This Vanity Fair piece on the journalistic politics of Wikileaks is well worth reading – it’s the most comprehensive account of the evolving relationship between Wikileaks, the Guardian and other news organizations that I’ve seen. I think (this perhaps reflects my preconceptions as much as anything else) that the piece provides implicit support for two propositions.
First – that Wikileaks-type organizations need strong connections with more traditional media if they are to succeed. Assange seems to have been quite canny at playing different news organizations against each other, but he needed substantial connections to the media to get the word out.
At the time of his meeting with Davies, Assange had repeatedly voiced frustration that his leaks hadn’t received the attention they deserved. The Guardian’s Rusbridger recently looked back through old e-mails from Assange, from a period when Assange was trying to get more notice. “In many ways, he was right,” Rusbridger says. “People weren’t paying attention.”
Here, Wikileaks is like the blogosphere before it became partially integrated with traditional media. There was a lot of interesting – and newsworthy – material that used to float about on blogs, but unless it was picked up by traditional media, it had little or no political impact. The most often cited example of blog influence – Trent Lott’s forced resignation – is best understood as a story of how blogs focused traditional media attention on a story that they had not viewed as newsworthy – but if the media had not been able to find a hook (provided by Lott himself) to start circulating the story again, it would probably have had no impact.
Second – that Wikileaks type operations need some kind of organizational infrastructure to work properly. The article discusses at several points Wikileaks’ perpetual need for money, and difficulty in doing what it wanted to do with its material because of lack of money and organizational resources.
Taken together, these suggest that Wikileaks-type phenomena are nowhere near as invulnerable to concerted state action as some of the more glib commentators have suggested. It needs money and proper organizational structures to work. The piece hints that the current version of Wikileaks – which seems an awkward amalgam of open source style volunteerism and personality cult – is on the brink of collapse. It also needs to be able to build and maintain connections with external organizations, both to get resources in, and to get information out. These present obvious vulnerabilities. They also suggest that it will be far more difficult to create a multitude of mini-Wikileaks than it appears at first sight. You need more than a secure connection and a website to make this model work. At a minimum, you need enough of an organization to be able to build and retain links with bigger media.
Finally, the most interesting consequence of Wikileaks is not that it has released much genuinely new information into the world (there are some consequential facts that were not widely known, but they are a relatively small part of the story). It is that it is redefining the boundary between facts that ‘everybody’ (for political elite values of ‘everybody’) knows but that are non-actionable in the public space, because they are not publicly confirmable, and facts that are both perceived as politically salient and confirmable, and hence are legitimate ‘news.’ Wikileaks means that many issues that are known are now also confirmably known, and confirmed as being known by the gatekeepers of public knowledge. I strongly suspect that this would not be true if Assange had not struck alliances with respected media organizations. The interesting action is precisely in the interaction between media organizations and organizations like Wikileaks, which are neither traditional sources nor media organizations themselves. This relationship is what will largely determine how the balance between ‘news’ and politically salient but non-actionable information shifts.