Say You Want a Revolution: Wikileaks and the Illusion of Transparency

Professor Alasdair Roberts has offered some interesting thoughts on Wikileaks and the impact of the leaking of diplomatic cables earlier this year.

Despite predictions of a ‘global diplomatic crisis’, ‘deep disruption’ or ‘a change to global politics’, the impact to date has been less than feared or hoped. The US ambassadors to Equador and Mexico have resigned and much embarrassment has been caused.  Yet, despite the US government line that it had caused real damage, senior officials, ironically, leaked that this wasn’t the case.

The paper argues that the leak was based on several false assumptions. The first of these was that the international political system is  ‘brittle’ and a revelation could help profoundly alter power structures. But, he argues, ‘it is not clear that the social order is either deceptive or brittle. We might even say that WikiLeaks proved the reverse: that what was in fact going on behind the curtain was more or less what most people had suspected and were prepared to tolerate’.

The second was that releasing raw data would have a decisive impact, based on the belief that people would be interested or, to put it bluntly, would care. Yet there is no such thing as a ‘complete revelation of the truth’. The reliance on raw data was also misplaced ‘raw data must be distilled; the attention of a distracted audience must be captured; and that audience must accept the message that is put before it’.

Roberts points out that context is key. So for example, the revelation on the front of the Independent may have had a very different impact in February 2003. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, with which Wikileaks is always compared, gave an extra push to rising discontent with the war in Vietnam and public unhappiness as ‘a host of forces operated in the same direction at the same time’.  The papers were  released to a world of Richard Nixon, public protest and burning campuses.

The US of 2011 is not the same place. Contemporary concern over declining US power or terrorism ‘is not an environment in which the revelation of abuses of power abroad are likely to provoke public outrage’.

It will take time to see what the actual impact is, as Roberts points out.  Interesting things are happening with new projects such as Open Leaks, which is discussed here and here (you can also see a different perspective from Yochai Benckler).  Nor is this to say that such sites will always prove underwhelming. If context can run against you, it can also run with you.  But for the time being Wikileaks  has been more whimper than bang.

Wikileaks: new movements and slings and arrows?

A thought piece on the impact of Wikileaks by Evgeny Morozov, author of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a leading sceptic on the internet’s power to democratise the world, offers a few interesting thoughts on Wikileaks that also may relate to the world of FOI and transparency.

The first is that Wikileaks may, in time,  form part of a wider movement towards a ‘free internet’, which could include more attempts to promote (or force) transparency as well as issues such as copyright. What Morozov calls a ‘movement of geeks’ could well form around Wikileaks, combined with groups such as the Pirate party, who grew out of the Pirate Bay downloading site.

This may mirror the increasing convergence of FOI advocates with the Open Data movement, who have found that their interests are moving in the same direction, though not all transparency advocates are fans of Wikileaks. With a possible new Right to Data in the freedom bill, they look  set to move closer still.

The second point is that of how championing ‘internet freedom’ can quickly rebound back on a government. Hillary Clinton made a very strong speech on internet freedom in January 2010, implicitly promising to drop iphones to ‘netziens’ like Britain dropped sten guns to the French resistance. She has now been accused of hypocrisy after the US government’s heavy handed response to Wikileak’s activities and some less than freedom-loving snooping on social media.

Similarly, FOI has a way of coming back to haunt politicians. Promises of openness have a powerful boomerang factor. Some see the danger early on, like Lyndon Johnson who refused to publicly sign the US Act in1966 and rather tepidly endorsed it following, it is said, a stream of un-presidential language. For all those of a more cynical bent, you could perhaps compare the young FOI enthusiast Tony Blair with the later more world weary politician, tired of the slings and arrows of outraged requesters.

The Scottish Government lifts the veil on intergovernmental relations

This post also appears on Alan Trench’s blog, Devolution Matters, where it can be found here.

The Scottish Government has clearly, in its last few weeks, decided to stop playing nicely when it comes to intergovernmental relations. Hitherto, it’s scrupulously observed the convention that relations are, for the most part, to be conducted behind closed doors. After taking considerable amounts of criticism, it’s decided to place large quantities of correspondence and other records of its dealings with the UK Government (and other parties) into the public domain.

The documents they’ve released relate to two controversial issues. One is the debate about devolution finance: the UK Government’s proposals to implement the Calman recommendations, and its alternative of full fiscal autonomy. These cover the period from May 2010 to January this year.  The other is the release of Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, following the publication of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s review of the papers. These cover the period from August 2009 to October 2010, though some relate to earlier events.  These records are going to be a treasure trove for researchers and others interested in how intergovernmental relations in the UK work, especially as they’re exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; our own version of the Wikileaks disclosures of US diplomatic cables, perhaps.

The finance papers can be found here.  The Lockerbie papers are here.

In releasing these papers, the Scottish Government appears to be sending two clear warnings to the UK Government. First, that the UK Government should assume that everything said or done in the course of those relations may be put into the public domain, so it shouldn’t assume that it can pursue one line in public and another in private. Second, the UK Government shouldn’t seek to use selective disclosure of documents and questionable précis of them as a way of trying to win the public end of that debate.  The use of that tactic by UK Government, for example over the Scottish variable rate, has significantly undermined the sort of co-operation and mutual respect for confidentiality that are much emphasised in the Memorandum of Understanding and have been regarded as underpinning intergovernmental relations up to now.  It would be an exaggeration to call this a ‘crisis’ in intergovernmental relations, but it is a serious blow to the established way of doing things, based on the UK’s assumption that there’s a broad consensus behind what it does and if not that it can out-muscle devolved governments.  It strongly suggests that the UK Government will need to take a much more coherent and strategic approach to intergovernmental relations than it has done, particularly recently.

Wikileaks and Freedom of Information

Though it is, of course, too early to tell what the impact of wikileaks may be, the site has already divided the transparency community. Is the leaking of the cables an advance for the forces of transparency or a pyrrhic victory?

At a seminar at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, among the panel of experts was Mark Stephens, the lawyer who represented Julian Assange, who justified the leaks on the ground that FOI was failing. He argued that the rise of spin, alongside other nefarious techniques, has undermined formal transparency mechanisms. So leaks via wiki is the future for transparency. Some transparency advocates agree. Established routes for accessing information have come, they say, a very poor second to wikileaks.

Yet there is also concern. FOI allows access to some information but protects others. Protected information, such as diplomatic cables, is protected for a reason. States, one speaker argued, need privacy too and wikileaks is operating outside the legal and social norms that normally bind media organisations.

It all hinges on what happens next. Some feel that the cables are destabilising and dangerous for individuals and states, particularly for non-democratic countries without a free press. Publication may also lead to a ‘chilling effect’ where crucial information is not recorded or written down in a ‘coded way’. Wikileaks’ action could undo the decade long moves towards FOI legislation and wipe the contemporary record. Others argue that all the cables reveal is politics as usual. Everyone involved accepts this is part of the diplomatic great game. Nothing that has emerged is a revelation but a confirmation of what we already knew. Embarrassing, they say, but not dangerous.

Can history help? Perhaps there is a lesson in the Pentagon Papers, which didn’t personally damage Nixon but led him on the road to Watergate and the US to a stronger FOI Act. But the lesson here seems to be that that we never know what consequences can flow from a leak.

To read an online debate about Freedom of Information and wikileaks see and for a discussion of wikileaks, journalism and information gathering see here http://


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