The WikiLeaks storm of 2010 seems to be spent. But, as a symptom of what is happening to journalism, the WikiLeaks phenomenon carries profound significance, says Charlie Beckett.
Julian Assange isn’t paranoid: they really are out to get him. Or rather – which may amount to the same thing – ignore him. For a glorious few months in 2010, WikiLeaks was one of the world’s best-known media brands, and its founder’s distinctive image had become a globally recognised symbol of radical digital politics. A short two years later, the sands have run through the WikiLeaks timer. An organisation that riled the world's most powerful governments and that was courted by the biggest news-media companies finds itself out of the limelight, while its figurehead sits in Ecuador's embassy in London, unable to leave the premises without risking arrest.
I am sure that this outcome annoys Julian Assange more than it does me, but having spent a year writing a book on WikiLeaks, I hope he doesn’t mind if I too feel a little personal pain. But there's consolation (for me at least) in knowing that the theme of the book – to ask what media analysts, students and practitioners can learn from WikiLeaks and its significance for journalism and politics in the networked era – is if anything even more relevant in 2012 than it was in 2010 (an argument developed in WikiLeaks: News in the Networked Era [Polity, 2012]).
I think that WikiLeaks is the greatest challenge to journalism in the digital era. That might sound overblown, especially when a lot of people are very keen to move on and leave it behind. Diplomats who previously denounced WikiLeaks as a weapon of terror that threatened western democracy now claim it has had no impact. Journalists who rushed to publish the leaked "war logs" and cables now dismiss it as a one-off freakshow, and feel reassured that their familiar and comforting brands have not been usurped. ("Assange is mad, you know", they say, as if the editors and press barons who have paraded before Lord Leveson’s phone-hacking inquiry in London have come across as entirely normal human beings…).
It's true that WikiLeaks has not lived up to Assange’s own high hopes that its revelations would alter the balance of global power. The prospects of a repeat, any time soon, of anything like its momentous publications of 2010 also look remote. Indeed, it is possible that this communications comet might just burn out, torn apart by the combined strain of personal-legal problems, financial crisis, external assaults and internal inertia. Yet there could be another future: Assange is a hugely gifted person and there are a group of committed people still working hard to reward the continuing loyalty of WikiLeaks' many followers around the world.
In any event, if we look at the significance of WikiLeaks as a symptom of what is happening to journalism, rather than as a finished product in isolation from its context, I still think we should be taking notice rather than taking sides over Julian Assange’s remarkable project.
Here are three of WikiLeaks' lessons.
Firstly, the WikiLeaks revelations of 2012 did have a material impact in lots of places. It is always difficult to quantify media effects, but around the world people tell me that the "embassy cables" especially have played directly into local politics. Journalists continue to dig out items from them to illuminate current controversies (see, for example, Matt Kennard, "Haiti and the shock doctrine" [14 August 2012]). The security classification of the cables was actually relatively low, but their volume makes them useful far beyond this.
It is also important to bear in mind the increased impact that a relatively minor disclosure can have in a closed media environment such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. Even where the information was not revelatory, it had the effect of confirming widely held suspicions. A good example is the Tunisian cables confirming that the United States thought the then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was both corrupt and politically vulnerable. There were far more important factors in the Tunisian uprising than WikiLeaks, but these cables were another catalyst for activists by providing evidence to support their revolution.
Secondly, WikiLeaks was a breakthrough as an act of journalism. Much of WikiLeaks was not at all new. There is nothing novel about leaking. Politically-motivated journalism is as old as the craft itself, and there have long been charismatic editorial figures. But the scale and immunity of WikiLeaks was unprecedented. Thanks to the internet, WikiLeaks was able to receive and distribute a vast cache of information with incredible speed and reach (in practice this took time and was not a one-off "data dump", but the principle is still valid). Its diffuse organisation meant that its editorial team and its informational hardware were not located in one place and so not subject to the same legal, commercial and political constraints faced by mainstream media. It was effectively immune from censorship. Assange is being pursued legally on a personal matter and WikiLeaks has been subject to a barrage of financial and infrastructural assaults, but these have not stopped it publishing.
Thirdly, for me the most substantial innovation of WikiLeaks is that it acted as a network in collaboration with mainstream media. WikiLeaks was never a Wiki. It evolved from a tightly-controlled platform for secure information disclosure that published a variety of secret documents. Then with the "collateral murder" video it moved into a more traditional journalistic phase, editing and broadcasting material. This, however, was not having much impact. There were a lot of clicks on the website but no real effect on political or media agendas. This is why Julian Assange decided to team up with mainstream media. He needed their help to process the information, but his main motive seems to have been to exploit their brands and the audiences they commanded. It worked. At last the leaks were getting the attention they deserved. Despite the focus on him personally and some very hostile reaction, the information was now creating debate about critical issues.
So WikiLeaks in combination with its mainstream partners achieved a new kind of networked journalism. It was able to exploit the scale, reach and immunity afforded by the network of the internet. It was also able to tap into the mainstream-media networks of organisations such as the New York Times with all their links into a mass audience, but also their connections with networks of powerful and influential people. As a publisher of last resort WikiLeaks was a marginal wholesaler of revelation. By collaboration with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the others it became editorially powerful, feeding into some outstanding journalism that has helped inform understanding of the way that military and diplomatic power works.
WikiLeaks insists that it continues to work with mainstream-media partners around the world, but the fact that the core partnerships broke down so badly reveals much about its practical, political and ethical limitations and even contradictions. I examine those tensions at great length in the book, though in terms of its significance for journalism I think we should be looking ahead.
There is a strange complacency among mainstream media regarding WikiLeaks. With a few exceptions it is not born out of personal hostility. Most of the editors I have spoken to would "happily" work with Julian Assange again. He is seen as a potential source of marketable and important information. Most, however, think it has failed and that the world has moved on. They are also busy keeping their own organisations afloat. WikiLeaks claimed it was going to be an alternative source of information and debate. Instead, it has ended up with Julian Assange hosting a chat show on a channel subsidised by a government known for its media manipulation, and then seeking the protection of the Ecuadorian government. But WikiLeaks was in media terms always a symptom rather than a rival.
WikiLeaks was in part a product of a massive rearrangement of the structures for topical communications, enabled by technological innovations but now driven by much larger social and political forces. The way demographic and educational forces in the Arab world play into technological and market changes in communications is a prime example. Youth, plus literacy, plus new media, plus anger is a powerful equation. Already, the power-holders are readjusting to the uncertainty and complexity that characterise this new public sphere (or rather spheres).
Every self-respecting mainstream-media organisation, from Al-Jazeera to the Wall Street Journal, now has some kind of "secure" leaks facility. But how disruptive are they prepared to be? How fast can mainstream media adapt its skills, structures and policies to the wider changes in the information economy? An enterprise like WikiLeaks has the advantage of flexibility. It can nimbly adapt to the shifting media ecology. Yet stand-alone imitators of WikiLeaks, such as Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s OpenLeaks do not seem to have managed to create a workable system, so far. The Anonymous hacktivist network for a time seemed to be more focused in its efforts to disrupt powerful information systems, but has faced disruption of its own and proved unable to scale up its activities.
Beyond Them and Us
More broadly, I don’t think there is necessarily a choice between the old and the new. The new journalism landscape will be a combination. There will be radically overhauled journalism organisations with the financial and editorial capital to sustain a substantial media institution. But there will also be hybrid, marginal, transitory media phenomenon that arise, adapt and move on. But they will all exist within the wider context of much more distributed social communications networks populated by individuals and a whole range of governmental, corporate and civic groups.
These are all relatively incremental adaptions to the new media environment. In the long run, the state of political communications will be determined by the argument over the "open internet". Today, it is possible that Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has had more political impact than Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. But how far either journalists or citizens or activists are able to use these digital technologies for revelation, advocacy and organisation depends on who controls the networks. The recent arguments around copyright in America over the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) and related legislation are a reminder that the drivers are as much corporate forces as governments.
This is not just a simple "them-and-us" struggle. The debate over how to organise power and democracy in the networked era is happening within as well as between institutions. The US state department cannot operate without huge flows of online information but it is paying closer attention to securing that data. It is also struggling with the much more important ideological debate between two desires: to have an open internet that facilitates political reform and market economics, and to retain its own information security. It is spending billions on promoting online democracy activists internationally but is still pursuing WikiLeaks through the legal system.
As information attempts to become more free, human-rights lawyers and others fear that WikiLeaks will be used as a pretext to clamp down harder on whistleblowers. After all, amidst all the discussion of global politics and high-minded principles, it's worth recalling that one human individual, allegedly the American soldier Bradley Manning, had to be the source for those 2010 leaks. And his predicament is in its way WikiLeaks' biggest lesson of all.
*[This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net on August 15, 2012].
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.