Why I signed the WikiLeaks NDA

Becky Hogge offers some thoughts on the WikiLeaks gagging order story.

I confess I didn't think too hard before I signed a non-disclosure agreement with WikiLeaks in October 2010. It helped that I wasn't planning on doing anything to undermine the organisation's operations, that the penalty mentioned for doing so was a mere £100,000 – and not the £12m detailed in the document released by the New Statesman last week – and that, unlike last week's document, there was no clause gagging me from speaking about Wikileaks's own operations. I skim-read the document, noted how badly drafted it was, saw it was to expire a fortnight or so later, and took my chances.

As a result, I got something I have taken to regarding as a quaint souvenir from the heady days of information anarchism, embellished with the signature of the world's most wanted man. I'm not particularly proud of this attitude, especially as I ended up doing almost no work for the organisation in exchange for my trinket.

What a cynical and misleading headline for a blog post, you might be thinking, and you'd be right. But then, isn't that sort of eye-catching sensationalism the stock-in-trade of the mainstream press? Yes, it is, and that's the point.

In his original post accompanying the leaked NDA, David Allen Green writes that there is "no other sensible way of interpreting" the £12m penalty clause it contains than as an indicator that WikiLeaks regards itself as "a commercial organisation in the business of owning and selling leaked information". I would like to offer him an alternative interpretation, one I hope he finds sensible.

I would like to suggest that what WikiLeaks has been attempting to do is engage with the commercial media on its own terms, in order to draw more attention to the material it leaks. Or, to put it in more theoretical terms, to create artificial scarcity in an environment of information abundance, in order to make its operations compatible with the commercial operations of the world of newspapers.

Think of it as the economics of the scoop: if everyone has access to WikiLeaks's material, it is of very little value to any one news organisation, and therefore no news organisation is likely to invest the time needed to research, interpret and contextualise it. As David Allen Green himself observes in a subsequent post: "The commercial value in the information is firmly connected to the "exclusivity" of these commercial agreements." By giving selected news organisations exclusive access to material for a window of time, WikiLeaks can make sure the material will have maximum impact.

This isn't just guesswork. Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg laid out this strategy about six months before the release of the Afghan War Logs, at the December 2009 Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin (eight minutes in to this video, and continuing in this video). Having explained their intentions, Assange concludes: "If we release the material and it has no political impact, we're not doing our job."

The flipside of this approach, as many have pointed out in the comments to David's original post, is that once that window of exclusivity ends, WikiLeaks can and does publish a dossier of information in its entirety. Thus it gets all the benefits of working with the mainstream press, including the sensationalism and misleading headlines, while also guaranteeing we can all look at the original documents and decide for ourselves.

By contrast, the diplomatic cables, which escaped WikiLeaks's control once they "leaked" from the organisation, possibly in the time before NDAs such as the one I signed became standard practice, have yet to be fully disclosed in the same way. That keeps us in thrall to the agendas of the news organisations that do have access to the full set of cables, a situation for which I believe we the public are so much the poorer.

Julian Assange could well be a little emperor, the NDA certainly is poorly drafted, and it may be terrible PR. But remember that WikiLeaks is an organisation conceived and run by computer hackers. Underlying the contract is a complex logic that is ultimately consistent with the aims of a non-profit organisation that seeks to support – and not exploit – the bravery of whistleblowers.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder