Why the personification of Wikileaks may cause more harm than good

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By now, unless you live under a very large and very heavy rock, you’ll have no doubt heard of Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and its steady drip feeding of sensitive diplomatic cables to the world.

The rare sight of unity between international governments along with the American political spectrum has been witnessed. Angry herd mentality appeared to reach breaking point on several appalling occasions – 2012 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee called for the execution of Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence analyst suspected of being the source of the leaks (skip to 3:30 for the action)….

….Huckabee was backed up by Fox News (sigh) national security analyst Kathleen McFarland, who called for more serious charges against Manning, and his execution if found guilty (skip to 1:10)….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1cj19JTQjY&fs=1&hl=en_GB&rel=0

….right-wing Canadian political activist Tom Flanagan effectively issued a fatwa against Julian Assange:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqtIafdoH_g&fs=1&hl=en_GB&rel=0

….Bill O’Reilly said that those who leak to the ‘despicable’ website are traitors, and should be ‘executed, or put in prison for life’:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPpqQk3KlLY&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

… and everyone’s favourite Caribou hunter, Sarah Palin, waded in on her Facebook page, questioning why Assange hadn’t been hunted down like the Taliban, to which Wikileaks had this reply:

Julian Assange, the enigmatic front man of Wikileaks, has recently become of equal interest to the western media as the cables themselves. What I question is whether the need to personify the Wikileaks organisation is a step in the right direction. Wikileaks has been hailed as something that could become as important as the Freedom of Information Act and it represents another leap forward in liberal transparency. The question still remains of course whether that improvement in transparency is worth the damaging effects it has on other liberal rights such as privacy and diplomacy, on both a personal and a governmental scale (could governments really operate in the modern world facing 100% transparency?). However, it is inevitable that all of the sensitive cables will be released, regardless of what may happen to Assange and Wikileaks, and in that sense those rights have already lost their invulnerability. Wikileaks has been compared to the emancipation of the free word in the 16th century with the widespread use of the Gutenberg printing press, whilst the government cohorts are a modern-day Catholic Church trying to shut the whole thing down. Personally, I think that while Wikileaks is nothing revolutionary in journalistic terms, it is the fact that it’s based on the internet, with no fixed base and no subsequent obligation to comply with the expected and familiar parameters of journalism, that scares the proverbial out of the government cohort. The affected governments also hate the possibility that an open channel for whistle-blowers has been created and that it may never be closed.

By Assange declaring himself the face of Wikileaks, he has opened his private life up to intense scrutiny and has made himself the target of many a politician. My worry is that of the vast volume of personal attacks he is currently receiving, how much of it is warranted and how much of it is ad hominem? If the public view of Assange changes from a living-web-based-Che Guevara-kind of-figurine to one of dangerous internet terrorist, rapist, and molester, will that damage the credibility of Wikileaks? It certainly seems that some of the political elite are trying to achieve just that, and I think that a proportion of the public will fall for it.

However, there is an upside to all of the attention Assange is getting. Whilst becoming the face of Wikileaks has brought massive amounts of criticism to his personal life, it has simultaneously promoted him to a position where he gets the majority of credit (perhaps unjustly deserved given the other brave and diligent people working within the organisation). This credit along with the press attention as a whole, enhances his ability to promote certain material which is clearly beneficial to Wikileaks’ cause and aids in the fight against the pervasive censorship that some senators are trying to achieve.

Perhaps we needed a fresh new system of journalism outside of the politically and financially entrenched global media – should governments be allowed to feel confident that their dirty laundry can be kept hidden at the back of the wardrobe? Don’t the American people have a certain right to know what their government says and does with their tax money and in their name? Now the US administration has had their dirty laundry aired, and they don’t like it. Maybe now the US government knows what the full-body scanners feel like.

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3rd year biologist at the University of Southampton. Likes science, film, and discovering new ways to make one of my housemates lose his deposit.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. avatar

    I completely agree with your article. Personally I think Julian Assange is very brave for standing up to basically every state in the world. The amount of information released is amazing and it is exactly what we need. Even though this information may cause chaos, it is still important that we know exactly what kind of people are elected into government, where our money is going and what our government is NOT telling us.

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