Wikileaks: recasting betrayal as a democratic virtue

Kicking off a new series of essays, Frank Furedi says the deification of leakers and whistleblowers is bad for democracy, debate and private life.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

For some time now, Western public life has been suffering from a curious psycho-cultural affliction. The main symptoms are a loss of confidence in our ability to know and give meaning to various human experiences. Notwithstanding the rhetoric about ‘living in a knowledge age’, there is a powerful tendency today towards downplaying what is known and towards the idea that what we don’t know is far more significant for determining our future.

Consequently, people are often led to believe that key events, especially ones that were not anticipated, are the products of someone’s hidden agenda. The idea that our fate is guided by manipulative, highly organised and often malevolent forces is continually communicated through popular culture and the media. A loss of belief in people’s capacity to control their lives, alongside a diminishing of the authority of knowledge, has strengthened the belief that what we can’t see is more important than what we can.

Seeing is no longer believing. Whether you’re listening to public commentators or watching a TV drama, it is tempting to conclude that there are two worlds in existence today: the world of appearances, and then the shadowy, hidden world, where all the important decisions are made. And it is no longer only a handful of conspiracy fantasists who believe that what really matters are clandestine projects and plots. Indeed, it was the former American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who brought the concept of ‘unknown unknowns’ to the attention of the wider public.

His argument for invading Iraq was based on the simplistic premise that it did not matter what the eyes could see in relation to Saddam’s alleged WMD programme; as he put it, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. He made no apologies for the fact that he wasn’t interested in what was known; instead, he was preoccupied with the ‘unknown unknowns’, with threats that we did not even know were unknown. From the conspiratorial worldview, his words made perfect sense. Once the imagination comes to be focused on hidden plots, then the very fact that the UN weapons inspectors could not detect any WMD in Iraq could be cited as a sign that a grave threat really did exist. The ‘absence of evidence’ could serve as indirect proof that Saddam was such a fantastically sophisticated operator that he could even deceive sophisticated inspectors.

Rumsfeld’s obsession with what we cannot see and cannot know has been fervently adopted by his political opponents, too, many of whom believe that a neoconservative or neoliberal plot literally controls everything on the planet. Indeed, if anyone can be said to personify conspiratorial thinking, it is Julian Assange of Wikileaks. In a paper titled ‘Conspiracy as Governance’, published in December 2006, he depicted a world that is dominated by the conspiratorial machinations of a network of authoritarian governments.

Assange writes that ‘where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes, we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite, not merely for preferment or favour within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology’. He claims that ‘information flows from conspirator to conspirator’, adding: ‘not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator, even though all are connected.’ What is interesting about Assange’s arguments is that ‘conspiracy behaviour’ is presented as a kind of action that is not necessarily attached to any specific agenda, interest or goal. It simply works as the inner imperative of a system, according to its own logic, and then informs the ‘primary planning methodology’ of authoritarian regimes. It is almost as if conspiracy has a free-floating existence independent of the intentions of the conspiratorial actors themselves.

From this standpoint, conspiratorial behaviour becomes an all-purpose cause of everything that is bad in this world. That Assange can now casually claim that the behaviour of his estranged friends and collaborators at the UK Guardian is part of a Jewish conspiracy, as Private Eye recently revealed, is actually pretty incidental to his worldview. It just so happens that a rich seam of anti-Jewish scare stories are available to those possessed of the conspiratorial outlook; conspiracy theorists are almost spontaneously drawn towards finding some kind of Semitic connection among the powers-that-be.

Assange’s theory is based on the idea that as long the various networks of conspirators are free to plot behind the scenes, then their domination of the world will continue. Thus, exposing their nefarious activities to the public gaze represents a kind of blow for freedom, since it diminishes the flow of ‘important communication between authoritarian conspirators’ and weakens their grip over society. So according to Assange and his acolytes, the leaking of information per se represents an act of liberation, a kind of moral equivalent to the democratic revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The aim is not to leak a specific exchange of conspiratorial views, but rather to eliminate the capacity for the exchange of private confidences. In short, a regime of total transparency – the erosion of the line between private and public life – represents a positive alternative to the current conspiratorial world order.

From a sociological perspective, what is most fascinating about Assange’s idea of ‘Conspiracy as Governance’ is not its simplistic and shallow view of how the world works, but rather that this infantile posturing is taken very seriously by influential institutions and individuals. The media’s celebration and positive valuation of Wikileaks reveals that Assange’s methods and many of his ideas, if not his entire theory, are endorsed by significant sections of the Western cultural elite. Wikileaks won an award from The Economist in 2008 and from Amnesty International in 2009. Some of the most influential newspapers, such as the New York Times, Le Monde, and the Guardian, have worked in close collaboration with Wikileaks. Last year, Assange came top of the readers’ poll in Time magazine’s search for the Person of the Year.

The acclamation of Wikileaks by sections of the media reveals the growing influence of conspiratorial thinking on journalism. Numerous journalists have internalised the idea that what is really important today is not the story, but the story behind the story. The decline of the authority of knowledge has led to a situation where journalists now see leaks as the source of the ‘real truth’. Many journalists are now more comfortable explaining an event by reducing it to a covert plot rather than providing a rigorous analysis of the social and political causes of a chain of events.

So why has the theory of conspiratorial governance, and the practice of leaking, won such favour amongst people with otherwise diverging political outlooks?

The normalisation of breaking confidence

Leaking, or the disclosure of confidential information, used to be perceived as an act of disloyalty, irresponsibility or betrayal. However, since the late 1970s, it is secrecy, confidentiality and privacy that have been increasingly stigmatised. So what was once castigated as an act of betrayal – leaking – is now recast as the heroic deed of a brave whistleblower. In Britain by the 1980s, there was a flood of leaks; leaking had become a routine feature of political life. Probably the key events were the Tisdall and Ponting cases, in which civil servants sought to justify their leaking of official information on the grounds that it was in the public interest. Although Tisdall was found guilty of a crime in a court of law (Ponting was acquitted by the jury), both were treated as heroes who had stood up for justice and public accountability. From that point on, whistleblowing became routinised.

And leaking is not confined to cause-driven activists. Establishment figures now also use unacknowledged leaks to try to discredit or undermine their opponents. Contrary to the popularly held view that a leak helps to expose a hidden agenda, often it is the leakers themselves who want to manipulate public opinion. This can occur through ‘off the record’ briefings or through a selective leaking of official information in order to impact on the public outlook. Such leaking can cause very real harm. For example, in 2003, through the journalist Robert Novak, White House aides revealed that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent. This reckless act was designed to get at Plame’s husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had called into question the justifications given by the Bush administration for invading Iraq.

One reason why leaking has flourished is because of the loss of authority and the erosion of trust in officialdom. For some time now, the idea that ‘politicians lie’ has acquired the status of an incontrovertible truth. There is an intense degree of suspicion towards the integrity and character of politicians and officials. In such circumstances, it is not what they say or do but rather what they are allegedly trying to hide that becomes the subject of interest. One consequence of this cynicism towards politics is that democratic accountability is increasingly seen as something brought about by the whistleblower rather than by genuine public scrutiny. This sentiment was summed by one journalist, who recently wrote that ‘political leaks are in many ways the lifeblood of politics’, before concluding that ‘they are a valid and often vital part of the democratic process’. The almost careless manner in which the betrayal of confidence has been recast as a guarantor of democracy is testimony to the influence of the idea that a parallel world of secret plotting determines our existence.

As a result of the normalisation of breaking confidences, officialdom has more or less given up on seriously grappling with this problem. So when cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell gave evidence to the UK Parliament Public Administration Committee investigation into leaks and whistleblowing in Whitehall, he said that official leak investigations now focus on ‘preventing future leaks rather than pursuing the recipients of leaks’. The committee’s report concluded that ‘the evidence we have received suggests that internal leak investigations rarely find the culprit’. It added that ‘in part this is a result of a political culture that tolerates low-level political leaking’. That’s another way of saying that, since leaking has become a fact of life, there is little point in making a big deal about it.

Now and again, some politician will vow to tackle the institutionalisation of leaking. So last November, the UK secretary of defence Liam Fox promised to tackle what he characterised as ‘culture of leaks’ after several embarrassing disclosures from his department. However, neither Fox nor anyone else is likely to do any significant damage to the high cultural valuation accorded to the whistleblower today. Unless a government is confronted with a massive security breach of the kind brought about by the most recent Wikileaks episode, they will simply go through the motions of tackling the problem of leaking.

Targeting the private sphere

The simplistic worldview of the new conspiracy fantasists helps to fuel suspicion and mistrust towards the domain of politics. It displaces critical engagement with public life, replacing it with a destructive search for the hidden agenda. It distracts from the clarification of genuine differences and helps turn public life into a theatre where what matters are the private lives and personal interests of mistrusted politicians. The media fuel this trend by sending the signal that what is really important is not what public figures actually say, but what their ‘real’ agenda is. The media incite the public to look for hidden motives. No one is as they seem.

This normalisation of suspicion and mistrust has no positive virtues. On the contrary, the notion that people’s lives are controlled by hidden forces beyond their comprehension tends to immobilise public life. Worse still, suspicion towards the behind-the-scenes behaviour of political leaders and officials has gradually been extended to cover everyone, leading to the mistrust of everything to do with the private sphere. That is the principal reason why transparency has become such an important twenty-first-century cultural virtue. Transparency is upheld because people are not trusted to do the right thing unless they are held to account by rules, procedures and, of course, a paper trail. It is a convergence of uncertainty about the capacity to know and mistrust of human behaviour which fuels the conspiratorial imagination and the deification of transparency.

Contemporary culture still has some small bit of respect for privacy and family life. Yet political campaigns and popular culture continually seek to expose the allegedly harmful effects of these institutions. Terms like the ‘dark side of family life’ invoke a sense of dread about private and invisible relations. Policymakers and moral entrepreneurs have been in the forefront of a clamour for more public scrutiny of private life. Feminist thinkers in particular have pursued a trenchant critique of privacy. Many feminists argue that in the private sphere, women are rendered invisible; their work is unrecognised and therefore devalued, and their lives becomes subject to male violence. The view that the private sphere is an intensely dangerous place, particularly for women and children, has become an unquestioned truth in popular culture. Hence, intrusive policies have been introduced in order to open up private life to the public gaze. There is now the idea that only ever-vigilant public institutions can protect children from adult predators – and this is one of the most frequently repeated arguments against any demand to preserve the autonomy of the private sphere. From the standpoint of the conspiratorial imagination, the opening up of the private sphere to public opinion is always a good thing.

Privacy is frequently described as a ‘cloak’ or a ‘sham’ that allows unspeakable horrors to take place in family life. This assumes that, left to their own devices and away from public view, people tend to be dominated by destructive emotions. Men in particular are condemned for using the privilege of privacy to terrorise women and children. This unflattering representation of intimate relationships promotes the idea that everyone is under threat from imminent victimisation. From this standpoint, privacy has no redeeming features at all. On the contrary, for some, particularly cultural feminists, intimacy by definition is a relationship of violence.

There is little doubt that private life can be violent and degrading in certain instances. Privacy can provide a safe place for exercising destructive behaviour. But these negative aspects of private life do not provide a coherent argument for eradicating the private sphere altogether, any more than the existence of street crime is an argument for eliminating the public sphere. Today’s casual dismissal of the private sphere denigrates one of the most important sites of human experience. The separation of the public and private spheres has been essential for the emergence of the modern individual. The aspiration for autonomy and identity cannot be entirely resolved in the public sphere. The private sphere not only provides a potential space for reflection but also for the development of personality. Intimate relationships require privacy if they are not to disintegrate under the pressure of public scrutiny. Whatever problems might exist in the private sphere, it nonetheless provides a site for the development of self-expression and self-exploration.

Ideas, emotions and passions that are expressed to an intimate soulmate become something very different when they are disclosed to a public audience. As Hannah Arendt argued, ‘love is killed, or rather extinguished, the moment it is displayed in public’. Arendt’s observation of the destructive impact of imposing a regime of transparency on the private sphere can also be applied to the impact of the institutionalisation of leaking in the public domain. In both cases, some of the very worst character traits – passive voyeurism, disloyalty, betrayal, exhibitionism – are turned into servants of the public interest.

Leaks can embarrass individuals and institutions. They can occasionally bring to light an important fact that was previously unknown. However, they are much more likely to fuel suspicion and rumour and to distract and confuse. What a leak reveals pales into insignificance compared with what can potentially be learned through analysing the world, through research and investigation, and, of course, through the clash of opinions and ideas. But the real damage done by the celebration of leaking is that it fuels suspicion, and it gives rise to the kind of conspiratorial outlook that encourages us to look for hidden machinations instead of answers to the problems confronting our world.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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