WikiLeaks is an unusual organisation. Its supporters believe it represents an entirely new phenomenon in international relations. Yet there is one institution that shares many similarities with WikiLeaks: Britain’s News of the World newspaper, which was shuttered by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in July.
There are, of course, significant differences between the News of the World and WikiLeaks.
Accessing the voicemails of a dead girl, Milly Dowler, is wholly different from publishing a record of important diplomatic discussions. One is an attack on the weak; the other is an attack on the strong.
British tabloids pursue low-level gossip; WikiLeaks pursues high-level policy. Most of the tabloids’ stories are worthless; some of WikiLeaks’ documents are very valuable.
Hacks and hackers cultivate different styles. The redtops are staffed by dodgy geezers; WikiLeaks is headed by an elusive Bond-villain type living in a stately home.
The two institutions draw different reactions from celebrities. Hugh Grant is the tabloids’ chief tormentor; Jemima Khan is Julian Assange’s biggest groupie.
Of the two institutions, the tabloids are worse. Assange has certainly not sunk so low as to eavesdrop on terrorism victims and war widows or publish the medical records of infants.
Yet in some ways, the two outfits share the same modus operandi.
Both adhere to the same dangerous rationale, that no-one is entitled to confidential information. As Assange said in April: “The government doesn’t have a right to secrets.” But would the world be safer or saner if governments could not hold confidences? How could wars be averted in such a world? How could peace agreements or trade deals be negotiated?
Both hacks and hackers eschew the balancing of competing imperatives: the tabloids in the pursuit of profit; Assange in the pursuit of an ideology.
Both institutions are blasé about breaking laws to obtain information they say we all have a right to see.
Both are willing to play God. There is no human frailty or weakness the tabloids are not prepared to expose and judge. Rarely do they show mercy or compassion. Assange has his own capricious ethical code, which he summarized last November: “I like crushing bastards.”
Both exhibit the same reckless disregard for the innocent victims of their actions. Tabloid editors are prepared to ruin bystanders for the sake of a scoop. In his early reluctance to sift through and redact the cables he had acquired on Afghanistan, Julian Assange was wilfully blind to the fate of Afghanis who had assisted the NATO forces. According to journalists from The Guardian, when they pressed him on this issue he replied: “These people were collaborators, informants. They deserve to die.”
British tabloid journalists are driven to excess by a culture of newsroom bullying. But if you read Assange’s scary Orwellian diktats to his browbeaten colleagues you will realize that robust, collaborative internal decision-making processes are foreign to WikiLeaks too. As Assange said to a dissenter: “I am the heart and soul of this organization, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organizer, financier and all the rest. If you have a problem with me, piss off.”
The News of the World was not properly accountable. If you believe Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, the newspaper’s editors had no idea what was happening in their own newsroom. But at least newspapers have a chain of command. Who oversees Julian Assange’s activities? Who sits on WikiLeaks’ board? How can we hold WikiLeaks to account – especially when its leader refuses to subject himself to the jurisdiction of national governments?
Finally, Fleet Street tabloids and WikiLeaks are both given to loud and vainglorious overclaiming. When the Tories were re-elected in Britain in 1992, the British people were not allowed the credit. The country’s biggest-selling daily screamed: “It’s The Sun wot won it.” Similarly, we are told by WikiLeaks that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were not brought down by brave Tunisians and Egyptians who gave their lives for freedom. It’s Julian wot did it.
If you think this comparison is overdone, read Julian Assange himself.
In an editorial in July 2009, Assange defended the News of the World over earlier allegations of phone-hacking, which he characterized as “sanctimonious hand-wringing over the ‘privacy rights’ of the British elite.”
“The real scandal is not that some British papers used private investigators to find out what the public wants to know,” wrote Assange. “It is that more did not.”
The title of Julian Assange’s editorial? “The News of the World didn’t go far enough.”
This article first appeared on TheAtlantic.com on August 5, 2011.