The ongoing story related to the release of over a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables is a good example of the workings of the global media, an industry tasked with the formation of public opinion in the world. The picture emerging is consistent – an industry whose primary task is truth is instead dominated by bias, distortion, misinformation and propaganda. But Wikileaks is a movement that is difficult to suppress.
The pattern of misinformation was, of course, put into perspective by the handful of media reporting accurately on the story. Newspapers like the Guardian in the UK and Der Spiegel in Germany are doing a tremendous job of laying out the facts, as is the community-based US broadcast network Democracy Now by providing historical and social context to the information contained in the leaks . Yet, these are not the media with the largest audiences.
Those audiences are commanded by the TV networks, and it is there that the misinformation is at its greatest. Instead of informed debate, audiences are getting distracting narratives. The result is a public misinformed on the purpose and impact of Wikileaks and its efforts.
The consolidation of global media, its ownership in the hands of a few multinational conglomerates, has been well documented. The dominance of government and corporate interests on the public agenda is not a surprise. The ongoing media coverage in the West on the release of US diplomatic cables offers a glimpse into media complicity in the unfettered advancement of the neoliberal agenda around the world and its impact on environmental degradation, human rights and social justice.
From demonising Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange to linking Wikileaks with terrorism, networks such as CNN are doing a very good job of towing the US government line. By consistently attacking the credibility of Wikileaks, they attempt to marginalise and cast doubt on the facts of the story.
Yet, Wikileaks is not a conventional media organisation. The organisation is a conduit of information. It is not producing the information; it is merely disseminating it. Still, by focusing on Wikileaks as the subject rather than the substance of the leak itself, the media industry is attempting to divert discourse away from the real issues at hand.
An important fact that emerged from these cables, for example, is the blurring of lines between diplomacy and spying at the United Nations. The cables reveal a classified directive issued to US diplomats in 33 embassies and consulates by Hillary Clinton in July 2009 demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, as well as the representatives’ biometric information.
Although it is highly likely that most governments spy on the UN and other government officials, the Wikileaks revelations provide proof of US directives to diplomats. This is an illegal act according to the 1946 UN convention on privileges and immunities. It demands accountability. Yet, most of the international media, rather than making that demand, are largely regurgitating the US government line that the leaks are “putting lives at risk”. This is the same response the US government gave to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs.
When Wikileaks revealed US complicity to torture in Iraq, the American government condemned Wikileaks rather than the breach of human rights that was exposed occurring under its nose. It was noteworthy that the US government did not even feel the need to condemn the acts of torture to save face, let alone because it was the right thing to do or because their actions were illegal.
There was no need felt for accountability. That this was accepted is a reflection of the dominance of government and corporate interests on the public agenda. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, told Democracy Now, instead of focusing on Assange, the US should address WikiLeaks’ disclosures of torture.
The media industry, however, keeps on focusing on the US government pursuit of Wikileaks. This is, in fact, counterproductive. Wikileaks is not the source of the leak – the person who passed on the information to Wikileaks is. It follows that if Wikileaks is guilty of the ‘crime’ of passing on information they have received to the public, which is essentially the role of any media organisation, then all the media that are reproducing the facts contained in the US diplomatic cables and debating their content are also ‘criminals’.
A journalist’s job is not to protect government secrets but to divulge information that is in the public interest. Accusing journalists of being traitors is a very dangerous notion. Any media publishing or discussing government ‘secrets’ that emerge as a result of investigative journalism would be traitors.
The notion that Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange is guilty of treason is, of course, utterly ridiculous. The propagation of that line by the media is in itself an example of the falsehood that keeps being recycled. Treason is the crime of betraying one’s own state and Assange is not American. Yet, this falsehood has become so prevalent in United States media that it is difficult to see where it started.
The US government has come to believe the delusion that they govern the world rather than the USA. The US administration refers to the US President as ‘the leader of the free world’, it considers the world its battleground, but it does not necessarily follow that the citizens of the world accept to be governed by a group of individuals they did not elect.
While the diplomatic cables have revealed the subservience of national governments to US demands, that is not necessarily true for the people these national governments represent. That is one of the most interesting revelations in these cables for those who are not American – the hypocrisy of the statements of national governments to their constituents. They were telling their people one thing, while protecting their own interests (power) in negotiations with the US government. This is true in Yemen, Pakistan and the wider Arab World just as it is true in the UK.
The emergence of this information is a slap in the face of powerful institutions. They have suddenly become vulnerable to the scrutinising power of their constituents. The power of the information they held has turned against them. The US government’s fury at the publication of these cables is, to some degree, stemming from the fact that that power has been taken away from them and has now become a weapon that targets them.
The notion of ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’, so often used to strip away civil liberties has come back to haunt them. What is true for civilians, should also be true for individuals in government. Yet, the resulting loss of power over information has blinded the US government to the rule of law.
The flag bearer of democracy has shown it is no different to the Politburo. First, Senator Joe Lieberman successfully pressured Amazon into kicking the site off its servers, and called for corporations supporting Wikileaks in any way to cut their ties with them. Then the State Department has also warned prospective recruits that if they wrote about Wikileaks on Twitter or Facebook, they might not get a job with government. Now, Gawker has learned that military installations in Iraq are trying to keep soldiers from reading about Wikileaks in the news. These include people who would have been part of the network that had access to the cables before they were leaked.
All this, in addition to the attacks on the Wikileaks’ sites, is a frantic grasp to control the spread of information. It reflects what Noam Chomsky said: the Wikileaks cables reveal “a profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership”.
In this context, Wikileaks emerges as the new Samizdat movement, which consisted of dissidents across the Soviet bloc who reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. It was a grassroots practice to evade officially imposed censorship. That is the function that Wikileaks is fulfilling in today’s world.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, hit the nail on the head when he wrote that, “any robust government should not be embarrassed of its actions”. The series of leaks show that the US government has failed that test. Diplomats and governments complaining that the normal work of ‘diplomacy’ will now be impossible are declaring that Wikileaks has succeeded in accomplishing more state scrutiny than the entire journalistic apparatus combined.
The picture emerging of how US foreign diplomacy works is not a pretty one. It is important for the world to see because in the effort to manipulate global perceptions, the US has succeeded in keeping the masses ignorant of the true workings of government.
The US government has a history of disinformation. The CIA work on fabrication was exposed more than four decades ago (The Pike Committee, 1978) (1). The agency did not only invent false stories, it invented the evidence. It had its hand in news in every country where it wanted to shape public opinion, from Japan to Chile, as well as almost every European country.
By contrast, we know almost nothing of what the CIA is doing now. We know that it is active again in propaganda, according to US News and World Report (2005) – after September 11 President George Bush signed a secret national security directive that created a Global Information and Influence Team.
The distortion of truth is an ongoing campaign by the US and other governments that understood a long time ago that communications is an essential tool to maintain power. As a result, far from being the fourth estate the global media is part of an information industry designed to retain the current balance of power. As two prominent American journalists, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, put it in their book ‘The New Elements of Journalism’: “The need for truth is greater, not less, in the new century, for the likelihood of untruth has become so much more prevalent”.
The penetration of falsehood into our collective thinking has ensured that the public has lost contact with reality and started believing the delusions being created.The opportunity that Wikileaks has provided is a refreshing alternative to the way the information industry has been operating. The new Samizdat movement has managed to expose some damning state secrets for all those who want to see them. That is the value of Wikileaks.
1. Flat Earth News, N. Davies, 2009, p226: The Pike Committee had discovered that in 1978 the CIA had spent at least $265 million on propaganda (they concluded that this was a serious underestimate because of the limited information available).
Caroline Muscat is a freelance journalist and blogger.