One of the compelling infographics that accompanied the initial release of the Panama Papers was the one comparing them to major leaks of recent years, back to the Chelsea Manning cables released in 2010.

While Manning, Edward Snowden and the source of previous documents exposing money-laundering and tax evasion by large banks were all whistleblowers who revealed major crimes, the Panama Papers appear to have been a genuine external hack (a much-overused term) that involved 2.6 terabytes of data, or more than 11 million documents, being stolen and given to the media.

By way of comparison, Manning’s cables, published by WikiLeaks, were just 1.7 GB and a quarter of a million cables, as well as around 500,000 documents and videos that became known as the Iraq and Afghan War Logs; the NSA documents obtained by Snowden are said to number around 1.7 million, although American officials have repeatedly changed their claims about the volume of material he took.

In 2010, however, the Manning material was considered extraordinary in size compared to the previous biggest leak, the Pentagon Papers, revealed by Daniel Ellsberg via the New York Times in 1971, which comprised about 7000 pages across 47 volumes of analysis and original documents. The Manning documents represented a sea change in whistleblowing wrought by digitisation. Information was now measured not by pages and grams per square inch, but by zeroes and ones and megabytes — Ellsberg and an associate laboriously over a period of weeks photocopied the Pentagon Papers on a Xerox machine (itself a dramatic new technology for information dissemination at that time; the papers themselves can now be easily downloaded from a US government archive site). Moreover, information can be far more easily distributed — Ellsberg had to take his copies to anti-Vietnam War congressmen and, when none were interested, the Times. Manning simply uploaded the files to WikiLeaks.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

Collecting, and then distributing, large volumes of data is now straightforward, making the act of leaking far simpler than in the analog era — although not necessarily safer. Wired‘s Andy Greenberg has suggested a kind of “Moore’s Law of Leaks” about the explosive growth in the size of materials being leaked.

The sheer size of the material that can now be leaked can pose its own problems, and not just for journalists who find they have multi-gigabyte files they need to move around. Huge volumes of material are in effect useless unless they can be searched effectively. One of the successes of WikiLeaks since 2010 — and 2015 was its best year since Cablegate — has been its capacity to provide searchable databases of even the biggest troves of information.

That’s not an issue so far for the Panama Papers, though, because they haven’t actually been made public and are unlikely to be. Unlike the Manning documents or the Saudi diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, or Hillary Clinton’s emails, or the Stratfor leak, they’re not available online. This prompted criticism from WikiLeaks, which has called for the full set of 11+ million documents to be made available. The director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Gerard Ryle, shot back, saying “we’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.” WikiLeaks promptly responded in kind, pointing out that ICIJ was funded by business magnate George Soros and the Ford Foundation, among others.

What was not noted by Ryle is that it’s in the commercial interests of the mainstream media outlets that make up ICIJ to adopt this position and play gatekeeper on such documents — as Fairfax did when it obtained the Manning cables relating to Australia, openly stating it was for its commercial advantage.

Ryle was peddling a myth that has been around since the days of Cablegate, and which had its genesis in mainstream media resentment that an organisation like WikiLeaks had achieved a historic scoop ahead of them (and the resentment of Julian Assange’s media partners, like The Guardian, who would go onto personally vilify him after obtaining the cables from him). The myth runs that only professional journalists can be trusted to provide access to sensitive material, that they must act as gatekeepers and that the public cannot be trusted to access such material themselves, in contrast to the “irresponsible” approach of WikiLeaks, of making the material available to all and sundry.

The myth partly rests on shaky foundations: WikiLeaks didn’t bulk-release the cables, but worked with mainstream media partners to slowly and selectively release them after vetting; Julian Assange even contacted the US State Department seeking their input on which of the cables posed a genuine threat to people’s lives; outfits like the New York Times would later allow the State Department to dictate what should be redacted. It was actually boastful Guardian journalist David Leigh who allowed mass publication of the unredacted cables when he published the password to the full cable set in his cash-in tome about Cablegate, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. But WikiLeaks’ stance is now “full docs or go home” and Assange has criticised the selective release of the Snowden documents.

The lesson from the Manning cables was that statements about damage from leaks tend to be wildly overblown; claims that the cables caused huge damage to US security, or led to the deaths of individuals, were admitted by the US government to be false — and people tend to forget that Manning, unlike Snowden, never took “top secret” documents.

In relation to the Panama Papers, however, such debates are surely moot; these are legal and financial records, not diplomatic cables or the internal documents of our most secretive intelligence agencies. If the claims against Manning about the damage wrought by his cables turned out to be false, the reluctance of ICIJ to release the material in full appears more an act of gatekeeping than fear about the consequences for “innocent parties” who have been using shell companies and tax havens.

There’s another thread that links the major leaks of recent years: the way in which crimes conducted in secrecy and with the tacit or explicit approval of governments provoke their exposure. As Glenn Greenwald noted about both the Snowden documents and the Panama Papers, the leaks reveal illegality, but are more noteworthy for what appalling behaviour has been permitted by governments, invariably with minimal or no public debate. This comparison extends to the Manning cables and war logs, which detailed — in some cases provided video footage of — war crimes by US forces, for which no one other than Manning was ever punished. It was the extent of government complicity in actions that should have been illegal — the indiscriminate murder of Afghan and Iraqi civilians by US soldiers, unconstitutional mass surveillance by US government agencies on the flimsiest of pretexts — that so alarmed Manning and Snowden that they took the life-changing decisions to expose those actions.

The only tools governments have to stop such leaks are the exemplary punishment handed out to Manning and the hounding of, and death threats directed at, Snowden, who remains in exile/asylum in Russia. But with the tools for massive information distribution readily at hand for whistleblowers, there’s nothing logistically to halt such leaking, as long as governments secretly legitimise crimes and motivate whistleblowers to want to tell the world.