Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Wikileaks and the relentless attack on privacy: if only if had happened six months ago?

So today's wikileak is cables detailing US and other nations' perceptions of former PM Rudd's foreign affairs blunders, ability to antagonise our closest allies, and perceived general incompetence: the SMH quotes US diplomats as assessing him as a "mistake prone control freak".

PM Julia Gillard must surely be wishing they'd happened a few months back, when the great internal debate was whether he should get to be a Minister at all in her government, and whether he should get Foreign Affairs in particular.

The fallout from the leaks

Gillard was forced to keep Rudd in the tent for all sorts of reasons (the threat of resignation would remove her slender majority, and who would want more of those destabilising leaks that almost lost Labor the election?). 
Unfortunately, the far more likely outcome of the latest leaks is that several senior Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet bureaucrats will be forced out as a consequence of their reported comments to foreign diplomats.  Not because they did anything wrong - they were surely just doing their job in attempting to explain why things were or were not happening, in the usual quid pro quo way things work - but because they were implicitly or explicitly critical of Rudd and then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

The cause of privacy

Wikileaks is just one more symptom of the relentless attack on privacy that has been a focus of our sick society in recent years. 

It reflects the same mentality that believes the private lives of public figures are fair game for the paparazzi, and indeed anyone who puts anything into the public sphere deserves to have every aspect of their lives scrutinised and potentially destroyed (witness the outing of Grog's Gamut by the Australian).  That the world will be fascinated by the lurid details on one's private life and so it should be splashed across facebook, twitter and youtube.  It reflects the inability to distinguish between substance and soap-opera.

And resistance is futile it seems: when 3% of Germans attempted to opt out of Google Street View for example, they found themselves the victim "anti-privacy vandals".

The difference with wikileaks though, is that whereas the attack on individual privacy makes the lives of the person harassed and their families miserable, the breach of the privacy of the inner workings of Government makes the work of Government untenable.

Knowing is nice, but actual action on our behalf is better...

Take for example the US attacks on terrorist targets within Yemen for which the Yemeni Government took credit.  Had the Yemeni Government not taken credit for them, presumably they could not have happened.  And the security situation in Yemen might be a lot worse than it is.  So what is more important, the public's "right to know" or their actual protection?

There are limits of course to what should be done in secret, and their do need to be oversight mechanisms that cover the inner workings of Government.  Transparency in government through appropriate reporting of outcomes and scrutiny is important.  But in the main, government (unlike business or many major organisations such as the Church) has never been so transparent as it is today, with detailed annual reports, performance audits, and websites full of information.

Sauce for the goose?

Over at Eureka Street there are almost daily articles on what a great thing wikileaks is.  The latest is former diplomat Tony Kevin (best known for his SIEV X conspiracy theories) basically saying that one of the cables he once wrote was leaked for political reasons by Downer's Office and it might have cost him his career, so the random leaking of cables against politicians and other bureaucrats constitutes a form of revenge he is not averse to.  

Well, enjoy reading and knowing. 

Government leaks for strategic purposes are not in my view generally a good idea, as past governments have repeatedly found out, not least because they create a cover for non-authorised leaks.  All the same, there is a big difference between an authorised 'leak' for a specific purpose, political or otherwise, and splashing absolutely everything out. 

Because the cost will be anarchy.  On a small scale at first, as bureaucrats water down their real advice, one of the root causes, courtesy of FOI, of some of the recent administrative debacles in government in my view.   Governments will become increasingly reluctant to act. 

And nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some obvious players sitting around ready to take advantage...

**PS For a longer and more fervent rant on this theme, read Luke Walladge's Julian Assange is not your friend over at the Drum.  Don't expect the mainstream media to be putting up too many of these kind of peices though, nothing a journo loves more than a good leak and damn the consequences...

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