(The following has been published as an Open Access article by Le Monde Diplomatique.)
WikiLeaks: Losing Suburbia
By Christian Christensen
The release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of raw, unedited US embassy cables this week has resulted in a firestorm of criticism from a broad range of international media organizations and journalists. Most notably, WikiLeaks’ former collaborators – The Guardian, the New York Times, Der Speigel and El Pais – took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement condemning what they considered to be an irresponsible and potentially dangerous act on the part of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks organization. Similarly, citing the practical impossibility of scanning through 250,000 cables to find and redact the names of sources who could be compromised by exposure, Reporters Without Borders decided to temporarily suspend their WikiLeaks mirror site.
Many of the articles and web postings devoted to the story have addressed Wikileaks’ professional and ethical responsibility vis-à-vis their whistleblowing sources and the individuals named in the files. This focus is understandable, as the protection of sources is the cornerstone of professional journalism. Any person or organization who leaks sensitive information is looking for two things: maximum exposure of the information leaked for maximum impact, and minimum exposure and risk for themselves as whistleblowers. The function of WikiLeaks was to provide both: exposure through the fame and reputation of the website (resulting in, for example, contacts with major media outlets), and the elimination of risk through strict encryption and security routines. When WikiLeaks cannot provide either one of these, it simply falls apart.
While a fractured relationship between WikiLeaks and mainstream media organizations has made for interesting debates over questions of journalistic codes of conduct, transparency and whistleblowing, it is also worth considering how this potential divorce will impact the spread of explosive material on US foreign activities to what can loosely be called a “mainstream audience”. Though editors and journalists might disagree with the terminology, the newspapers previously working with Assange acted as efficient distribution arms for WikiLeaks. In exchange for access to rare, sensitive material, the papers provided research, write-ups and distribution. As I noted in an earlier piece on WikiLeaks, there were, of course, alternative venues they could have chosen for distribution (such as progressive radical newspapers and websites), but these do not have the organizational structure and market clout to have the impact WikiLeaks (and presumably the whistleblowers) wanted.
With the current acrimonious relationship between Assange and major mainstream media outlets (particularly The Guardian and New York Times), the issue now is where WikiLeaks will turn for collaboration – if collaboration is even on their agenda. Working with newspapers such as the Guardian, New York Times, Der Speigel and El Pais opened up the mainstream market to WikiLeaks material that could likely have remained within the realm of the alternative and radical media. This is not to say that alternative media outlets are not important actors for those interested in real democratic change. On the contrary, radical newspapers and magazines are often the only outlets willing to raise critical voices in the face of massive political and corporate pressure.
This having been said, one need only think of the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks (showing the killing of scores of innocent Iraqi civilians), and the widespread media coverage given to the clip, to understand the role played by mainstream news outlets in reaching a broader audience. In my own research, I looked at hundreds of videos posted to YouTube not unlike the one released by WikiLeaks. Many of these clips received a fair amount of exposure in the alternative press, yet were not widely known amongst the general public, and did not become issues of national debate and scrutiny. In other words, while WikiLeaks material is tailor-made for the critical eye of the alternative press, the political economy of most capitalist media systems means that these alternative outlets, and their contents, are de facto marginalized. While a deal with mainstream newspapers could be seen as a Faustian bargain for WikiLeaks, it was a deal that Assange was willing to make, probably because it would enable access to a sizeable chunk of citizens not part of the core of WikiLeaks lovers (who follow the organization no matter what) or haters (who detest WikiLeaks no matter what).
As a researcher, it struck me that the period shortly after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, the “Afghanistan War Logs” and the “Iraq War Logs” illustrated the potential impact of the WikiLeaks-mainstream media collaboration. This was a rare and exciting (albeit short) period of political, professional and cultural introspection, particularly in the United States. US foreign policy and military spending, civilian deaths and possible war crimes in Iraq, journalistic under-performance after 9/11, and government transparency were all thrust into the open as topics for consideration. And, during this period, the issues contained in the leaks garnered as much attention as did the WikiLeaks organization, something that happens now with less and less frequency.
It appeared, during this short time, that WikiLeaks may have done something that I had thought near impossible: inserting a radical critique of US military and geo-political power into mainstream popular discourse (particularly in the US). Granted, The Guardian and New York Times are not the newspapers of choice for many in the US and UK. Far from it. Yet the very presence of the material on their front pages opened up the possibility that, in light of the breadth of the popular exposure of the leaked material, the murky world of US power might now be forced to concede ground to transparency advocates. The current fight between WikiLeaks and their former mainstream partners by no means signals the death of this possibility, and these newspapers need not collaborate directly with WikiLeaks in order to use the information they provide. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the fight may have a negative impact on how those in the political center-ground will come to view WikiLeaks and their material.
In the fight against the abuse of power, the suburbs matter.
Christian Christensen is Professor of Media and Communication Studies in the Department of Informatics and Media at Uppsala University, Sweden. email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @chrchristensen