The quick verdict on WikiLeaks is that the principle is critical, but the contents are not all that important.

It is useful but not entirely surprising to learn that the United States regards its ally Saudi Arabia as the greatest source of funding for its arch enemy al-Qaeda and that the Saudis would like the US to obliterate Iran on their behalf. It is heartening to hear that the US takes the stories about nuclear co-operation between North Korea and Burma seriously.

And it is almost certainly a good thing that these are now matters of public record. The truths may be inconvenient for some, but there is far more likelihood they will be dealt with in a sensible and serious manner now that they are openly acknowledged.

There will no doubt be other interesting snippets as the slow release of documents continues and the mass media (who, unlike WikiLeaks’ supremo Julian Assange, appear to be under no threats or constraints whatsoever — funny, that) convey them to the world at large. But so far the bulk of it is at best yesterday’s news and at worst just gossip.

Of course we’ve been lied to about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; in what war have we ever been told the truth? And of course diplomats send bitchy reports back to headquarters about wherever they are based; not only is it their job, but they enjoy it. As ex-diplomat Kevin Rudd pointed out, diplomats rival journalists in their cynical and wise-cracking view of the world.

And another thing Rudd got right was that while the massive scale of the leak is a huge embarrassment to the heavies of Washington, they have only themselves to blame. If they didn’t want this stuff to become known, they should have taken more care with their security. Which brings us to the critical question of principle: what was so secret about it in the first place?

The zealots who are demanding the head of Julian Assange on a platter tell us that the revelations have placed lives at risk and have compromised the security of nations, but they have supplied absolutely no evidence for either claim. It would appear that most of the cables were stamped “secret” or “confidential” almost as a matter of reflex; there is nothing in them to justify the classification.

It is further proof, if proof were needed, that even democratically elected governments become addicted to control for its own sake. In a free and open society the availability of information should be the default position; it is not a matter of the public’s right to know, which should be a given, but of the government having to justify any restriction of that right.

It is not enough for the punishers and the straighteners, as Manning Clark christened them, to parrot slogans such as “national security” and “operational matters” and “commercial in confidence” in order to suppress what they would prefer not to discuss. They should be compelled to demonstrate that the disclosure would do actual harm. The right to personal privacy is one thing, but the curtailing of public debate by withholding the relevant facts is another entirely.

This is why questions such as: “But is it in the public interest?” and “Do we really need to know?” are not only irrelevant but downright silly. If these were serious criteria we would immediately abolish the advertising industry and commercial radio and television services would be shut down forthwith. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the first amendment of the US constitution, but it is not  formalised under Australian law. Nor should it need to be. It is the very basis of our society.

And this is not, or should not be, a divisive issue: the small government ideologues of the right have just as big a stake in it as have the anti-censorship populists of the left. And for that matter, Julia Gillard and Sarah Palin are equally wrong. Julian Assange may not merit a Nobel prize, but he sure as hell doesn’t deserve to be persecuted either. If we are serious about defending democracy, he is not our enemy but our new best friend.

One of the more obvious revelations from WikiLeaks was the news that self-styled Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib is a tattletale and informer.

Arbib, we are told, regularly briefs the United States embassy about the goings on in the ALP and has done so for years. And why not, say his right-wing colleagues; lots of us do it. Well, maybe; but have they all followed Arbib’s lead in asking for anonymity, to be designated a “protected source?”

Of course, this may reflect no more than a desire on the part of the miniscule apparatchik to be seen as an important player, a key figure in the secret world in the mould of James Bond, or at least Godwin Gretch. But it may also suggest that the Yanks are grooming Arbib as a genuine agent of influence.

This was certainly how ASIO saw the friendship between the former ALP national secretary David Combe and the Russian diplomat Valery Ivanov, a relationship that was completely open, and as a result Combe was declared personal non grata by the Hawke government and ostracised by many of his former colleagues.

Given Arbib’s unsavoury reputation, such a sentence on him would probably be redundant. But it would be nice to see the message “Arbib is a fink” painted on the walls of Sussex Street.

At least Cancun was an improvement on Copenhagen; there was something approaching agreement between the developed and the developing and a general consensus that something needs to be done.

But nothing too specific, and certainly nothing binding. And so again climate change goes to the backburner. The latest talkfest has resulted in a great many expressions of good intentions but still no binding commitments to actually do something.

A couple of weeks ago the question was: Can Cancun? Now the answer is: Cancun Can’t.  We will heroically resist adding the obvious expletive to conclude this word play.

Peter Fray

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