Governments need to realise the world is an open book

3 Aug 2010

Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy’s take on the Wikileaks scandal that heralds a new era in whistleblowing.

I don’t know what stuns me more, the breadth of information uncovered and published on the Wikileaks website, with more than 90,000 documents made public, or the wounded outrage of officialdom, with the Afghanistan government accusing its publisher Julian Assange of being “irresponsible” and the US accusing him of having “blood on his hands.”

Whether iPads were launching or iPhone 4s were being launched, the cruise missile that Wiki-gate has unleashed makes everything pale by comparison.

Last week, I wrote on this latest controversy, which centres on the leak of 90,000 classified military records spanning six years from a source with top-level security clearance, detailing combat reports, killings of civilians and in particular NATO concerns that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency is helping the Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter is an allegation that most US citizens will find hard to swallow because on the US is providing Pakistan with up to US$1bn in aid per annum.

Afghan War Diary leak

The enormous cache of documents posted under the title Afghan War Diary – is considered one of the biggest leaks in US history – and was also given to various organisations, including The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

I believe the leaks mark a new phase in the power of the internet as a tool to inform and spark debate. This is not a bad thing; in fact the more open and transparent the world we live in, the better.

The problem is there will always be those who believe in secrecy. Now for some clichés: while I believe wholeheartedly discretion is the better form of valour, I also believe you can fool some of the people for some of the time but not all the people all of the time.

In recent years, the term ‘nanny State’ has arisen, that our betters know better. Perhaps that mentality explains why senior civil servants receive generous pension ‘top ups’ for no discernable reason? Yet they bray like wounded beasts when that information is uncovered for public consummation. Why shouldn’t the public know if a politician has been filing false expenses? Why shouldn’t they know if flood defences still haven’t been implemented after the worst floods in living memory and with more predicted? Real lives, real people. There’s a lot at stake here. Why shouldn’t a concerned parent in the US or UK know what’s really happening on the ground in Afghanistan where a son or daughter is serving?

Knowledge is power

While information is a powerful tool, it can also be abused by those who supposedly know better. Do not forget how Dolores McNamara’s social welfare information was snooped on by civil servants in the aftermath of her Euro Millions win and how that information found its way into the media.

We live in more open times. The internet gives people a hitherto unparallelled view of what’s really happening in their lives. Those in positions of power and influence need to embrace this reality and adjust. You can’t fool people, you can’t lie to them.

In Ireland, the long-awaited general elections may see a groundswell in electioneering by politicians via tools like Twitter and Facebook. This must be welcomed because it creates an open platform for debate. But politicians must be wise to say what they really mean and remember what they promise, because the internet never forgets.

A new era of whistleblowing is upon us, if information indeed exists there is a likelihood it could find its way to the public eye. This is no bad thing because it will no doubt influence conduct by those in power and perhaps encourage more principled behaviour.

If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then that sword is a double-edged one that must be wielded responsibly and with wisdom.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years