Julian Sheather: This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a leak

I was at the Frontline Club recently, watching how the world changes. A grandiose claim perhaps, the latter, but the occasion was a debate on the journalistic impact of the Wikileaks phenomenon. Vaughan Smith, the club’s owner, is currently giving handsome houseroom to Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder. In journalistic terms a slightly starry line-up: Ian Katz, deputy editor of The Guardian, David Aaronovitch of The Times, Gavin Macfayden, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens, the event adroitly chaired by Richard Gisbert from Al-Jazeera.
Although the story was in danger of degrading into tattle about Assange’s sex life, and there was dispute on the panel about how much of what was leaked was already known, there was a spiky, grumbling consensus that Wikileaks marked a Copernican shift in the relationship between the media, the state, and the citizens whose interests they so differently champion. And there in a nutshell was my problem. Assange was being lionised in some quarters – and not just by decorative socialites – as a Robin Hood of the databases, breaking open the information coffers of sheriff states, and scattering the gold among the benighted. But in just whose interests was he working and to what, or to whom, was he accountable?
The assembled journalists and “hacktivists” were a seductive bunch: bright, critical, stubborn, independent, undeceived, their gutsy idealism colliding with the apparently limitless venality of the powerful. You could fancy them information freebooters and privateers – frontiersmen. We were also in slightly mythic territory: the shades of Watergate were invoked, the Ponting affair. Would Blair have spun us into another crusade in Iraq if a few more data vigilantes had been at work?
I was almost appeased. The revelations about Pfizer’s alleged dirty tricks in Nigeria were after all in the great tradition of reportage. But for the extraordinary glut of explosive stories pouring from the Wikileaks’ data-stick, Katz lamented, the story would have covered the front page; it would have been harried for weeks. But my doubts wouldn’t quite go to sleep. Katz described an editorial meeting in which the question was seriously raised whether publication would simultaneously re-ignite three armed conflicts. That’s a deal of responsibility in a few hands, hands unaccountable to the people the decisions will affect, hands with a vested interest in selling copy.
Wikileaks was scarier still. The Guardian has a tradition and standing, a code of practice. It spoke to the US State Department prior to publication. It protected sources; it redacted the cables to mitigate harm. Before striking a deal with The Guardian, Assange wanted to publish the material “unmediated,” let the harms fall where they may.
As a citizen of an “open” democracy I have many interests. One of them to be sure is in a free press holding mendacious governments to account. To this end a judicious leak can be a fine corrective. But I also have an interest in good governance and this involves the keeping of secrets. Striking a balance here can be fiendishly difficult. And if I baulk at the editors of The Guardian adjudicating, what about Wikileaks or any of the imitation sites springing up all over? Wikileaks changed its mind about “unmediated” disclosure after heeding The Guardian’s counsel. But will its offspring? As Glen Newey wrote in a recent Diary piece in the London Review of Books, “Only those with hearts of stone could fail to warm to the cyber-ambush of Mastercard and PayPal. But only those with heads of bone could fail to wonder if the keys of life and death should be handed to Assange or any other individual.”
Take a more pedestrian example. Katz raised the NHS information database. After Wikileaks, he wondered, who will have faith in such huge aggregates of sensitive data? Now there are certainly debates to be had about the public interest in a national medical database. There are big potential benefits along with some significant risks. But do we really want the decisions made, or at least foreclosed, by a small stateless posse of data cowboys?
Whatever we might make of Wikileaks and Assange, this dispute will rage: ownership and control of data; privacy and its limits; the extent of the state’s proper interest in secrecy: unless I miss my guess, these will be some of the defining debates of the decade. After an evening at the Frontline Club, the future started to look like an even more uncertain place.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.