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1 December 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 6:01am

WikiLeaks and the liberal mind

Transparency is not the only liberal value.

By David Allen Green

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.

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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.