What's fair about Private Manning's sentence?

Nicky Woolf is glad that there are still people such as Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning around.

Private Manning. Photograph: Getty Images

Bradley Manning was young. Alienated by the ultra-macho culture of the US military, and horrified by what he saw the military doing. So he acted on his conscience; leaking documents to Wikileaks that highlighted systematic abuses by US military and security forces, igniting an inferno of outrage and debate in the public.

Yesterday, a military judge took less than a minute to sentence him to 35 years imprisonment for this single act; of this, he has already served more than three, much of it in solitary confinement in appalling conditions.

It sticks in the craw, doesn't it? Doesn't it feel wrong, deep down in the bone? In a nation where the average rapist – if convicted at all – serves fewer than three years, and the average time served for sexual assault is just 35 months, this man, whose crime was simply to show the public how badly their government was behaving, will not even be eligible for parole for another eight years (taking into account the three years already served). What's fair about that? How could this possibly be?

Here is the argument in favour. A government necessarily deals in secrecy a lot of the time. Diplomacy, security and good governance do need to be secretive sometimes to operate in a high-stakes world of nuclear weapons, rogue states, and terrorism. That government must inevitably then prosecute these whistleblowers, and prosecute them harshly, if the system is to stay standing. If Manning was to be pardoned, or given a lighter sentence, then it would send the message that whistleblowing of this kind is legal and sanctioned, and cause a free-for-all which would leave the security forces and diplomatic services completely unable to do their jobs. The recent leak of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, for example, is pointed at; a diplomatic disaster which made the lives of civil servants at the cutting edge of international politics much more difficult, and maybe endangered lives in the process.

So once Manning had been caught, the US government had to prosecute him, and prosecute him harshly. That, the argument runs, is simply how the game is played.

But that is only half the story. Inevitably, a government often oversteps the line of necessary secrecy. Its culture of secrecy can often become poisonous, self-propelling; a secret world which can undermine and sometimes overrule democracy for its own survival. It may claim to be working to protect us; but what could be so terrifying that our protectors must work so often in the dark?

When that happens, as arguably it has done in recent years in the United States and Britain, it falls to a whistleblower to step forward: an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning who are driven by their convictions to sacrifice their lives – as Manning has done – in order to shine a light on such abuses.

The relationship between journalists and governments is by nature antagonistic. It is the role of a newspaper like the Guardian or the New York Times or the Washington Post, or indeed an operation like Wikileaks to seek out such whistleblowers; and to protect them as much as they can afterwards, sometimes by keeping their identities secret for decades. Arguably, Wikileaks failed in its duty of care in protecting Manning.

Of course, a balance needs to be struck. Newspapers like the Guardian have become extremely proficient in working out which leaks are worthwhile, and which may put lives in danger. Smaller organisations like Wikileaks have not, and some leaks have happened that, arguably, did cause damage, diplomatically if not physically. But the world has changed. Secrets are harder to keep, and once out, harder to control. Governments must move with the times, not lash out when the combination of technology and conscience leave them embarrassed and exposed.

Whistleblowers know that they will probably pay a high price for their act of conscience. It is what makes that act so noble. Who did the outrageous and horrifying treatment of Manning deter? Certainly not Edward Snowden – though he has been forced to choose exile to avoid it. Still they take a gulp, square their shoulders, breathe deeply, and blow the whistle, because they believe that what they are doing is important enough to merit that level of sacrifice.

I, for one, am glad that there are still such people around.