Wikileaks: this isn’t journalism – it’s voyeurism

High-minded newspapers’ celebration of the latest Wikileaks revelations is a cynical attempt to turn voyeurism into a virtue.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

The real story of the latest Wikileaks revelations is not what we might learn from the hundreds of thousands of documents casually dumped on to the internet. Discerning observers of international affairs will find little new or shocking in these decontextualised scraps of information. No, the real story is the manner in which this whole episode unfolded. It tells us a great deal about the moral and cultural norms of contemporary public life.

No doubt many people are delighted by the embarrassment experienced by the State department in Washington. Many of my friends take the view that any act of humiliation that forces a powerful bureaucratic machine to come back down to Earth has got to be good. Much of the media echoes this sentiment, insisting that the publication of confidential statements represents a blow for accountability, transparency and democracy. Some even suggest that this all demonstrates the ‘power of ordinary people’ – overlooking the actual power and cultural capital of the five news organisations that are orchestrating this affair.

Myself, I am struck by the unattractive self-congratulatory tone taken by the newspapers that announced to the world that they, too, have seen the scraps of memoranda scattered across the internet. The five news organisations that were given the golden opportunity to be the first to pick at the bones – the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais – made a great song and dance of their ‘scoop’ and presented their actions as being in the best traditions of journalistic responsibility.

Le Monde told its readers that ‘to inform’ does ‘not prevent one from acting responsibly’; it assured us that it had looked through the dirge of information before publishing snippets. Setting the bar of journalistic integrity rather low, it observed that ‘transparency and judgment are not incompatible, and it is no doubt this that distinguishes us from the bottom line strategy of Wikileaks’. The other four papers also informed the world about how carefully they had sifted through the hundreds of thousands of documents to make sure that they continued to uphold the highest standards of journalistic integrity.

It is entirely right and proper that newspapers report on important matters. That is a central part of the media’s role. However, these newspapers did not simply analyse and then reveal this internal information – they also presented their publication of the leaks as a blow for freedom, claiming that it was in the public interest to discover what a minor State department official thought of the lifestyle choices of a Conservative member of parliament. These are the same journalists who normally morally condemn the hackers employed by tabloids to listen in to the private conversations of public figures.

This idea that the publication of private conversations and communications is in the public interest – whether it’s done by tabloids or by sanctimonious candidates for the next Pulitzer Prize – is a self-serving attempt to present voyeurism as an important public duty. It is not unlike the claims made by reality TV producers, who frequently argue that their tawdry offerings ‘raise awareness’ and serve the ‘public interest’.

How is the public interest served by the purposeless leaking of information? Since when has it been obligatory for institutions to expose their private deliberations to everyone on the internet? Has the public learnt something important from all this? Has some wrong been put right by the mass dumping of communiqués on to the world wide web? Or is this really a case of the narrow interests of the news organisations involved getting confused with the interests of the public?

There are, of course, times when activists committed to a clear social or political objective try to win public support by publishing details of private diplomatic correspondence. This was what the Bolsheviks hoped to achieve when they publicised the secret communications between Tsarist Russia and foreign powers in the run-up to and during the First World War. Similarly, when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the contents of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the New York Times in 1971, he had a very clear objective: to call into question the official version of the Vietnam War. Both of these acts were motivated by a purposeful political agenda, by a desire to ensure that the public was made aware of facts that were essential for making sense of the world.

The information provided by Wikileaks serves no such noble purpose. The public does not need to know the brand of toilet paper used by the US ambassador’s secretary in Dubai. The only purpose of the leaks is to embarrass and to sow confusion. Superficially, the claim that the public has ‘a right to know’ sounds like an affirmation of the democratic ethos. But what does ‘the right to know’ mean? There is nothing enlightened or democratic about exposing informal deliberations between officials to public scrutiny. Most diplomatic exchanges involve the expression of provisional or incomplete opinions, rather than hard facts. The public does not have an intrinsic right to know how people find and assess and interpret information.

This notion of ‘a right to know’ is really about cynically manipulating people’s imagination; bite-sized, easily consumable voyeuristic bits of gossip are recast as vital parts of the public-service provision of truth. Of course, the public has a right to know why their government finally takes a certain decision, following internal discussion, and what the consequences of that decision are likely to be. In short, the public requires political accountability and serious public debate. It does not need the ‘right’ to sniff the dirty laundry of government officials.

The leakers often claim that their activities ensure that governments and their institutions will become more accountable and transparent. The idea that abolishing the very notion of confidential exchanges, informal exploratory communications and private intimacies is going to make institutions more transparent is deluded, if not insane. In any institution, people need to know that they can think, reflect and communicate in private, as a way of exchanging vital information, developing their thinking and, most important of all, acknowledging their fears, anxieties, doubts and true beliefs. If people think they can no longer express themselves without being exposed to the gaze of millions of voyeurs, they will adopt forms of behaviour that are actually detrimental to the integrity of their institutions and to public life itself.

One way around the problem will be simply to adopt new stratagems of deception. For example, in higher-education institutions, many academics no longer write down what they really think of a student or colleague but instead have an off-the record conversation – just in case their writings are ever discovered or leaked. Alternatively, officials will adopt a very defensive strategy of going through the motions, of ticking all the boxes and not really expressing what they truly think. In both cases, institutions become more opaque and more dishonest. The true accomplishment of this erosion of a private sphere, this erosion of the capacity for exchanging informal confidences, is to help give birth to an Orwellian language of doublespeak and an ethos of disloyalty.

Many journalists acknowledge that there’s something not quite right about the claim that these leaks serve the public interest. But nevertheless, they say, there is nothing wrong with having a bit of fun at the expense of unattractive powerful public figures. Perhaps not. But am I really in a minority of one when I take the view that celebrating an act of betrayal, celebrating the leaking of private communications, can only further contribute to the devaluation of the idea of institutional loyalty?

There was a time when brave men and women took it upon themselves – at significant personal cost – to reveal the improper behaviour of the organisations they worked for. Before whistleblowing became institutionalised and legally protected, defying your superiors represented an exemplary act of moral courage. Today, when whistleblowing is effectively part of the job description of anyone seeking public acclaim and attention, it simply represents an incitement to disloyalty. Worse still, it becomes difficult to distinguish the genuine hero who takes on the power of corrupt institutions from the hundreds of poseurs who inhabit the moral wasteland fertilised by Wikileaks.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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