Thursday, 16 December 2010

Freedom for Gossip

I am really conflicted. I want to like Julian Assange and all that he's doing , except I find what he's doing so valueless that I am really struggling to applaud him or back him in any way.

The USA's desire to 'get him' is sickening. In fact general government reactions to him would be laughable if it wasn't so scary. At the same time though, we seem to be applauding him as a kind of bastion for free speech. We are starting to to see him as a champion of a cause when really all he seems to have done is put out a steady stream of sensitive gossip.

Looking at what has come out from wikileaks it is just information that will make it harder for those in power to speak well to each other. As a result of what he's published it's likely that countries will treat conversations with each other more suspiciously and cautiously. More like talking to a journalist than another diplomat or government bod. This can only further cloud and mask plain speech. It's not a gain. It seems to me that this potential loss of plain speech is also not offset by any gains from the 'revelations'.

What do we now know that we didn't before? Prince Andrew was a bit of a prat? There has been different agendas between David Cameron and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai? Not ground breaking, impressive or worthwhile really.

I can't go along with accolades for him that shout him as 'the savior of freedom' as I saw one commentator on You Tube say. And yet..... and yet.... The governments are out of whack here and we must speak up.

Lets just be clear what we're speaking up for. Freedom is the thing we are concerned about isn't it? The right to speak freely and well. Gary Goldhammer points out quite rightly though that, 'that transparency without judgement is gossip, not journalism.' Making the point that although Assange say publishing improves transparency this is not always the case. Judgement, analysis and care also have a place.

In the end I suspect I will sign petitions and object to the way Assange is being treated but that is because it is wrong for the bigger guys to adopt the position of a bully when things don't go their way. We need to make sure that it is never OK to be stood on just because you become a nuisance. Our governments should be able to deal with Assange maturely and with 'due process' and we need to shout at them loudly and with force if they don't.

I don't really think though that I can applaud or give thanks for Assange. Gossip is just gossip at the end of the day.


  1. Good post - it's interesting, isn't it, when we find ourselves in positions of ambivalence.

    It might be because I'm in a bullish mood from arguing with an idiot American, but I'm going to try disagreeing with you and see where that takes me.

    I think your basic points are all good and fair - wanting to stand against the unaccountable power of governments, yay, and being wary that this is more about gossip than real stuff, also yay.

    But I think the gossip thing is overstated. Not just by you, but by everyone. The press and broadcast media are caught in a similar situation to you. They may want to champion the guy, but are worried about the trivial nature of some of the revelations. Their reasons are somewhat less pure than yours though; they are just pissed off because gossip is what *they* do. Wilileaks - and in a broader sense all forms of web journalism - are eroding the hegemony of institutional media forms, and they don't like it.

    And there's the rub. Your argument seems to presuppose the possibilty of some utopian dissemination of information. As if the media we currently rely upon for information are not more obsessed with personalities and argumnents than they are policies and facts. Wikileaks is nothing new in terms of its content. It is different because it gets into the places regualr journalism can't and - crucially - is harder to stamp on.

    This is why we're hearing about Assange, and gossip, and rape. Because governments know that the population likes to read about emotions and personalities, not what's really going on. So they indulge in their own form of gossip-mongering. "Don't look at the terrible lies we have told, constantly, for our own benefits - look at this guy - he might be a rapist! And don't think about the injustices perpetrated in our names - someone once said a bad thing about Prince Edward!"

    The trivialising of this situation by elevating the 'gossipy' nature of it is just another weapon of the powers that seek to shut it down.

    There's plenty of issues that ariose from waht I'm saying here, and I don't pretend to have the fullest grasp on the issues. And I'm listening to Hans Zimmer, which makes me excitable. But this is how it seems to me.

    What do you think?


  2. Han Zimmer makes me excitable too!!

    I think you have a point and that's what makes all this so tricky. He hasn't come up with much if anything though that could be deemed in the public interest. He's not exposing anything as much as just displaying it and I do think that not everything should be open to public display.

    Sometimes things are better left unsaid especially if it aids discourse or even our safety. In this I know that that line can be used to hide behind and cover up what should be in the light. The government reaction is mean and frightening across the board and it is not OK. But I still don't think blanket publication of material without any discernment process is good.

    I agree that journalists filter and tell us things and that could be dangerous, but that's why we want free press, so that many different standpoints will filter and discern information.

    There is for me still a sense that information should be taken seriously and we should respect the power it can have over us. Our journalists should call our leaders to account and highlight where we need to look and see. A free press should be able to do this. A dumping of information just because he can? That feels less straight forward to me

  3. "There is for me still a sense that information should be taken seriously and we should respect the power it can have over us."

    I like this. True as true can be. The democratisation of journalism has one big drawback, and that is that some of the gatekeeping that exists is in place for good reason. We need to be able to trust that the people reporting to us are a) accountable and b) professionals who have earned the right to say their piece.

    On the other hand, there is a case to be made for kicking against the whole structure and exposing the constructed nature of news values. I think sometimes the best way to do this is just to flip out and pulish something completely outside established discourse. In this respect, the current leaks are very powerful.

    Hans Zimmer eh? What in particular?

  4. Kez, I think you articulate very well the dilemma I found in myself over this episode. I *want* to think he's a hero but the nature of the revelations (or, more accurately, the nature of the revelations I have heard about filtered through our sensationalist media) do not justify their publication. For example, even diplomats are entitled to form opinions, or even suspicions, about the people with whom they deal and sometimes it will be appropriate to communicate those opinions, in confidence, to others. To know that those opinions or suspicions may be blazoned across the worldwide media can only inhibit their effective operation in what is often a very difficult job.

    Coming to this discussion after over a month I now have further information about how the leaks came about and, as I understand it, they did not come from any idealistic whistle blower, rather from a sad, disillusioned and overworked intelligence officer about to lose his job and it seems that the whole release was a result of mnalice and spite rather than any form of idealism.

    I totally agree with you that we need to shout about the shameful way that JL is being treated but, almost because of that, I think less of JL for doing this. He has needlessly forced the powers that be to show their raw, naked power and it is terrifying. So terrifying that it is bound to make anyone think twice before trying such a stunt ever again - even when it may be really and truly necessary. This, more than anything, makes me angry at JL.

    Rob Jones