Monday, December 13, 2010

Wiki Wiki

All over the world, you can hear Presidents and Prime Ministers and Pollies of every stripe cursing him:

I mean, 'Assange!'

By which we mean the Australian-Swedish-Icelandic-British internet activist and citizen of the world Julian Assange, currently showing up on the front page of every daily news outlet from 'The Age' to You must've seen him, right? You can't miss a sinister looking bloke like this:

Clearly a man up to no good, what with his James Bond villain hideaway and his sinister sunnies. Even the hip kids on the tram have heard of him:

(Actual overheard conversation on the #8 tram, Monday, 13/12/10, about 10.00 pm)

HIP KID #1: You heard about that WikiLinks thing?

HIP KID #2: Nup.

HK #1: Really? I thought everyone had heard about it. You know, that bloke in the paper.

HK #2: Oh yeah, him. What was going on with that today?

HK #1: Oh, I didn't pay any attention to the details. I just, like, heard about it.

Really, WikiLeaks has gone from an obscure, cult style media outlet to an omnipresent global phenomenon almost overnight.

I mean, there's something for pretty much everyone. There's the vivid and vividly embarrassing revelations about secret Government correspondence coming nearly daily via the global press. There's the lurid and luridly salacious sexual assault charges against Mr Assange also coming daily via the global press. Then there's Mr Assange's celebrity friends offering support, his mum taking up his defense, talking heads of every description castigating and deifying, even his old internet dating profile, all of it coming daily via the global press.

Come to think of it, the real winner from all of this is the global press, who have undoubtedly sold truckloads more newspapers and internet ads as a result.

But we can hope that there will be some long term benefit from the WikiLeaks experience for the rest of us too. Although this is less certain. Opinion among the better paid and better informed political commentariat is divided, to say the least.

While the local pundits have been enjoying poring over a never ending series of diplomatic cables that expose internal Government thinking on nearly every subject imaginable... And while they've REALLY been enjoying how many of those cables expose our ex PM Kevin Rudd as a tanty throwing nutjob... A lot of the actual information in those cables is probably not that revelatory. Something that the local punditry has noted, once they'd gotten over their initial excitement.

For example, even a poorly paid and poorly informed pundit like myself wasn't shocked to hear that K.Rudd, PM, thought the President of Iran was a loathsome anti Semite. Nor was it surprising to hear that The Bomber, Kim Beazley, willingly pledged Australia to fight at America's side in any prospective future war with China (I mean, if The Bomber had had his way, kids would be singing 'Two All Beef Patties Special Sauce Lettuce Cheese Pickles Onions On a Sesame Seed Bun' at school assemblies).

A little more surprising, perhaps, was the revelation that BHP had worked behind the scenes to scuttle China's attempt to buy a large stake in BHP's competitor, Rio Tinto. But even this is hardly shocking. In this cynical age, I imagine most people hold a similar opinion on large, cashed up corporations to what I do; that short of eating small children for breakfast there's nothing they won't sink to in the pursuit of money (even then, I mean Memo: Eating small children could be a good source of revenue via the value added food market and could score us some corporate brownie points by helping combat the overpopulation problem).

And the only thing surprising about the fact that Mark Arbib, the Federal Minister for Fringe Topics, was leaking confidential cabinet discussion notes directly to the Americans was that, once this was splashed all over the front page of Australia's daily newspapers, the PM took no action to discipline Arbib in any way. Although, on closer examination, maybe this wasn't so surprising either. Arbib is one of those faceless, backroom Labor apparatchiks we've heard so much about, the ones who make and break Prime Ministers, so Julia Gillard is probably utterly terrified of him (although I did hear a rumour that she knocked on his office door and then ran away).

So what does that leave us with? A whole lot of newsprint and little by the way of surprises.

A more important question then, than the details of what WikiLeaks has put out for public consumption, is why they have done what they've done. And, for the people involved, whether or not they have committed any sort of crime.

The why is perhaps the more interesting of these. Previous WikiLeaks efforts appear to have been motivated by a specific political agenda; opposition to the war in Iraq in relation to a leaked video of American troops shooting civilians, for example. The object being obviously to influence public opinion against the war in general. but these recent leaks do not seem to have a specific agenda to them, other than to cause embarrassment to major governments and promote a vaguely defined concept of 'free speech.' This would appear to be taking Mr Assange back towards his roots, as a kind of socio-anarchist intent on causing chaos. Or the sign of someone who no longer controls the thing they've created. Either of which can't help but make you wonder as to what his overall objective might be.

As to the legality of what Assange has done, that is, publishing confidential Government information in a public forum, well, there's already a word for this: journalism. And journalists who get their hands on secret, leaked Government information often times end up with a shelf full of awards, a book deal and Dustin Hoffman playing them in a film:

This has not stopped the American Government announcing that they're going to forge ahead and try to prosecute Assange with... well, something. Stealing secrets? Passing on secrets? Tax Evasion? Jay walking? Anything really, even if it means inventing new laws to prosecute him with. Even this would not be enough for Fox television star and would be 2012 Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who puts Assange in the same category as Al Qada and wants him charged as a terrorist (look out New York Times if she gets elected President).

Our own Government seems more equivocal, which is to say that they seem as confused and uncertain about WikiLeaks as they do about everything else. Our foreign Minster - Kevin Rudd... Jesus, again? - made statements during the week that he was in favour of offering full consular assistance to Mr Assange and prosecuting him to the full extent of the law like a dog. Which should surprise no one familiar with his career. While our PM made it pretty damn clear that she was in favour of him being charged with something, by someone, although she was not in favour of having these details clarified any time soon. Which again, should surprise no one.

In fact, there have been so few surprises in this saga to date, that 'Radiohead' would appear to have a lock on the closing credits song when an ailing Oliver Stone makes the movie:

Radiohead - No Surprises
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