TOPIC GUIDE: Wikileaks
"Wikileaks is good for democracy"
PUBLISHED: 01 May 2011
AUTHOR: Abigail Ross-Jackson
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The leaking of 251,287 US Embassy Cables at the end of 2010 put Wikileaks firmly in the public eye. Launched in 2007, the controversial site was set up with the aim of publishing previously unseen information for the public. Since its inception the site has released countless disclosures from the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the BNP membership, to – perhaps most famously - 400,000 US military logs from Iraq and nearly 90,000 classified military records from Afghanistan [Ref: Guardian]. Their decision to publish huge swathes of information has shaken up the political world and started a worldwide discussion around journalism. But the site has also divided opinion: are founder Julian Assange and his team making history, increasing accountability and improving the democratic process as a result [Ref: Forbes]? Or are they whistle blowing gossipers who are severely damaging diplomacy, journalism and democracy with their dangerous actions? Some have hailed Assange as a hero [Ref: Democracy Now], whilst others have condemned his actions; Sarah Palin even went so far as to say that Assange should be “pursued with the same urgency we pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders” [Ref: Telegraph]. At the centre of the debate are countless big questions: Do governments have the right to keep secrets, or should citizens resist being kept in the dark about the dealings of international and domestic affairs? Do leaks such as these serve to strengthen our democracy, or do they potentially weaken or even undermine it? And, connected to all of these questions, what is the role of a journalist, and how does this relate to the public interest and journalism’s relationship to democracy?
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Truth, transparency and democracy
At first glance, it might seem hard to argue that transparency is not a good idea. But does transparency per se deliver accountability and democracy? Critics of Wikileaks argue that, rather than enhancing democracy, all that they have really done is dump huge amounts of information - largely diplomatic tittle-tattle - onto the web; encouraging voyeurism and cynicism more than public debate about serious issues. For critics there is the world of difference between, for example, the targeted leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, for a clear political purpose, and the mindless mass leaking of information by Wikileaks today [Ref: Big Issue Scotland]. Others worry about the damage done to international diplomacy and argue that blowing the work of US security forces wide open undermines the work they are doing to protect people, and indeed democracy [Ref: Telegraph]. Supporters counter that transparency is vital if we are to ever call ourselves truly democratic. Elected politicians, directly accountable to the people, should be open about their plans, interests and failings or we can never make any truly informed opinions relating to them. Assange and his team have often made reference to the fact that they are exposing the ‘truth’, and many agree. They point to the killing of innocent civilians by US forces [Ref: Daily Mail], the abuse suffered by prisoners held by Iraqi security forces and ignored by the US [Ref: Guardian] and over 15,000 previously unlisted civilian deaths in Iraq, all exposed by Wikileaks and all helping to improve transparency and consequently democracy [Ref: Guardian].
Exposing corruption or undermining true accountability?
One of the main aims of Wikileaks is to expose the wrongdoings of those in power. On their website, Wikileaks state that they are “fearless in [their] efforts to get the unvarnished truth out to the public” [Ref: Wikileaks]. Whilst some see this as a noble aim, others are not so forgiving arguing that professional life of any kind would be virtually impossible without confidential communication. Simply put, policies and proposals need to be formulated in private and traditionally journalists have generally considered private conversations to be no-go areas. From this point of view, supporters of Wikileaks fail to recognise that the erosion of a private sphere both incapacitates institutions and encourages greater opaqueness and dishonesty [Ref: spiked]. However, advocates of Wikileaks argue governments are guilty of terrible double standards: whilst they demand secrecy for themselves, they are all too happy to pry into the private lives of their citizens. They claim that our ability to hold power to account and to expose their wrongdoings is an integral part of a liberal society; as technological advances make this easier, we should be seeking to expose more injustices. With more exposures of their misdemeanours, the hope is that governments and companies will be forced to operate fairly and honestly [Ref: Wired]. Moreover, given the global dominance of the United States, supporters argue that Wikileaks assists people everywhere to ‘challenge and hold it to account’ [Ref: Guardian]
The role of journalists
One key issue informing the debate about Wikileaks’ contribution to democracy is the discussion around journalism. Central to the critics’ argument is the role of investigative journalism and the need for journalists to pro-actively seek out the truth: agitating for information, asking awkward questions and sifting information and leads to ascertain what is important. Whilst some argue that Wikileaks are advancing this tradition on a great scale, exposing more corruption than ever before, and strengthening democratic accountability along the way, others believe that the site is undermining journalistic standards. By dumping huge amounts of raw material into the public square, Wikileaks compromises the vital role of journalists in weighing up facts and arguments [Ref: Vanity Fair]. This has lead to criticism not just of Wikileaks but of newspapers such as the Guardian and the New York Times for publishing the documents. On the flip side, many feel that Wikileaks is revolutionising journalism. Assange has argued that Wikileaks enhances journalism because it allows people to judge for themselves whether a news story is true by clicking online to read the original document it is based on [Ref: Australian]. Alan Rushbridger, editor of the Guardian, has strongly defended the public interest served by Wikileaks and the high journalistic standards his newspaper applied to investigating and determining which cables to publish [Ref: Huffington Post]. The judges of the UK Press Awards cited the importance of Wikileaks, as ‘an enormous story with reverberations around the world’, when awarding the Newspaper of the Year Award to the Guardian in April 2011 [Ref: Press Awards]. Does Wikileaks’ contribution to ‘the fourth estate’ enhance or degrade democratic accountability?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
New Statesman 10 April 2011
Christian Caryl New York Review of Books 15 December 2010
Raffi Khatchadourian New Yorker 1 December 2010
Julian Assange New Statesman 14 April 2011
Evan Hansen Wired 6 December 2010
Seumas Milne Guardian 1 December 2010
Roy Greenslade Guardian 26 July 2010
Frank Furedi spiked 9 March 2011
Janet Daley Telegraph 11 December 2010
Richard Cohen Washington Post 7 December 2010
Michael V. Hayden CNN 7 December 2010
Slavoj Žižek London Review of Books 20 January 2011
Ben Adler Newsweek 4 January 2011
Christopher Hitchens Slate 6 December 2010
Sam Delaney and Brendan O’Neill Big Issue Scotland 6 December 2010
Alan Cowell New York Times 3 December 2010
Simon Jenkins Guardian 28 November 2010
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Huffington Post 6 February 2011
Sarah Ellison Vanity Fair February 2011
BBC News 21 December 2010
Barton Gellman Time 15 December 2010
Jonathan Fildes BBC News 7 December 2010
Democracy Now 3 December 2010
Vimeo December 2010
Frank Furedi spiked 30 November 2010
Andy Greenberg Forbes 29 November 2010
David Leigh Guardian 28 November 2010
New York Times
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Telegraph 15 April 2011
Guardian 13 April 2011
Guardian 6 April 2011
BBC News 5 April 2011
Independent 13 January 2011
Guardian 3 January 2011
BBC News 14 December 2010
Washington Post 14 December 2010
BBC News 13 December 2010
New York Times 6 December 2010
BBC News 4 December 2010
CBC News 3 December 2010
Guardian 2 December 2010
Guardian 1 December 2010
Telegraph 30 November 2010
Telegraph 12 November 2010
Guardian 24 October 2010
Guardian 22 October 2010
Guardian 26 July 2010
Daily Mail 7 April 2010
Guardian 25 November 2009
Guardian 20 October 2009
Guardian 25 June 2009
Democracy Now 3 December 2010
Vimeo December 2010
Debate between Julian Assange and David Aaronovitch City University 30 October 2010
New York Times
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