Two men walked into a bar: an Irish pub in central Italy run by a New Zealander with a penchant for South American rock. They stooped to enter the low ceilinged bar, and moved across the room in almost unison with a slow-moving lilting walk. They sat down, and after a moment of flattering pleasantries, the topic turned to press freedom, transparency, whistleblowing, and WikiLeaks.
I met Julian Assange and Daniel "Schmitt" at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. This was before WikiLeaks had entered public consciousness and split opinion across the board. It was before WikiLeaks had redefined, and possibly reinvented, investigative journalism. And long before WikiLeaks had exposed the secret history of the US's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the natterings of US diplomats around the world.
It was early 2009, WikiLeaks had already achieved a few notches on the road to World Transparency: they had embarrassed then-Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd for his draconian view of the internet and won Amnesty International's New Media award for its hand in exposing extra-judicial killings in Kenya. They had been banned in several countries, were already loathed by libel lawyers the world over and had even been accused of being a CIA conduit.
But beyond a few smatterings of press coverage, the site's growing repertoire of global secrets was not getting the attention Julian and Daniel felt it deserved. It was meant to be the intelligence agency of the people, said Daniel, and built on a 'by the people, for the people' ideal. But 'the people' were not responding to dense documents that were appearing on the site, or taking the forensic approach towards the news that the WikiLeaks team wanted, and expected.
Julian was frustrated by the media attention WikiLeaks was getting, which was focused on who was WikiLeaks, not what was WikiLeaks. The WikiLeaks founder seemed to be waging a war against what he described as the press release culture of the mainstream media, and seemed unable to understand why the press weren't picking up on gems of information appearing on the site. His argument for what WikiLeaks could do for the media was predicated on the example of Thomas Paine's 1791 book The Rights of Man. Offered to publishers royalty-free, it went on to be widely published and have enormous political impact. WikiLeaks follows the same formula, so Assange's argument went when we met for coffee in Liverpool Street station, London: WikiLeaks provides high-quality material, takes most of the risk associated with publishing it and the cost of investigative journalism is brought closer to "press release journalism".
Julian's rhetoric was very focused on the leaker -- on the little guy who went to great personal risk to expose injustice -- and WikiLeaks as the facilitator. But as I've watched WikiLeaks over the last few months, I've found myself wondering what happened to that guy?
At the beginning of 2010 WikiLeaks temporarily closed its doors as it struggled to find the cash to continue is role as the "brown paper envelope for the digital age", as it was dubbed by The Guardian (UK) in 2007. When it reemerged it was with media partnerships, high profile leaks, and for Julian a haircut and tailored suits.
Over the last 9 months WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video showing the murder of unarmed civilians and two Reuters journalists -- Collateral Murder. This was followed by the release of first the Afghanistan War Logs and then the Iraq War Logs, and topped off with Cablegate.
These leaks are high profile and certainly mean that anything WikiLeaks ever does in the future will get noticed. Well done, Julian, you've overcome that hurdle. But it does seem that if you're not burning US military secrets about two contentious wars onto CDs disguised as Lady Gaga's latest album, then it does seem that your leak isn't of much interest to WikiLeaks -- until recently the 20,000 files that had been published by WikiLeaks prior to Collatoral Murder video weren't accessible online.
The WikiLeaks I was told about by Daniel and Julian was a site that served as a conduit between the leaker and the mainstream media, facilitating the publication of hidden truths and promoting a fairer, more transparent society.
Daniel left WikiLeaks in September, and I can't help wondering if with him went the simple ideal that WikiLeaks was built upon: providing a technological and legal framework to get the truth out.
WikiLeaks, and, when it opens its doors, Daniel's new alternative, Openleaks, are both essential players in the digital age of democracy, but this latest hubbub around Cablegate as been as much about US diplomatic relations as Assange and condom use. The 'who is WikiLeaks?' question that Julian railed against when I met him in the spring of 2009, now seems to have a simple answer: Julian. When surely, and call me idealistic, the who of WikiLeaks should be us all.
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