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2 September 2011

Is WikiLeaks grinding to a halt?

It's hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks. And that's a problem.

By Steven Baxter

Who wasn’t secretive enough in their mission to make secretive things less secretive? The accusations are flying between Wikileaks and its former partners, and Julian Assange is getting dragged into the whole mess, once again hitting the headlines; but now, the organisation of which he has become the public face seems to be getting more attention for his rows and behaviour rather than the news it’s breaking.

I suppose the problem with the Assange/WikiLeaks thing is that Assange isn’t WikiLeaks, but at the same time he is. His glowering face looks down at you from the Cablegate and Wikileaks pages, reminding you of who is at the centre of this all. Never knowingly troubled by a tremendously self-effacing nature, WikiLeaks proclaims “HELP WIKILEAKS KEEP GOVERNMENTS OPEN”. That’s some claim.

The banner is a bit of a nod to Jimmy Wales’s ubiquitous appearances on Wikipedia’s pages a while ago, where the founder would regularly pop up and plead for a bit of cash to keep things ticking over. Which is fair enough, of course. But does WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or is the grand project beginning to go off the rails?

Part of the personalisation of WikiLeaks into Assange comes from the media, and from us, the way we seek to understand culturally complex movements and forces by turning them into the actions of men and women; but the other part – perhaps the greatest part – comes from Assange himself.

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That’s not to say that the whole project, the whole movement, is a vast self-aggrandising ego trip, because that’s almost certainly not the case; but that doesn’t mean that things couldn’t have been done differently, because they in all likelihood could have been done differently. It’s hard to undock Assange from WikiLeaks, and perhaps that’s deliberate.

The problem with this highly centralised, highly personalised approach is that when Assange the man comes up against the kind of personal criminal allegations he has faced; or has been alleged to make the kind of statements about “Jewish journalists” he apparently did to Ian Hislop, the Private Eye editor, that cannot be untangled from the WikiLeaks brand.

The latest dump of WikiLeaks revelations and cables appears not to have attracted the same mainstream interest as previous ones. There is one cable in particular, about the alleged execution of children – youngsters handcuffed and then shot in the head by US forces – which seems, at first glance, to be an astonishing and shocking story.

So why aren’t the mainstream picking it up and running with it? Are there doubts about the veracity of the information, or is further digging and checking taking place to ensure that it’s correct before the larger news outlets will publish? Or is it just that an unverifiable allegation from five years ago about a few dead Iraqi kids isn’t a ‘good tale’?

It’s easy to turn up at this point with a conspiracy theory or two, to suggest that the mainstream have been waved away from exposing such revelations, to imagine that this is the kind of story that doesn’t fit in with our news agenda, and therefore won’t be considered worthy of national and international exposure.

I don’t think that’s the case, though, and I am loath to believe conspiracy theories of any kind unless there’s a pretty substantial amount of compelling evidence behind them – so what’s going on here?

The concern is that the whole WikiLeaks project is grinding to a halt, that the revelations of unredacted private information — regardless of whose fault it is — will dissuade further whistleblowers from coming forward, to WikiLeaks or any other organisation.

Will WikiLeaks really help keep governments open? Or will they struggle to keep themselves open?