Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wikileaks' Impact on Democracy - Bullying

Initially the words from Wikileaks seemed little more than snatches of private conversations which a few youthful eves droppers enjoyed mischievously casting into the public domain.

Some of the words included matters which many assumed to be virtually common knowledge anyway. However in these times of political correctness, speaking such truths openly would mean trouble. Thus words about the boorish behaviour of a British royal or the lack of empathy at the American White House with a former occupant of Number 10 hardly tell us anything we cannot already guess at. Arguably by spreading those words to the Guardian newspaper those who spoke them have had  their expectation of privacy  thwarted their trust undermined and the likelihood of  Guardian-type interpretations being placed on the conversations which may not be true. Even so my first thoughts were that this was little more than a childish prank that grown up people should be well able to cope with.

On reflection however the issue of leaking these private words into the public domain is far from clear cut. International traditions of respect confidentiality and privacy, such as diplomatic bags passing through customs unchecked and Embassy premises in far away lands still being treated as a tiny part of the ambassadors' homelands,  serve mankind reasonably well. The Churchillian saying of: "Jaw jaw not war war", represents as pragmatic a way of trying to resolve major differences today as it was in 1954. Lawyers in the Common Law tradition know how fundamentally important the ability to be able to speak one's mind to the other side can sometimes be in order to try to settle parties' major disputes. Labelling such settlement talks as "without prejudice" means that if the lawyers' attempts to settle their clients' differences by 'jaw jaw' fail, nothing said during those talks can be used in court against the other party. Anyone who even hints at what was said in court will be at risk of getting short shrift from the judge.

In the same way, diplomats ought to be able to trust that their informal conversations with one another should not be published without consent. If our ambassadors cannot speak off the record without being able to trust that the diplomatic traditions of privacy would be honoured then international ability to try to resolve issues by talking about them before they escalate too far will be weakened.

Making private conversations public will also risk escalating some tensions between states. For example although the leak that Saudi Arabia wanted the USA to bomb Iran was truely revelatory, the wikileaks disclosure risks damaging international relations between states in that already volatile part of the world. Despotic regimes tend to be bullying regimes as witness the reaction of Saudi itself in the 1980s to the the ATV film "Death of a Princess" which ironically enough has its mirror image in the threatened stoning of the allegedy adulterous woman, in today's Iran. Jesus's jaw jaw about that c. 2000 years ago needs more leaking today:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.  And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.  And they who heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?  She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
 The Chinese snub to the Nobel Peace Prize  judges and its strong arm attempts to bully others into joining its boycott is a further illustration of the C21 bullying malaise affecting relations between states and individuals. Every conceivable  route for resolving such issues quietly and with the minimum loss of face (saving pride and losing face  are huge motivators for some) should be nurtured and not obstructed. The Wikileaks' route is likely to be an obstructive  one.

Having said that and this is where the issue is not black and white, a fundamental problem for mankind is that of some in power bullying to maintain their power, which problem Wikileaks' tactics make even harder to address. Yet  using the tit for tat approach of trying to bully wikileaks into submission would be stooping to the same depths that despotic states stoop to, to force their wills onto others.

 In the commercial world where economically powerful companies share information or combine  tactics to increase their power or market share, national regulators or anti-trust quangos or EU bureaucrats will take action and often levy huge fines on the  corporations concerned. Possibly the likes of PayPal Mastercard Visa etc have come to independent decisions  to close their facilities to Wikileaks but if so what a coincidence. If not who or what is persuading them to act in such apparent concert and when will the regulators of monopolies and anti trust bodies take note?

We humans tend to love gossip however and I must confess to having enjoyed reading some of the wikileaks. The revelation that the our man in the Vatican expressed concern that the Pope's offer to members of the Church of England to join Rome might lead to violence on British streets and revive the historic anti Catholic sentiment here was almost amusing. If only the Catholic faith held that kind of sway in today's society perhaps we would all be bullied less.


  1. DAMAGE cyber WW3 result: 500k hurt diplomats worldwide. billion soldiers on the side line/out of business (and still insist it's not a war); final 200 nations restuctured. other side:few hackers political imprisoned/their parrents fined. After a short (for many long) war only 1 global transparent free society survives .....never thought WW3 as a joke. Yeah all wars are surprises.

    How can a few wise leaders alone solve complex global issues pending ? People need to be involved/need same info on these complex issues to let our global society decide & survive.

    We NEED transparency for our global society that we created an cannot control.To many crises.
    We'd never gone to Iraq if we read the cables first?

    its e-government(power) not e-commerce(money) that changes our world!
    If democracy fails, the only solution is MORE democracy. The only way is UP.
    This is Far worse for China, than the US. It's your Duty to spread your thoughts.

    WL to much Change for Obama?
    Know It's a hard path, but harder for our totalitarian enemies.

    If democracy fails, the only solution is More democracy.
    E-vote(power), not E-commerce(money) that changes our world, stupid! greets from citzen 434234243!

  2. Greetings a.w.berghuis.

    Thank you for your comment - the quickest comment ever to any post on this blog. The speed and substance of your comment shows the depth of feeling about the issue and I agree 100% with that.

    The point you make about Iraq is a good one but had we ordinary citizens known that WMD did not exist the anti war protests would have been far greater. I also agree with transparency and the then UK government politicians we know with the benefit of hindsight were not being transparent with us the people. I don't think though that evesdropping on everything any one in power or at embassies might say is any answer. George Orwell' Animal Farm or perhaps even more chillingly try reading Anna Funder's "Stasiland" which concerns state eavesdropping, graphically underline the risks. Is an unelected group of eavesdroppers ultimately going to be any different?

  3. Hello Jerry
    A very thought-provoking post and I'm still not quite sure where I stand on this issue. My gut reaction is to agree with you, but consider this excerpt from Wikipedia (no connection with WikiLeaks):
    WikiLeaks has won a number of awards, including the 2008 Economist magazine New Media Award.[8] In June 2009, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange won Amnesty International's UK Media Award (in the category "New Media") for the 2008 publication of "Kenya: The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances",[9] a report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights about police killings in Kenya.[10] In May 2010, the New York Daily News listed WikiLeaks first in a ranking of "websites that could totally change the news".[11]

    I have 3 comments to make:
    1. I think the damage to the US is more to do with the fact that the whistleblower was able to gain access to the cables in the first place. THAT is the real humiliation for the Americans.
    2. Curiously enough, I actually think the US doesn't come out too badly from all this. No really dastardly behaviour on their part is revealed.
    3. Whatever its origins (see above re Kenya), WikiLeaks does now appear stridently anti-western? Would we feel the same way about Assange if he also published secret Chinese and Russian cables? Probably not.

  4. Greetings Barnaby

    Wise comments as usual Barnaby - thanks.

    I hadn't picked up the anti-western point but you may prove to be right about that too although I hope not. Leaks from the Chinese and North Koreans might give better balance.
    Even more interesting might be leaks from the thought, dress and religious police of some of the stone throwing countries but upon reflection leaks are less likely there as the eves dropper is apt to be stoned.

  5. Having only just read last week's "Spectator" magazine I don't know whether to be pleased or annoyed to see that their editorial on Wikileaks makes the same point as in the main blogpost above about Churchill and the importance of encouraging "jaw jaw".


Employment Tribunals and Covid-19

Having ongoing employment issues being dealt with by the Employment Tribunal system before the Covid-19 pandemic and still continuing after ...