The leaking of police reports detailing the victim statements of two women accusing Julian Assange of r-pe is a serious denial of justice. But it raises the question of whether the police reports would have seen the light of day had they been passed to WikiLeaks.
The potential damage of the leak to Assenge’s right to a fair trial is obvious and it’s odds on WikiLeaks would have decided against publication. To deny the public this information would have been justified.
It’s funny how when the issue is close to home even the strongest principles seem to call for reconsideration. But it did not take leaked police reports of allegations against Assange to cause WikiLeaks to take a couple of steps back from its unthinking support for freedom of information. The fallout from the publication of diplomatic cables has forced the retreat from purity.
The internet libertarians declare that “information wants to be free”. But information also kills people. So WikiLeaks now redacts certain information from the cables, and has even taken some of them down, denying public access. More significantly, it is prudently outsourcing the exercise of responsibility to the mainstream media.
Nevertheless, the thinking and the sloganeering of Assange and his supporters lags well behind their actions. They are yet to concede that the “right” to free information is not an unlimited one. Every thoughtful whistle-blower knows this. Think David Kelly, the British weapons inspector, who had secret information proving that his government lied about its reasons for going to war.
Dr Kelly weighed up the public interest and made a decision to reveal the information to a trusted source in the media. He was right to do so — indeed, in my view, his actions were heroic, and not just because he took his own life as a result of the Blair government’s retribution. But in leaking he accepted responsibility for the consequences.
WikiLeaks has never indicated that it understands that rights often clash, and has made it plain that it will publish any genuine documents no matter what the consequences. The high-minded stance taken on freedom of information is not tempered by a careful consideration of the harm that may be done to innocent people.
WikiLeaks justifies its “defence of free speech” by referring to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, it writes, “states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
But there are more rights than Article 19 enshrined in the Universal Declaration, and WikiLeaks has violated some of them. Like Article 3, which declares that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, a right jeopardised when WikiLeaks released the names of Afghans working with the Americans.
Then there is Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.”
Those who framed the declaration understood that, taken alone, rights can be abused and so they ended it with Article 30 declaring that none of the rights they had laid down can be used to justify any act aimed at the destruction of any of the other rights and freedoms set forth in it.
While governments are undoubtedly too secretive and use secret information to exercise power undemocratically, this does not mean there is no justification for state secrets.
The cherry-picking of rights to justify heroic individualism reveals the absence of a political ideology behind WikiLeaks. Assange seems to adhere to a patchwork of incoherent ideas picked up from who-knows-where but that allows WikiLeaks to include among its three founding principles the “rights of all people to create new history”.
WikiLeaks is a product of internet fetishism in a post-ideological age where net libertarians act out online fantasies divorced from real political understanding. Assange is the perfect embodiment of this sub-culture — a wanderer who through brains, cunning and a fortuitous conjunction of technology emerges as a messiah for a generation alienated by the venality of the main political parties.
WikiLeaks is a major irritant to the powerful, and has exposed in all of its duplicity the hypocrisy that we know rules our world. The judicial persecution of Assange only deepens the scepticism. But for all of the schadenfreude we might derive from seeing political leaders squirm, a website for whistle-blowers can provide no coherent political force to help bring about the political transformation so badly needed.