By Guy Arnold
On Thursday 13 January 2011, the Commonwealth Journalists Association hosted a panel debate and discussion of WikiLeaks and what impact such mass disclosures will have upon media freedom and governments in the future.
First, there was broad consensus that WikiLeaks represents a permanent change to the way information is made available and that, for better or worse, much more information than ever before will be placed in the public domain.
An analysis of what has been released breaks down as follows: a few stories were substantial and new – Saudi Arabia and Qatar pressuring the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear centres; China’s apparent willingness to see North Korea joining South Korea; Gaddafi’s threat to abort trade deals with Britain if the Lockerbie bomber died in Scotland.
The vast majority of US diplomatic cables, however, were not security threatening although a proportion of them named people – for example in Zimbabwe – who had contacts with the US and this could endanger their lives. Of 250,000 cables only a small proportion had actually been released.
This raised the question of selection: to be accepted as a new engine of information WikiLeaks must be seen to be impartial in the handling of information. Assange, for example, has said he holds information (stories) about Rupert Murdoch and implied that he would release this in certain circumstances. Either WikiLeaks has a story that should be released because it is in the public interest or it does not.
Much discussion centred upon the morality of leaking information that governments regard as secret: the consensus (I think) was that any information obviously in the public interest should be released. The best journalists have always accepted a code of conduct that differentiates between the public interest and gossip or character assassination and this code should be adopted by WikiLeaks.
There was discussion about Bradley Manning who had allegedly collected material and provided it to WikiLeaks: if he has broken the law he should be tried accordingly. WikiLeaks, it was argued, had not broken the law by making public information that had come into its hands. The huge release of US cables had greatly embarrassed the United States but in future it could equally embarrass other countries. One result of the enclosures will be a tightening of the way diplomats pass information back to their countries. We talk a great deal about the need for government transparency and the need for freedom of information but when this actually occurs governments are outraged!
Guy Arnold is a freelance journalist.