Steven Price

My book

Media Minefield

Guide to NZ Media Law

Official Information Act

Official Information Act

Bill of Rights Act

Media law resources

Feeds (RSS)

« | Main | »

The Wikileaks Papers

By Steven | March 1, 2011

Who said this, and when?

It’s time to quit making national heroes of those who steal public secrets and publish them in the newspaper?

When whole filing cabinets can be stolen there can’t be orderly government any more.

He’s offering aid and comfort to the enemy, putting himself above the President, Congress and the whole system of government.

No, not the US government, about Wikileaks. It’s the US government, about the Pentagon Papers.

I’m not the first person to point out that we’ve been here before. But I’ve just been watching “The Most Dangerous Man in America”, a terrific documentary about Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and the parallels are eerie.

The Pentagon Papers came in 47 volumes. They revealed that successive US administrations had lied to the American public about the Vietnam War. Documents, says Ellsburg, have a power to be taken seriously that nothing else has. The government used the Espionage Act against him (but not the media). Nixon’s other response?

Let’s convict this son-of-a-bitch in the press. That’s the way it’s usually done.

If you get him tied in with some communist groups, that would be good.

What I didn’t know was that Ellsberg first went to US senators to see if they could use the documents. But they wouldn’t, out of fear of being called unpatriotic. Then he went to the newspapers. He kept pressing the New York Times to publish. A NY Times reporter said “he thought of himself as on the team” but that they didn’t think of him that way. It was “our job … to decide how and what to use,” he said. They dallied.

Why did they decide to publish in the end? Not out of principle, it turns out. It was because they couldn’t get away with not publishing it. As Max Frankel, head of the Washington bureau at the time, said: “We would never survive suppression the material. It would be known: we flinched.”

I suspect the Wikileaks lessons will be the same. The government cries wolf. It tries to demonise the leaker. It prosecutes. It claims the sky will fall. The sky doesn’t fall. The leaker hopes to galvanise the public against the government. Nothing much really changes. The prosecution fizzles.

One other lesson struck me. Ellsberg was originally part of The Man. He was uneasy about some of the things that were happening, but he was essentially the government’s guy. What moved him to start opposing the war was seeing the protesters who were prepared to go to jail for the cause.

That’s the importance of dissent.

Topics: Breach of confidence, General, Media ethics | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “The Wikileaks Papers”

  1. Jordan Says:
    March 7th, 2011 at 10:27 am

    I wrote a research paper for Rosemary T a few years ago on the Pentagon Papers case, so it has been interesting watching the Wikileaks story play out (I have not seen the doco yet, but it sounds great).

    I’d agree with your prediction that the likely long-term effects of Wikileaks are likely to be insubstantial, although if we get a Supreme Court judgment as interesting as New York Times Co. v. United States, with nine separately authorised opinions, I will be happy!

    The role of the traditional media has also been interesting: with the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg really had no choice to publish his leaks widely. Once he had got the NY Times (and other papers subsequently) on board, they were really co-opted into his defence. Wikileaks is obviously a great tool if you’re Assange looking to disclose a massive number of documents. But I do wonder if the reduced role of the traditional media in the Wikileaks saga (notwithstanding Der Spiegel, the Guardian etc) as intermediaries has damaged Assange’s position. Governments have been able to paint a picture of the opposition as a lone wolf, rather than respected defenders of free speech.

  2. Jordan Says:
    March 7th, 2011 at 10:29 am

    *the opinions in New York Times Co. v. United States were separately authored, not authorised. Sorry.


You must be logged in to post a comment.