Monday, December 20, 2010

"The only security of all is in a free press”

The wikileaks leaks have been, er, leaking for a while now with media outlets over the world happy to divulge any titbit of interesting information whilst also happy to condemn Julian Assange as an enemy of the US. Personally, I’ve been equally two faced in my reaction to the leaks. I was brought up to believe in the importance of the freedom of the press and free speech in a free society, but I learnt as I got older that some things are kept secret for good reason. I saw films and read books about espionage and about the intelligence battle to win the Cold War. Too much loose talk gives the Ruskies the upper hand and all that. This acceptance of secretive governments evolved from military secrets in the time of war (cold or otherwise) to include governments and government departments in peace time and to both in these times of terrorist attacks. So what if the government is telling us little white lies, it’s no doubt in our interest, after all it could put us and everyone else in the West at risk if we all knew the truth, wouldn’t it?

I assumed that as adults we all understood that governments lied to us and we were mature enough to accept it as a necessary part of living in a free society. They have to lie to protect our freedom. Then I read this quote from the White House regarding the leaks:

“Such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals.”

Most of it struck me as serious and worrying, people’s lives are being put at risk just because someone wants to shout “I know something you don’t know!” over the internet, we must take this seriously. But what really stood out was the line about promoting “democracy and open government.” It made me chuckle, the irony of a government statement claiming that telling the truth was putting at risk the countries ability to promote the value of telling the truth. Then I thought back to my initial reaction to the leaks. When had I started to believe it was acceptable for democratic governments to hide the truth from their voters? I pondered this for a little while and read a few of the leaks.

A fair number of them seemed harmless enough, little white lies or hidden truths to make diplomatic encounters easier. In fact many of them seemed like the kind of thing the US would be happy to divulge if they didn’t feel the need to play the diplomacy game. A bit like someone smelly overhearing you referring to them as “Stinky Joe” behind their back, yes it’s embarrassing but in the end they will either wash more often or they won’t talk to you again, either way you won’t have to smell them anymore.  Others were less harmless and showed the true extent of America’s influence on other nations. For most this isn’t news but it makes interesting reading to see how diplomats interact with each other.

It was then that I remembered this quote by former President of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson:

"The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure." 

It was these words that reminded me of my youthful beliefs in the importance of a free press and it was these words that brought me full circle back to those beliefs. My argument that we were mature enough to accept government lies was the wrong way around. We’re mature enough to accept the truth so governments should stop patronising us.

Governments demand our loyalty and obedience but forget that it is the people who should be demanding the governments to be honest and faithful with the powers we have granted them. The whole nature of democracy relies on openness, without knowing the truth how can we make informed decisions when we reach the voting booth? Governmental secrets essentially hold the electorate to ransom, they undermine the very essence of democracy and threaten our personal and social freedoms.

This is not on the scale that many countries suffer by any means, we are lucky in the West to live in the most open societies there are but we’re moving away from this openness all the time. The White House statement shows the full extent to which hiding the truth has become acceptable. At no point did the US government accept the notion that hiding the truth might be undermining their ability to spread the idea of open, democratic societies around the world. No, that was being undermined by those exposing the truths not by those truths being hidden in the first place.

We don’t live in a utopia where people can be trusted to do the right thing all the time, we don’t live in a society where the right thing is always the most popular thing either but we do live in a world where it has become the norm to lie about the smallest of things for fear of being misrepresented or of upsetting people. The media holds some blame but the liars hold the most as the media would have a lot less to expose if lying wasn’t so endemic in our system of “open” government. Removing the scandal of lies from a story would result in less excitable reactions from the general public and media.  “We are going to invade Iraq because we want to establish a platform for western influence in the oil rich region to protect our oil supply for future generations” would have not sat much better with the electorate than reasons given for the invasion of Iraq but it certainly wouldn’t have sat worse once it was exposed that we had been lied to. The lies make the scandal, with the truth there is no scandal just tough choices and open and honest debate.  

We must now sit and wait to see how the world deals with the man at the centre of this whole affair. Assange is at the vanguard of a new age of the press and the free flow of information. He didn’t steal the documents but he did publish them, has he committed a crime and if so isn’t every other media outlet that published the cables equally guilty? Does freedom of the press extend beyond US borders or do those rights only exist if the information stays within sanctioned media outlets? If so can that truly be seen as free?  More questions keep cropping up all the time and the answers won’t come for some time, if at all. All we know for sure is that the way the press works has changed for good and now we must wait to see if the world can catch up.