Jeff Sparrow on the power of Wikileaks

Julian Assange. Source: ABC.

As I’ve pointed out even before this week’s latest explosive revelations from Wikileaks, the world’s most influential journalist right now is not even a journalist: he is Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks. (In fact, number two on my list would be Paul Krugman, who is not a journalist either). ProPublica has an excellent reader page of links for those wanting some context on the Afghanistan war logs.

Today, the ABC’s Drum website, Jeff Sparrow has an excellent piece of analysis on the implications of the leak:

… the release of the Afghan logs constitutes a damning indictment on the traditional pillars of journalism. Wikileaks is a tiny organisation: basically, a bunch of computer nerds supported by a handful of volunteers. Yet, in the short period of its existence, it has broken an extraordinary number of big stories, from the ‘Collateral Murder’ footage of the Apache helicopter in Iraq to corruption in Kenya. As one admirer put it, “Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years”.

It is, quite simply, remarkable that the New York Times, with its global staff and budget, is depending on revelations from a few people with a website.

What’s the explanation for Assange’s success? Most importantly, Wikleaks practises outsider journalism in a time when many reporters prefer to boast about being insiders. That is, in recent decades, journalism has evolved from its origins as a fairly disreputable trade to become a profession that grants its most high-profile practictioners equal status with those on whom they report. Senior reporters are themselves political players. They know all the candidates personally, they mix with them socially – and they justify that proximity as a way of extracting information.

Sparrow is almost completely correct: journalism has gotten too close to power, and far too many senior journalists do indeed see themselves as political players.

But he is wrong to dismiss the Wikileaks organisation as merly a bunch of nerds. The power of Wikileaks is precisely in its ability to harness the power of the web and its associated technologies – some of them very sophisticated encryption alogorithms – to protect and succour those who would leak sensitive information. That sophistication has not been on offer before – even to the Guardians and New York Times’ of this world.

Could we be entering a new era in whcih the IT skills of journalists are every bit as important as the old-fashioned techniques of cold calling and shoe leather?


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