Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/28/wikileaks/
Hypnotic illusions at the Wikileaks Show
Greasepaint - check. Factoids - check.
Analysis There's a theatrical quality to the publication of the Wikileaks Afghan logs that's quite at odds with what they contain. You'll recall that Wikileaks obtained a large number of classified field reports from US forces in Afghanistan and gave three media outlets, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian, advanced copies of a small portion of the material, before publishing on Monday.
We're told that they're sensational, but this mundane and arcane collection of scraps of information has landed with a thud: it doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know. Yet everyone involved has a role to play, and is hamming it up to the full. The oohs and aahs wouldn't be out of place at a WWE Smackdown, or a Christmas panto. Something feels not quite right here, but what is it?
The star actor and media manipulator is undoubtedly Wikileaks founder Julian Assange himself. Assange plays the part of "master hacker" and "international fugitive" - cliches at home in an airport thriller. But recall that the template is Cryptome, a site operated by New York architect John Young for 15 years. Young doesn't appear to need Assange's theatrical garb - such as never staying in the same location for two nights, requiring cryptography, and changing his number and email constantly. Young's name and address are prominent on his website, and haven't changed for 15 years. Young has arguably has far more to lose than Assange. So the fugitive role Assange adopts is a lifestyle choice, and not a necessity. Nor does Young feel the need to become part of the story himself: he doesn't do vanity PR: press conferences or proclamations are not the Cryptome style. On Cryptome, you come and get it. And crucially, you then work out whether it's genuine or not, and how important it may be.
"Assange is a master at hiding his assets and providing hypnotic illusions," notes Young.
The Guardian has devoted as much space to how it processed the story, as to the story itself - which is usually a warning bell that the news content might actually be quite thin. Another warning bell is that the story has dried up by day three. Nevertheless, having hyped up Assange for weeks, the paper now gets to trumpet its prowess at obtaining the forbidden - when really, it's been hand-picked by the media manipulator. It looks uncomfortably similar to "churnalism", the term that one of the skeleton team processing the files, Nick Davies, coined in his book Flat Earth News. This illustrates less of an analytical capability than a skill at buttering up a single source.
Ailing newspapers have their own reasons for buying into the Wikileaks circus, of course. And the last month has sent the Assange publicity machine at the Graun into overdrive: [Profile - Profile - Award - Profile - Profile - Live blog - er, Jemima].
The Guardian was scooped by the Telegraph with its expenses scandal and the newspaper's financial position is more precarious than the other ailing broadsheets. Its top investigative reporters such as David Hencke and David Pallister have taken voluntary redundancy - it's really down to a skeleton crew of just two, and it's outsourcing its IT operations. You can be forgiven for thinking that the Wikileaks relationship is another form of outsourcing - with the fizz of the 'glamour' provided by Assange making up for the brains cupboard looking rather bare.
But none of this has stopped the Guardian - unlike Der Spiegel or the New York Times - from suggesting that it's pioneering a new form of journalism: "data-driven journalism", no less.
I find it odd that disclosure in itself has become a kind of performance. And I use the word 'performance' carefully, because performance is a kind of artifice. While all journalists love to obtain forbidden or secret documents, these don't become a substitute for the primary job in hand, which is explaining the world, and this is performed by the journalist. It requires analytical skills at both ends of the chain - with the reader also making rational choices, and joining the dots. Leaks typically provide the seed for a scoop, maybe a great scoop, but they don't join the dots. As many commenters have pointed out since Monday, The Afghan Logs is a subset of (apparently) 90,000 documents which don't really tell us anything new. They shed no new light on strategic motives, or even tactical alliances. By comparing the Wikileaks logs to the Pentagon Papers, our intelligence is being insulted.
Information isn't knowledge
Part of the problem is the weight given to "information" itself. In the Wikileaks Show, facts are a strange kind of stuff that almost appears to come from another planet; a luminous substance. This is quite similar to how a conspiracy theorist treats information. For a conspiracy theorist, a factoid is emblematic, it's a cypher: it represents and stands-in for a wide set of power relationships. In the real world, these are much more complex and contradictory. By hyping a collection of factoids, the Logs become quite symbolic. They foreclose the analysis we must perform as readers.
The only journalist to explicitly highlight this problem is Brendan O'Neill, who points out that the Wikileaks Show leaves us feeling a bit thicker and more poorly informed than before:
"Truth becomes, not something we find out through critical study and investigation, but something we are handed by external forces … this is Truth as a religious-style revelation rather than Truth as the endpoint of thought, interrogation, question-asking, analysis. In reality, it is only through actively engaging with the world and its problems, through gathering facts and objectively analysing and organising them, that we can arrive at any Truth worth its name," he writes.
The journalist Claud Cockburn, who created the foreign policy scandalsheet The Week in the 1930s that later became the model for Private Eye, and many others, made a similar point many years ago, in his memoir A Discord of Trumpets. Cockburn wrote:
"To hear people talking about facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold in the Yukon days, waiting to be picked up - arduous it is true, but still definitely visible - by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only how to get them to market. Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive".
Cockburn's point - and do read it in his own words - was that stories began with a subjective point of view, around which the facts were organised. This idea of the journalist as a flawed medium was heresy, and perhaps upsetting, Cockburn recognized - but it was healthier, as it implied a rational, critical audience and demanded a plurality of "views":
"One was reminded of the atheistic young man who has told the believer that he would never believe anything he could not understand, to which the believer replied, 'Young man, your beliefs are likely to be small.'"
The internet has made concealment of information much harder, and that's good. I'm not knocking the information distribution system Assange has created. But in the face of this, power doesn't simply keel over and admit defeat. And Assange may simply have invented a new form of concealment - the information disclosed is both edited and highly selective.
The nature of news and journalism hasn't really changed. We want the world explained, the dots joined, and factoids are a poor substitute, no matter how sensational the trappings. We know that information isn't knowledge, and sometimes barely causes a ripple.
(Young weighs into the Wikileaks-Media relationship here - it's a must-read.) ®