Recent press reports about the continuing adventures of WikiLeaks assure: 1) that this phenomenon will not go away anytime soon; 2) that the definition and role of media is changing in warp speed; 3) and that the virtue of whistleblowers is in question.
1. That the Wiki phenomenon isn’t going away is clear. The latest news reports are that Wiki is about to publicize thousands of private records of the Swiss bank Julius Baer, embarrassing, and possibly incriminating, politicians, business leaders, “pillars of society.” Wiki leader Julian Assange claims this new trove of secret documents will “educate society” about money-laundering by worldwide banks and their ultra-wealthy depositors.
This threat comes after earlier leaks of diplomatic cables might have caused the political uprising in Tunisia, “the first WikiLeaks revolution,” the foreign affairs magazine Foreign Policy told The New York Times. The Times noted the conflict between higher administration officials pressing for the Web to expose corruption and promote democracy, and other high-ranking officials in the same administration pursuing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks.
2. A recent Vanity Fair article pointed out the fundamental difference between WikiLeaks and traditional media in curating information they publish. The gulf between their editing practices, Vanity Fair noted, is: “Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one.” WikiLeaks and traditional media approach editing “from opposite poles.” Wiki and its “partners” in recent disclosures are, Vanity Fair concluded, “the mother and anti-mother of modern journalism.” Wiki is a passive conduit of information, with “no regard for consequences”; it elevates transparency to anarchy, critics complain.
3. That noted, WikiLeaks has become the ultimate whistleblower, or accessory, depending on whether one views its role as positive or negative. And, in becoming so, it has altered the historic notion of the whistleblower from romantic, virtuous and socially necessary in a democracy to furtive, mischievous and antisocial. But that started with Robert Novak’s outing of Valerie Plame, didn’t it? In my experiences, most whistleblowers — however noble — do not fare well after the whistle is blown.
Mr. Assange already occupies a questionable role in the world of open media coverage of public affairs. Whatever happens to him in the future, he has caused a revolution in thinking about the limits of secrecy. There is room and necessity for a middle ground between the excessive secrecy in government and elsewhere, condoned by law and accepted in practice, and the no-limits exposure of all hidden records practiced by WikiLeaks. Even champions of transparency would not applaud the release of personal medical records, for example, without appropriate legal ground rules.
We’ll need new definitions, and new standards before the WikiLeaks phenomenon concludes. I don’t expect those anytime soon. A new organization patterned after Wiki, but claiming to be more responsible, is in the wings. Others, no doubt, will follow. Meanwhile, we’re all staying tuned. Things won’t remain the same in the world of secrecy, and they shouldn’t. Provocative “reformers” like Mr. Assange force re-examination of old practices, and that, at least, is a positive result of his actions.
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney, author and literary agent. His latest book is IN CONFIDENCE: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure.