo-US relationship, and wouldn’t be too upset if it undermined the thing itself. I don’t mind seeing politicians embarrassed; and I would love it – though I don’t hold out much hope for this – if it led to their replacement by politicians who are less embarrassing. I’m actually encouraged by the knowledge that they are so naive as to entrust their confidential correspondence to a medium that can be so easily broken into by a 23-year-old hacker. In a way, I regard it as just deserts, for the official surveillance of us ordinary citizens that has been going on for years. I can’t believe, from what I’ve seen so far, that any lives are endangered by any of this stuff. So on the whole I welcome it. But not unreservedly.
But this is early days. It will be interesting to see what more comes out over the next few weeks; and whether it makes a difference to anything. Some of my reservations may disappear if it does.