Wikileaks founder alienates his audience

Oct 01

Many of the staff and students going in to the lecture at City University and those following from elsewhere under the Twitter hashtag #WikileaksAtCity last night would have been unsure of exactly how they felt towards the man behind Wikileaks. This is because the information that has been exposed by it’s front man and founder, Julian Assange,  presents a tension. On the one hand we have the publics’  right to knowledge, freedom of information and the exposure of select information in the interest of the public and on the other, we have journalistic ethics and the harm that may directly result from such information being made freely and widely available. To re-cap, Wikileaks are responsible for disclosing over a million confidential documents, including secret US military intelligence and Sarah Palin’s private emails.

A criticism often thrown at Assange and what Times columnist David Aaronovitch started with, was to what extent did Wikileaks consider themselves accountable for the sensitive information they publish. Assange did not reply with a direct answer, instead moving the discussion on to what he wanted to talk about – the ethos behind Wikileaks. As crusader fronting the ‘intelligence for the people’, Assange believes he is ‘drawing attention to the fact that censorship is wrong’, which in some cases it is. But what he failed to recognise is that some data is not neccessary for public consumption and may put certain people’s lives or character at risk.

Questions from the floor were probing, suggesting the frustration felt as Assange continually refused to give the audience any clues as to how his organisation collect and choose to publish data, aligning himself with the so-called opaque organisations he works so vehemently to expose. One plucky student asked if we could see the list of financial donors for Wikileaks, as there has been speculation that the organisation has accepted money from the very institutions they are defaming. Assange said that he was ‘blind to the donor list’ and could not publish the information even if he had access to it. Hmm.

All those that I spoke to after the lecture, including City University’s head of journalism Professor George Brock, seemed irritated and alienated by Assange. The explanations for his work were ill-prepared and elusive and when asked about the transparency of Wikileaks he evaded questions, at times refusing to engage with the audience at all. At one moment Assange remarked to the room full of leading and future journalists that ‘this isn’t an interesting group of people’.

Aaronovitch ended with one of the most truthful comments we’d heard all evening, which sums up what I, myself and many others felt by the end of the debate. The difference now is that Assange and Wikileaks have become one of these big powers and so need to promote transparency within their own organisation. Without this, they undermine the credibility and acceptability of the information they publish and leave themselves at risk of being dismissed as unlawful hackers with blood on their hands.

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