Once, at the time of a major popular upheaval, elites on different sides of the political divide feared the general population more than each other. The rising merchant classes may have opposed the more traditional, aristocratic nobility, but both sides feared the radical publishers who were stirring up the people past a point of no return. As one writer put it:
They have cast all the Mysteries and secrets of Government, both by Kings and Parliaments, before the vulgar (like Pearl before Swine), and have taught both the Souldiery and People to look so far into them as to ravel back all Governments, to the first principles of nature. They have made the People thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.
Although these words could easily describe the situation today in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, they were in fact written in 1661, by a man called Clement Walker, about popular radicalism at the time of the English civil war in the 1640s.
This was a crucial time in the history of publishing – and the history of governments’ attempts to control what the people could read. Printing presses, invented two centuries earlier, were becoming more accessible, and the first newspapers were appearing throughout western Europe as a result of the creation of a postal system. Today’s maxim, “technology drives distribution”, has long antecedents.
During the civil war, the established printers and booksellers were not the only ones who published newspapers: craftsmen from less exalted trades published their own. For four years in the 1640s, a tailor named John Dillingham published the Moderate Intelligencer, reporting on developments in the civil war. (His attempt to report soberly on the conflict soon brought him into conflict with Gilbert Mabbot, official licenser of the press, who tried to replace the Intelligencer with something more overtly supportive of Oliver Cromwell.)
Pamphlets, manuscripts and other smaller newsletters also appeared regularly, all reflecting the concerns of their authors. Little wonder that there was such concern among the elite that the people were becoming, as Walker put it, “so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit”.
Today, as a small organisation, WikiLeaks is firmly in the tradition of those radical publishers who tried to lay “all the Mysteries and secrets of Government” before the public. For reasons of realpolitik, we have worked with some of the largest media groups, but we have also broadened our base to more than 50 regional publishers, activist groups and charities, giving them early access to hundreds – or, in some cases, thousands – of documents relevant to their countries or causes.
WikiLeaks also remains true to the ideals of the popular newspapers that flourished in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.In Ruthless Criticism, a well-regarded dissection of the US fourth estate, the historian Jon Bekken finds that there were once “hundreds of newspapers in dozens of languages, ranging from local and regional dailies issued by working-class political organisations and mutual aid societies to national union weeklies and monthlies”.
These newspapers not only reported the news but also offered, as Bekken puts it, “a venue where readers could debate political, economic and cultural issues. Readers could follow the activities of working-class institutions in every field and could be mobilised to support efforts to transform economic and political conditions.”
While the blogosphere is now rightly seen as reflecting the diversity of popular concerns, the idea of a truly representative media goes back to these labour traditions. For example, in 1920, a number of editors in the United States established the Federated Press, a co-operative news-gathering service that sought to counter the biases of the mainstream press. The service ran until the 1940s, supplying roughly 150 publications.
The labour movement’s own press was, in its time, extremely popular; even before the First World War, its newspapers enjoyed a circulation of more than two million copies in the US. The Appeal to Reason, the largest left-wing journal, enjoyed a weekly circulation of three-quarters of a million.
But as conflict in Europe grew closer, there were co-ordinated attempts by the establishment to bring these publications to heel; in the US, the Espionage Act of 1917 made it an offence to argue peacefully against the war effort. One early victim was Eugene Debs, the American Socialist Party and labour leader, who was convicted in 1918 of making a pacifist speech and sentenced to ten years in prison.
The New York Times, true to form, had been calling for his imprisonment for more than two decades, saying in an editorial of 9 July 1894 that Debs was “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race. There has been quite enough talk about warrants against him and about arresting him”.
The paper added: “It is time to cease mouthings and begin. Debs should be jailed, if there are jails in his neighborhood, and the disorder his bad teaching has engendered must be squelched . . . it is well to remember that no friends of the Government of the United States are ever killed by its soldiers – only its enemies.”
Seen within this historical perspective, the New York Times’s performance in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and its hostile attitude to WikiLeaks today, are not surprising.As well as the hostility of governments, popular grass-roots publishers have had to face the realities of advertising as a source of revenue. According to the analyst James Curran, the Daily Herald, a British newspaper of the early 20th century, had nearly twice the readership of the Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined. It was forced to close in 1964, however, despite being among the 20 largest-circulation dailies in the world, because its largely working-class readers did not constitute a lucrative advertising market.
The liberal News Chronicle was another casualty of advertising shortfalls, closing in 1960 – when it was absorbed into the right-wing Daily Mail – despite having a circulation more than six times larger than the Guardian’s.
Of course, WikiLeaks does not have this reliance on advertisers. Rather, we face a different financial problem as a publication: how do we deal with an extrajudicial financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa (including Visa Europe, registered in London), MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union, the Swiss PostFinance, Moneybookers and other finance companies, all keen to curry favour with Washington?
In the long view of history, WikiLeaks is part of an honourable tradition that expands the scope of freedom by trying to lay “all the mysteries and secrets of government” before the public. We are, in a sense, a pure expres-sion of what the media should be: an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine.
Julian Assange is editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks