03 November 2011


'Secrecy, Betrayal and Crime' by Dina Siegel in (2011) 7(3) Utrecht Law Review  107-119 argues that -
In the past several years more and more hidden transgressions and crimes have been revealed in the media. Secrets that were kept for generations are no longer secret. Secret societies such as the Freemasons hold ‘open days’ and Cabbalists attract a wide audience to their courses and workshops, something unthinkable only twenty years ago. Whistleblowers reveal clandestine agreements between managers and directors of large companies; criminals (pentiti) make deals with criminal justice officials and provide information about organized crime; cyclists and athletes make tearful confessions about drug use in front of an army of TV journalists.

It looks as if Pandora’s box has been opened and all kinds of sins have emerged. However, going through the historical archives, we see that from time to time sensational and sometimes heartbreaking testimonies by victims of sexual abuse, or confessions by sportsmen, managers and drug traffickers have appeared in the headlines before. These confessions shocked the public, raised many questions and then disappeared again – until the mid 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, when a new wave of revelations in various sectors of society began to dominate the media and the public debate.

The relevant question for social science research is what exactly happened to make all these persons speak up? Why them and why now? How do society’s institutions react to these revela- tions? More in general, what is happening in our late modern society, where secrets seem to be a thing of the past? Various theories have been proposed to answer these questions. One possible explanation for this wave of revelations can be found in increasing governmental control and successful compliance by various public and private institutions. This explanation has been challenged by criminologists who argue that stricter control can only lead to even more secrecy and more sophisticated communication between the persons involved.

Another possible explanation is that although secrecy used to be functional in times of trouble, dictatorships and wars, as a symbol of political or religious protest to gain the under- ground support of a significant part of the population, today the word ‘secret’ has become synonymous with ‘illegal’ or ‘criminal’. Rather than being considered an offender, people prefer to be viewed as ‘victims of the system’, of late modernity with its impersonal, unstable relation- ships, mobility and risks. In such a society there is no place for secrets. This explanation has also been criticized, for example by authors like Mike Presdee, who have argued that the routine and boredom of late modern life can be a reason for individuals to lead a ‘second life’, where transgressions can be an answer to the emptiness of people’s existence. Presdee shows that longing for different forms of pleasure is a consequence of the increasing rationalization of public life, ‘that part of life that is inaccessible and untouchable to the “official world” of the scientific rationality of modernity and its politics, parties and politicians’. ‘Moral entrepreneurs’ describe this desire for pleasure as uncivilized or even criminal.

While earlier in history the functionality of secrecy was generally recognized and the violation of a secret was seen as betrayal, today secrecy is considered as an obstacle to risk avoidance, and the disclosure of secrets is viewed in our times as an expression of good citizen- ship. It is encouraged and in some countries even rewarded by the authorities.

In this paper, I will ask why attitudes about secrecy have changed, why in the last decades so many secrets have been revealed, either by individuals who are complicit (pentiti, whistle- blowers or cyclists) or by victims (of child abuse by the Catholic clergy) and outsiders (WikiLeaks activists). Who are the people behind the secrets? And how can we carry out research in closed and isolated groups who consider such information leaks a form of betrayal? What is the specific social context in which these revelations take place, and why is this happening now? I do not pretend to be able to answer all these questions. Much more (and more detailed) criminological research is needed for this. My purpose here is to place them on the agenda of future criminological research, especially by the Utrecht School of Cultural Criminology.
Siegel comments that -
The basic idea of the founders of the WikiLeaks website is that there should be no more secrets: no secret acts, no secret agreements, no secret promises. Everything should be open and transparent. Public and private organizations, as well as individuals, are no longer supposed to have anything to hide.

But who is behind WikiLeaks, who decides that absolute transparency is the highest value of late modernity? The site claims to have been founded by a group of concerned journalists, political dissidents and hackers, whose aim is to make confidential government documents available to the wider public. However, the idea that WikiLeaks is just a group of informers is not quite correct. In the process of revealing information a selection has to be made, as well as a decision about what is sufficiently important to put out and what is not. In this way, a new group of powerful individuals emerges, who are not only in a position to manage our information systems and to determine the political and social agenda, but also to play the role of censor, reminiscent of Big Brother.

According to the prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, WikiLeaks is achieving the opposite of what it is supposed to achieve. ‘Far from making for a more open world, it could make for a much more closed one. Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness. WikiLeaks will sow distrust and fear, indeed paranoia; people will be increasingly unwilling to express themselves openly in case what they say is taken down by their interlocutor and used in evidence against them, not necessarily by the interlocutor himself’.40 In a sense, WikiLeaks is taking upon itself the role of a censor, in a totalitarian sense, because people will become afraid of writing what they really think and believe. ‘The ability to be secret is essential to the ability to be honest’. ‘WikiLeaks is setting itself up as a moral authority over the whole world’, and ‘even if some evils are exposed by it, or some necessary truths aired, the end does not justify the means’.

Another criticism of WikiLeaks’ activities is that their presupposition that the public wants to know everything is taken for granted. But not everyone wants to know everything, especially when it comes to facts that could destroy our trust. Comparable to the previously discussed ‘conspiracy of silence’ we do not want people to ruin our ideals, our fairy tales, or our heroes. The question as to whether the world will improve with vast amounts of information on every- thing and everybody remains problematic. It appears that the Internet has created new ways for betrayal, challenging us to reconsider our concepts of ‘trust’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘responsibility’. With the revelations by WikiLeaks a situation is created where people start to trust the Internet almost absolutely.