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Opinion: “Freedom is too fragile to leave to zealots” – Ken Macdonald QC

Julian Assange fails to see that his headlong pursuit of openness leaves no room for discretion and morality

Julian Assange has been standing in an open, snowy field in Suffolk bitterly complaining about … leaks. This is not a joke; indeed he appears to be whingeing with a straight, hollow and wind-chilled face, all pink around the ears, steam in his nostrils and entirely without irony. There are, he sternly informs us with a faint, glinting menace, some matters that really ought to remain private and far from the public gaze; indeed, it is really quite beyond the pale that not everyone respects the boundaries that seem so clear to our chilly, intrepid visitor.

Some things, frankly, are nobody else’s business. We may safely assume Mr Assange feels that any suggestion that a man’s sexual performance is violent and short would come into this helpful category. Why should anyone be allowed to read that sort of unflattering vignette in a thousand newspapers? What would be left of our autonomy or of our capacity for life and reputation if we all had to live in fear of little rogue sticks embracing our computers and whoring their way around a scarlet-painted internet?

No, when it comes to his own life, it seems, Mr Assange feels that he has earned a little privacy, a little quality time with himself and no one else peeping.

This master of whistleblowing certainly doesn’t like Swedish prosecutors leaking statements about him to the press and no one can blame him for that. If this has been happening, it is reprehensible and it ought to stop. But what would Mr Assange have done if the situation had been a little different, if the material hadn’t concerned him in any way but, say, a senior US diplomat instead, and if it had gone to WikiLeaks instead of to The Guardian?

It is, of course, possible that he and his colleagues would have taken a principled position: they might have said to themselves that the files related to a future trial, that to publish them could be unfair to the diplomat and would certainly be wrong, and that they should be returned swiftly by strong plain cover to Stockholm without further mishap or delay. Any takers?

Probably not, because our Australian hero is also a somewhat unexpected aficionado of off-the-record briefings. On Tuesday The Times revealed that, during an interview with this newspaper, he had insisted on the conventionally furtive customs of deniable journalism by attacking other people on a safely non-attributable basis. In other words, I’ll tell you what a devious, corrupt and unpleasant person Mr X is, so long as you don’t tell anyone you got it from me. It can be our little secret.

Of course there is no reason why the public face of WikiLeaks should be a saint and there is no reason why he shouldn’t be a hypocrite: most of the rest of us are. What is more troubling is the entirely uncritical way in which too many people appear to view his recent exploits. We can quickly dismiss the celebrity junk-bond crew and the flashbulb lawyers with overactive thyroids, but it’s harder to ignore a broader feeling out there that Mr Assange is simply a latter-day highwayman of the moral persuasion, someone who is stealing golden secrets from the teetering rich and presenting them unwrapped to the wondering poor.

Of course in some instances he may be just that. There is no doubt that a world in which information is more freely available is a better-educated and a more democratic place, a happier place with richer lives. The free passage of ideas, the exchange of learning, the tearing down of walls between governments and the governed — all of these speak of finer, cleaner and more just societies.

One only has to observe the shuffling old men in Beijing eyeing and circling and prodding at the internet, querulous and fearing it, a snake full of venom to be tamed or else slit, cut and beaten in all its coiling and uncoiling forms, to render the Han Empire whole and safe once more.

Yet there is not and never can be an absolute right to know. Indeed on a personal level the very thought is deeply frightening and totalitarian: which of us wants everything about ourselves in plain sight, and who remains calm and unthreatened in the face of that sinister idea?

But at a public level, too, information is not a commodity with so little value that it can invariably be treated as uncosted and free. The business of peace, just like the business of war, sometimes requires discretion and sufficient space, and sometimes even darkness in which to grow; it is not always nourished by daylight. It is, perhaps, the uneasy sense that WikiLeaks has no taste or discrimination, no sense of reality in a rapidly evolving world, no real quality of morality beyond a gigantic virtual ego, that makes it less easy to like or to admire.

So it is wise to be a little cautious. Information is everywhere and so is exposure — but in the trembling hands of zealots either is a combustible cargo with a capacity to injure and to maim on a grand and shocking scale. So let us be very careful to imagine the world we are creating before we build it, for fear that we end up living with something we just cannot bear.

Ken Macdonald, QC, practises at Matrix Chambers and is a Liberal Democrat peer. He was Director of Public Prosecutions, 2003-08.

This article originally appeared on the Times’ Opinion pages and is reproduced with permission and thanks

2 Comments

  1. Igor

    Completely agree with Mr.Macdonald and especially with his words: So let us be very careful to imagine the world we are creating before we build it… There always should be moral point of view to consider first before publishing any sensitive information. It also evident that same standards of moral censure shall apply to info concerning ‘the teetering rich’ in same way as to any information related to ‘the wondering poor.’ So let anyone (Mr Assange & Co including) remember that all of us have ‘something’, which we are not ready to see in thousand newspapers…

  2. Andrew Scott

    Another, more poignant irony is that exposed in the Vanity Fair article discussed by Roy Greenslade yesterday (see The day Julian Assange threatened to sue the Guardian over the US embassy cables story). It is reported that in that instance Assange raised legal threats based on confidentiality to deter the Guardian from publishing doubly-leaked material except in accordance with his schedule. Regarding the alleged commission of sexual crimes, it may be possible to believe and to assert that there is no public interest in his sexual relations to set aside his privacy interest. In the Vanity Fair story, however, Assange was complaining over the proposed publication of information in respect of which he must have agreed that there was an overriding public interest.

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