The right to know

2011-05-04 00:00

IS Julian Assange a hero, or villain? The banal answer on the evidence of this book is that he is an information peddler looking for a business model.

Assange remains a relative shadow­, his rootless childhood fitting the mould of many hackers. He came to international prominence by exposing corruption in Kenya, making stirring statements about a general loss of civic courage in holding power to account.

But he is more anarchist than liberal, apparently approving of phone eavesdropping. Initially, he showed a callous disregard for the possible fate of informants identified in the leaked Iraq and Afghan war logs. He comes across as volatile, unreliable and arrogant with some strange personal habits. Far from the honeytrap suggested by supporters, the Swedish rape charges look plausible.

His approach to women lacks finesse­ and for someone so paranoid about electronic surveillance by the CIA, he is reckless about his social behaviour.

The authors try unsuccessfully to show that WikiLeaks has “redefined journalism”. It certainly produced mountains of data, but that had to be subjected to good, old-fashioned contextual analysis by mainstream media­ specialists before it meant anything significant. And it was journalists who edited out detail that might do personal harm. WikiLeaks disproves the simplistic idea that unrestricted information is necessarily a social good. Apart from annoying Washington, revelations from thousands of United States diplomatic cables­ have provided little that is substantially new. But what, argue David Leigh and Luke Harding, about regimes that suppress information?

Unfortunately, their example is Russia, described as a mafia state. The idea of using U.S. embassy reports to prove to Russians what they must know, and many journalists have perished in reporting, is patronising.

But one briefly described event (about Barclays Bank) is truly revolutionary. When the criminal and possibly traitorous dealings of big corporations are released on infinitely replicable­ websites, lawyers can flourish writs and judges wave interdicts that amount to no more than a row of beans. That is a real step forward for democracy: the right to know is placed beyond the reach of repressive law.

Assange aside, this book is populated by some weird types: hackers, leakers, the noisy online demonstrators of Anonymous, an obscure anti-Semitic journalist and armed English toffs patrolling a Suffolk estate. But the most deranged are the American right-wingers demanding Assange’s arrest for treason (against a nation with which he has no ties) or even his assassination.

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