Here is a piece on privacy, transparency, trust and the problem of WikiLeaks that I published at the beginning of 2010 (February 1) which deserves another outing as the year ends.
Warning: this post is counter-revolutionary. A recent BBC’s Culture Show celebrated how WikiLeaks exposes anything which comes its way with no chance of legal comeback. Supposedly this will usher in a revolution in openness. Here’s the case against transparency in defence of trust.
The report explored WikiLeaks’ claim to speak truth to power by pulling down the controlling, secretive barriers the establishment erects to protect itself. WikiLeaks uses zillions of ISPs to bounce leaks from whistle-blowers around the world leaving no way of tracing the originators.
This insurgent, trendy phenomenon has some impressive backers in the media world who endorse the idea that it’s good to leak. These include AP, the Los Angeles Times and The National Newspaper Association, according to WikiLeaks.
Perhaps they’re seeking novel ways to do investigative journalism in the face of cutbacks in budgets; a case of old media seeking new lifelines through new media. According to The National, “Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years.”
WikiLeaks (ominously, in my view) is currently behind attempts to introduce legislation in Iceland to turn the island into an offshore “Switzerland of bits“, a safe haven for digital leaks. They’ve positioned it tantalizingly as a potential new business model for the bankrupt country.
Let’s unpick this and begin with the question: whatever happened to trust?
Is every leak a blow on a whistle that can justify itself in the public interest? Aren’t we supposed to want more trust in society? Does that exclude firms and official bodies hoping to trust their employees? How should we balance the tension between trust and the right to whistle-blow?
Well, as somebody who thinks that trust is vital to the functioning of a healthy society, I think the balance has to weigh – even positively favour – the right of institutions and individuals to keep things private, secret and confidential over the right of others to leak.
We have to trust that one another’s rights are going to be protected or we will destroy the bonds that make society function pleasantly and decently, not to say ethically and legally. Transparency has its place, but so does opacity. Reputations have a right to protection against defamation and they have the right to the benefit of the doubt when attacked, just as private property does.
We all have public, private and sometimes very separate other lives which would collapse like a house of cards if they were made transparent. Hence, the restraining arm of the law has a valuable role to play when it comes to protecting our collective freedoms.
That’s why as PR I have recently been on the side of gagging orders on behalf of John Terry, Tiger Woods, Trafigura and the British National Party membership list.
Very often, I have been glad that these issues are under the control of the courts, and very often I’ve found that the careful balancing of peoples’ competing human rights (to privacy, to free speech) are more sound than some giddy free-for-all masquerading as a crusade against censorship or for open-ness.
However, I accept it is a moot point whether the US justice system handles such matters better than does, say, the UK. But, whatever, I’m against a truly free press, just as I’m for democracy precisely because as well as protecting our freedoms, it limits them.
The UK Cabinet and any other organisation have a right to keep some things under wraps. They also have a right to expect that people they hire in any capacity will feel obliged not to betray them.
As a PR I know that the most embarrassing part of most crises is the behind-the-scenes highly-strung incompetence, panic and failure of leadership under pressure. My colleagues and I have always mediated that nonsense: that’s our job.
In a crisis the role of PRs is to keep the focus on the real issues the outside world cares about. Mostly, PRs put out fires which have little fuel but which generate lots of heat. But if ever we leak the detail of the inside insecurities we witness, the outcome becomes far worse than the original crisis warrants.
For instance, the problem at Three Mile Island was the stream of conscious transparency that the operators presented to the world as they grappled to grasp what had gone on inside their malfunctioning reactor. That was the very opposite of a cover up.
So it is no wonder, then, that governments want and should have the right to keep much of their inner workings secret. The same should go for companies and individuals. Moreover, at the heart of any profession is a lack of transparency – call it client confidentiality – which makes them honourable and trustworthy. Lots of people can do good, but not if what they say is leaked. As a list of such types, let’s begin with PRs, lawyers, priests, doctors, consultants and therapists. I don’t mean that every confidence accepted by every one of those is of equal importance and equally inviolate. I mean that very often what these people know is useful because it’s private.
That’s why WikiLeaks is bad news. It is why I am pleased that it is currently so short of funds that it cannot function properly. And it is why I think that it would be in society’s interest to curb the power and effectiveness of this new threat.
At the end of the day, society has more right to keep its secrets secret, than does WikiLeaks have a right to wreak havoc, and to keep its sources hidden while doing so.