Diary

Glen Newey

Freedom, in the words of the old Irish nationalist song, comes from God’s right hand. As with the gift of divine grace, it puts its recipients on the spot. Are we in a fit state to receive it? In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates Milton observed that most subjects are

slaves within doors, no wonder that they strive so much to have the public State conformably govern’d to the inward vitious rule, by which they govern themselves. For indeed none can love freedom heartilie, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but licence; which never hath more scope or more indulgence than under Tyrants.

Everyone knows that democracies, though they clothe themselves in virtue, may get travestied by the inwardly vicious. Everyone also suspects himself, as Scott Fitzgerald noted, of possessing at least one cardinal virtue. Where politicians continually have to flatter a demos that sees them as clay-footed, each citizen, banjaxed and blandished by turns, is apt to divine in himself a moral purity his political masters lack. Democracies create a climate of moral narcissism among the politicised classes. The thought then beckons that venality belongs not just to the bully-pulpit, Bolly-spraying Bullingdonians who rule us, but to the system that hoisted them into power.

The WikiLeaks saga, like the one over MPs’ expenses in 2009, has offered a slow drip-feed of ‘revelations’. Judged by any index of the smacked gob, many of the disclosures are unstartling. The world has learned that Colonel Gaddafi is an oddball. The Vatican has tried to block co-operation with Ireland’s inquiry into paedophile priests. Nicolas Sarkozy is a short man with a Napoleon complex. When the Duke of York goes abroad to tub-thump for British business, he behaves with exactly the vulgarian bluster that one would expect of his ex-wife’s ex-husband. Angela Merkel is really a man. And so on.

Not all new tokens of information count as news. Some of the disclosures, however, certainly do, such as the uprating by 15,000 of Iraq Body Count’s estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003 in the light of WikiLeaks’s data. The disclosure of Bertie Ahern’s remark to US diplomats about UK government involvement in the 1989 murder of the republican lawyer Pat Finucane has prompted MI5 to release documents which may well lead to a public inquiry. King Abdullah has been exposed egging on the US to attack Iran. The Libyan government’s threat of dire retribution if Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi died in jail in Scotland concentrated the mind of the UK envoy in Tripoli, who was already talking of his release as a fait accompli several days before its announcement by the executive. American emissaries in Rabat treat Morocco’s Tibetification of the Western Sahara with suave disregard. All this follows WikiLeaks’s earlier scoop showing an Apache gunship crew in Iraq treating the killing of suspects, including two Reuters reporters, as a video game.

The cumulative effect is a bit like watching a lava lamp. Decontextualised globules of data surge from below, loom briefly large, detach themselves and subside as others take their place in a mesmeric flux. As with the blinking ciphers from the souk and obscure sporting fixtures that scroll ceaselessly across the screen on Sky News, the viewer goggles before a slew of factoids, at once urgent and ephemeral. What does it all mean?

For some, what it means matters less than the fact it’s there at all. When, after his arrest, Julian Assange appeared in a Westminster court for a pre-extradition hearing, there was the odd spectacle of John Pilger and Ken Loach outside pledging surety for Assange’s bail, along with Jemima Khan, the daughter of the late tycoon and anarcho-capitalist James Goldsmith, whose contributions to British public life included repeated libel actions against Private Eye. Khan complained in her address outside the court that Assange’s treatment violated the ‘human right’ to freedom of information.

It’s not clear, however, that any such right exists. The UN Declaration’s Article 19 does mention the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. But, as with all rights, its absoluteness can be upheld only by cutting back its scope. First, and most obviously, there is privacy. The continuing ballyhoo over the No. 10 communications director Andy Coulson’s spell as editor of the News of the Screws focuses on his asserting his ‘human right’ to pry and blurt. No doubt state secrets stand on a different footing from the romps of lesbian vicars or Max Mosley’s dominatrix. The WikiLeaks cables offer little to gratify the prurient, or only those whose pruritus takes a strange form. The question is whether humdrum diplomatic pillow talk, as well as low skulduggery, is fair game for disclosure.

As with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, or Deep Throat, leaking does a valuable wrecking job on governance by deceit. It got rid of Nixon. His fixers, Gordon Liddy and the White House Plumbers, set to work on Ellsberg, when the papers came out, by ransacking the office of his psychiatrist; this was, of course, the crack special operations unit that later pulled off the Watergate break-in. They displayed, if you will, an excess of zeal in their quest to project ‘information’ about Ellsberg into the public domain, though they succeeded only in derailing criminal proceedings against him. Information is not an unambiguous good. It depends on how it is presented, for what purpose, and at what expense. You can have too much of it.

Still, anyone with libertarian leanings that fall short of anarchism will warm to the idea that we should know as much about the doings of the state as consists with its staying in business. The following reasoning is seductive. We, the people, own the state; the state owns the information; so we own the information, and what we own, we can dispose of as we will. Information can readily be communised. The fact that you get more of it needn’t mean that I get less. Free to all and inexhaustibly abundant, information could be thought to typify the happy union of liberty and plenty in a post-scarcity world.

Under capitalism, though, the faucet of information – as WikiLeaks’s activities and internet paywalls show – can be opened or shut down at will by those with the power to commodify it. Often the information is low or no-grade, as with brain-dead celebrity natter. Like his fellow Ocker Rupert Murdoch, Assange digs dirt, but unlike the Dirty Digger, he passes it on for free. Still, information is power; reputation of power is power. Assange has both. The questions Tony Benn asks of those in power then become pertinent. What power have you got? Where did it come from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you? The answer to the last question, at least, is that we can’t. Official warnings to the 30,000-odd ‘hacktivist’ downloaders of the botnet tool LOIC that they risked prosecution under the increasingly quaint Computer Misuse Act 1990 carry as much conviction as US calls on Israel to show ‘restraint’ after the latest pounding of Gaza. An easy technical dodge can make a dead letter of laws.

The publication of the cables follows the embargo protocol used by press officers when passing news releases to journalists. So the Guardian already has all the cables, and when faced with the threat of being injuncted by the government to stop publication copied them to the New York Times. This means that, for all the interactive maps and invitations to readers to nominate search topics for the database, the Guardian, along with the NYT and others, as well as WikiLeaks itself, is keeping the gate on the information. That’s partly on WikiLeaks’s say-so, and no journalist with family ambitions trashes an embargo. But it also suits the Grauniad’s interests to give the story legs. There’s no public interest reason for letting the releases out in daily batches, apart perhaps from keeping governments on their mettle. ‘WikiLeaks’ is in fact now a misnomer, since it’s no longer editable by users in the manner of Wikipedia. The leakers offer just enough to tantalise, fully aware that the story-makers are also the story.

One may doubt whether, in the long run, the cult of disclosure makes it more likely that mendacious officials will be turfed out, even when the data are released with official blessing. Evidence given in open court to the Hutton Inquiry by Sir Kevin Tebbitt exposed as lies Tony Blair’s claims about his own role in the David Kelly affair; Blair staggered on in office for another four years. Bill Clinton survived the unmasking of his perjurious deposition in the Paula Jones case and on-camera lies about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And so it goes on. Whatever, as Blair liked to shrug when pressed by those in the reality-based community. The net effect is a gain not in accountability but in shamelessness.

Only those with hearts of stone could fail to warm to the cyber-ambush of Mastercard and PayPal. But only those with heads of bone could fail to wonder if the keys of life and death should be handed to Assange or any other individual. Most of the stuff that WikiLeaks puts out belongs not to our state, but to others’. What if those to whose state it does belong don’t want us to get our hands on it? Do we violate their sovereignty? Then there is the possibility that leakers divulge secrets that their co-citizens had rather were kept under wraps. Maybe Jemima Khan’s right to the facts is one the rest of us would rather she waived. It’s not just a matter of whether the information’s cash value rates even as high as zero. It’s also that ‘free’ speech incurs opportunity costs for speaker, interlocutor, kibbitzers and others. Is it OK to blow the gaff about military operations in the field, at the possible peril of personnel, civilians and aid workers? What about busting the confidentiality of public sector contract tendering, which may benefit not the public but commercial competitors? Your medical records or credit history? Presumably all this has to be decided by reference to the public interest; who decides that is a tough one. Why not a random beachcomber from Oz?

There is the prospect, if his extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges does ever go ahead, that the Americans will then try to extradite him to the US to face charges which may include theft of government property and espionage. Maybe the Americans are thinking of scrambling a snatch squad, followed by extraordinary rendition. If we go by the case of Muhammad al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza – Egyptian asylum seekers abducted from Stockholm by the US in 2001 with Swedish complicity, then taken back to Egypt and tortured – the snatch squad may not be needed.

For all the fury of the leaked upon, Assange will probably be OK, as a high-profile Westerner without an obscure and readily forgettable Arab name. In recent weeks the US secretary of state, the Australian prime minister and other incumbents have had to play the unrewarding role of Pentheus to WikiLeaks’s Bacchantes. The state is none other than we ourselves, but it is also an agency in its own right which, got up in its nanny bonnet, sometimes spoils our Dionysiac fun. We remake our state through our unruly speech, even while the state bears down on us to curb it; official secrecy tries to close the book on speech, although it’s integral to the state as work-in-progress. A Hegelian might call this a dialectic of the state’s concrete universality. It looms darkly, as a third person ‘over against’ us first-person bearers of the one true light. Boring reasons of process suggest that state documents such as those passed by Private Bradley Manning should not be up for grabs by the next freebooting blatherskite. But they are.

Previous whistle-blowers like Ellsberg and Clive Ponting acted as lone individuals, opening cans of worms that had come to their notice while in official employ. WikiLeaks institutionalises such acts of individual conscience, as a kind of anti-Ministry of Truth. This will always go down like a rat sandwich with the authorities. When Ponting, having been tried for passing information to Tam Dalyell about the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, was acquitted on public interest grounds, the government stipulated in the Official Secrets Act 1989 that the ‘public interest’ is what the government of the day takes it to be. As Lemuel Gulliver demonstrated in the precincts of the burning royal palace of Lilliput, a copious leak can do the state some service. He quickly discovered, however, that it’s a service for which the state may prove signally ungrateful.