The Afghan War leaks don’t tell us The Truth

Journalists’ increasing reliance on leaks is turning them into passive recipients of information rather than active seekers of truth.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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In July, during the last big Wikileaks dumping of information, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill argued that reporters’ increasing reliance on this kind of internal info pointed to a crisis of purpose in journalism.

So we finally know the truth about the Afghan War, do we, courtesy of the 90,000 leaked military documents simultaneously revealed by the UK Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel? Rubbish. Truth is not something that is handed to us on a silver platter by know-it-all whistleblowers. It is something we discover for ourselves through a process of critical investigation and by quizzing and querying received wisdoms. The media’s pant-wetting excitement about these leaked documents only shows what a parlous state journalism is in, and how much journalists have become the passive recipients of information rather than active seekers of the truth.

The 90,000 American military records, covering everything from the deaths of Afghan civilians to the possible involvement of Pakistan and Iran in sponsoring the Taliban, were given to, and then published by, the leak-loving website Wikileaks. The site gave advance access to the records to the Guardian, the NYT and Der Spiegel. You can tell that the leak is considered a Major Event, not only because the revelation of this so-called scoop was coordinated with three major international publications, but also because almost as much space has been given over to analysing the importance of the leak itself as to what is contained within the documents. So the Guardian website’s headline for most of yesterday was ‘REACTION TO THE WAR DOCUMENTS LEAK’, where it provided a timetabled breakdown of every politician, editor and commentator’s angry/impressed/congratulatory response to the Guardian’s role in ‘one of the biggest leaks in US history’.

Yet before the tripartite of American-British-German leak-revealers give themselves repetitive strain injury from patting themselves on the back, it’s worth noting that the documents reveal little that we didn’t already know, or couldn’t have guessed was happening. So the documents claiming that some civilian deaths at the hands of NATO forces have gone unreported will come as little surprise to those of us, like spiked, who have already analysed why there was such a high number of civilian casualties in the early days of the war (because NATO missions were informed more by jittery fear than hard intelligence) and who have argued that NATO’s war was driven more by PR concerns than traditional imperial considerations, thus making NATO more likely to gloss over ‘PR mistakes’. The claims (disputed by Pakistan) that elements of the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence forces backed the Taliban during the war also won’t shock those of us, again like spiked, who argued against the invasion of Afghanistan precisely on the basis that it would internationalise and inflame local tensions, by implicitly inviting external powers to vie for influence in a destabilised, wartorn territory.

The lack of any ‘Wow!’ revelations in the 90,000 records was unwittingly confirmed by Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. In London for a special press conference and Guardian video-making session as part of the Respectable International Media’s revelation of ‘the truth’ about Afghanistan, Assange said ‘the real story of this material is that it’s war. It’s one damn thing after another. It is the continuous small events, the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces, the maimed people. Search for the word “amputation” in this material, or “amputee”, and there are dozens and dozens of references.’ So there you have it; that is the truth about Afghanistan – ‘it’s war’. And as in all wars, there are deaths and amputations and other ‘continuous small events’. This is a description of the Afghan War that a bright 10-year-old could have given you without the benefit of yesterday’s 90,000 leaked documents.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, one of the students is looked upon as a philistine for saying ‘How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another’, a phrase originally uttered by the historian Herbert Butterfield, though Butterfield said ‘bloody’ rather than ‘fucking’. Yet now we have the founder of Wikileaks winning garlands of praise from the serious media for revealing – presumably to those metaphorical Martians who don’t know what war is – that war is ‘one damn thing after another’. The discussion of the Afghan War as a collection of lots of ‘small events’ – deaths, maiming, amputations – shows that information is nowhere near the same thing as Truth (capital T intended). No doubt some of the facts and claims in the 90,000 documents can be useful, but only as part of a broader understanding of the causes, dynamics and impact of the Afghan War. And that kind of understanding can only come from asking questions and thinking hard, not waiting around for a disgruntled suit at one of the institutions that launched and executed the war to hand over some internal documents. Torn from any critical narrative, ‘the truth’ of the Afghan War is simply – drum roll – that ‘it’s war’. This is truth as tautology. The Pentagon Papers it ain’t.

One of the more sensible criticisms of the overexcitement about the leak came from Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones magazine, who argued that: ‘Most of this information is tactical nuts and bolts, devoid of context, and largely useless for a war narrative.’ Yet Weinstein then makes the mistake of saying that what we really need is better information from on high: ‘What would be far more valuable than this stuff is the strategic/political data: military info that’s TOP SECRET or above, which I haven’t seen yet, or stuff from the State Department or provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs).’ In other words, we need a better class of leak; higher-up leakers with sexier info. This misses what is the main problem with the reliance-upon-leaking and enthrallment-to-whistleblowers that is now widespread in the mainstream media – which is that it changes what it means to be a journalist, turning hacks into mere vessels for internal political disagreements, and it changes the meaning of Truth, too.

Today’s information incontinence amongst the powers-that-be in much of the Western world – which is now so bad that a couple of years ago an internal US government document about the problem of leaking was later leaked – springs from political disarray and institutional incoherence amongst the political class. Their lack of any ideological anchor, or even clear, strong strategies, means they have little to be loyal to and little sense of being a group of people on a mission. In such circumstances, the lines of responsibility become blurred and personal disgruntlement can easily come to the fore, as one section of the military or political elite uses the media to score points against another section. By embracing these leakers, these whistleblowers, the media unwittingly (sometimes wittingly) make themselves into pawns for power spats, being bought off by some isolated, angst-ridden bit of the authorities as surely as other media outlets are bought off by PR bumf or the corporate promise of goodies and freebies. The widespread cult of leaking implicitly makes journalists into passive creatures who wait for, or sometimes agitate for, internal info, rather than being active agents who are part of an awkward squad asking difficult questions of the powers-that-be and the status quo. In relying so heavily upon leaked information, journalists are not so much ‘speaking truth to power’ as speaking power against power. They become the compliant messengers in an elite stand-off.

Even worse, today’s promiscuous leaking, and the media’s unquestioning acceptance of it, does GBH to the idea of Truth. In equating Truth with exposure – so that Truth becomes something which is revealed to us by a supposedly heroic individual in the corridors of powers – journalists and editors are compliant in the denigration of the meaning of Truth. Truth becomes, not something we find out through critical study and investigation, but something we are handed by external forces who apparently have always pure, unimpeachable motives. This is Truth as a religious-style revelation rather than Truth as the endpoint of thought, interrogation, question-asking, analysis. In reality, it is only through actively engaging with the world and its problems, through gathering facts and objectively analysing and organising them, that we can arrive at any Truth worth its name. It is through the very process of investigation that the Truth is uncovered and formulated, revealed by the critical act of discovering and thinking rather than by some mythical, external ‘Truth-holder’.

Waiting for the Truth to be revealed is always a fool’s errand – whether you’re waiting for God to reveal it, or, even worse, some sap in a suit in the Pentagon who one morning has a very belated pang of guilt about his role in the destruction of Afghanistan.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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