WikiLeaks and the liberal mind

Transparency is not the only liberal value.

The release by WikiLeaks of US government cables is a sheer triumph for transparency.

Transparency in diplomatic and governmental matters is important, for behind the cloak of secrecy and plausible deniability can lie malice, selfishness and incompetence. Open access to reliable information enables us to participate effectively in a democratic society: in particular, voters can get beyond the self-serving spin of politicians and media outlets. In the wise words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest jurists in American history, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.

For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.

However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".

Be that as it may: one must remember that such self-assumed moral authority is conceptually indistinguishable from the vigilante. If transparency is important, then so is accountability.

Another liberal value is legality: the belief that actions – especially those that affect others – should have a basis in law. The Guardian and New York Times quite rightly have taken the newsroom of the News of the World to task because of the alleged unlawful and criminal conduct of reporters and investigators in gaining unauthorised access to mobile telephone voice messages.

But legality is not just for tabloid newspapers: it (presumably) applies also to broadsheets. Transparency may well be trumping legality in this particular instance, but this does not negate that legality is also important in a liberal society.

A third liberal value is privacy: the belief that, in certain human affairs, private space is required. Here, it is important that people retain the ability to conduct some communications strictly on the basis of confidentiality. If there is no such assurance of confidentiality, there may be no flow of useful information. For example, even the Guardian and its journalists do not publicly disclose their internal legal advice.

In dealing with those who can provide useful information about illiberal and perhaps dangerous regimes sometimes such an assurance of confidentiality can be crucial. Privacy will be less important than transparency in most cases, but such a presumption cannot be an absolute rule.

The disclosure of diplomatic cables appears so far to have been a good thing, and no obvious harm has yet been caused. WikiLeaks has come out of this exercise rather well, notwithstanding the off-putting moral certainty of some of its supporters and their eccentric tendency to un-evidenced conspiracy stories.

Nonetheless, WikiLeaks remains a powerful but undemocratic and unaccountable entity that shows a general disregard for both the rule of law and the practical need for certain communications and data to be confidential. So, from a liberal perspective, there is a great deal to commend WikiLeaks, but there is also a lot that should cause a liberal to be concerned.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.