24 November 2011


From George Brock's TLS review of the Assange autobiography (noted recently) -
Presenting himself then and now as a rebel against the system, Assange is being strictly conventional. What makes him different is the lengths to which he is prepared to go. Two words dominate such arguments as he makes: “power” and “justice”. Power is bad. It is wielded by weak, secretive, guilty people who lie and conspire to restrain Assange from doing what is just. Information is the corrective to power – which is always misused – because it brings justice. There is no discussion of the relation between information and truth, no definition of justice and no concession to the idea that human social organization may be hard to achieve without creating sources of power. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what is just is what Assange says is fair. His defence of WikiLeaks’s “editorial judgement” is incoherent and self-contradictory.

When WikiLeaks lands a huge cache of American government documents and is obliged to cooperate with the mainstream media, Assange is rapidly out of his depth. It does not seem to occur to him that media organizations might have aims which differ from his own. He gets very cross.

Assange’s querulous, paranoid personality helps to explain why WikiLeaks is part sensation and part tragedy. He and his original colleagues created a watertight platform for leakers: when material was sent there, no one knew where it had come from. This was a truly ground-breaking technical achievement. But, while their understanding of software security was profound, their grasp of politics was weaker. They tried publishing raw material on a website and were bitterly disappointed by the silence. The material was potentially explosive: Kenyan corruption, tax evasion by Swiss banks, manuals from Guantánamo. But banks did not fold; bent politicians were not arrested.

Public reaction was muted partly because the raw material was hard for any reader to digest or often to understand. But, stripped of any authentication, it was also hard to evaluate. The WikiLeakers had inadvertently demonstrated a truth about journalism. For all its faults, mainstream journalism comes with signals, context and history which help a reader or viewer to judge whether to trust what they’re reading or seeing.

The American material WikiLeaks was handed was truly significant, but its release did not trigger the political drama Assange expected. An American helicopter crew filmed itself killing civilians, but the wars go on. Assange miscalculated. He overestimated the impact in the US of the revelation that armies are secretive and commit crimes. He was recklessly indifferent to the expertise required to land an information missile on its target. His message was muffled by controversy and divisions inside his own team. The sheer scale of the material diffused the impact of what was disclosed: reactions went in dozens of different directions. For many people, the revelation was the American government’s vulnerability: a low level soldier could with ease remove and publicize millions of files.

The consequences of the State Department cables were similarly complex and gradual. ... the relation between information and governance stands where it did before.

Assange needed allies and expertise. But his inexperience and autocratic impatience drove them away. If the WikiLeaks revelations had been directed by a cohesive group of skilled operators who cooperated to minimize the distractions of an information-saturated world and to make the very strongest moral impact with the powerful data at their disposal, it is likely the world would have taken a different kind of notice. The evidence, not the man, would have been the story.