Aug 072013
 
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This takes me back to my university film studies days.


http://youtu.be/tzhb3U2cONs

This bit, in particular, catches my attention:

KANE
Mr. Thatcher, the trouble is you don’t realize you’re talking to
two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand
three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit prefer, you
see, I do have a general idea of my holdings. I sympathize with
you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run
out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You
may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a
contribution of one thousand dollars.

THATCHER
My time is too valuable for me…

KANE
On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer. As such,
it is my duty, I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my
pleasure — to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this
community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just
because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests! I’ll
let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m
the man to do it. You see I have money and property. If I don’t
look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody
else will, maybe somebody without any money or property and that
would be too bad.

THATCHER
Yes, yes, yes! Money and property. Well, I happened to see your
financial statement today, Charles.

KANE
Did you?

THATCHER
Tell me honestly, my boy. Don’t you think it’s rather unwise to
continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer, that’s
costing you a million dollars a year?

KANE
You are right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last
year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to
lose a million dollars next year! You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the
rate of a million dollars a year I’ll have to close this place in
sixty years.

Now compare and contrast with Jeff Bezos’  statement (he being the founder of the Public Transit Company Amazon) on his impending purchase of the US newspaper, the Washington Post.  I’m particularly interested in the following two paragraphs:

So, let me start with something critical. The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

[...]

There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports this observation about the man now literally making news:

“Years of familiar newspaper-industry challenges made us wonder if there might be another owner who would be better for the Post,” said Post chief executive, Donald Graham.

“Jeff Bezos’ proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.”

I don’t know Jeff Bezos – I assume I never will – but if they say he’s personally decent, I’m not going to question the assessment at all.  I would, however, lay before you these three stories about his other business behemoth, Amazon.  First:

Germany is demanding explanations from the online retail giant Amazon after a TV documentary showed seasonal workers being harassed by security guards.

A TV documentary by state broadcaster ARD said employees’ rooms were searched, they were frisked at breakfast and constantly watched.

I’d add the company responsible was a sub-contracted agency outfit – but from the drive to reduce costs at all costs, corporations do tend to provide the conditions that lead to such behaviours.

Second:

The UK arm of internet shopping giant Amazon paid corporation tax of just £2.4 million last year despite earning sales of £4.2 billion.

What’s more:

Amazon received UK Government grants of £2.5 million last year, beating its corporation tax payments.

Amazon reduced tax payments by routing its sales through Luxembourg where its European headquarters are.

Third (from 2010):

The US struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after Amazon.com pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in reaction to heavy political pressure.

The company announced it was cutting WikiLeaks off yesterday only 24 hours after being contacted by the staff of Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s committee on homeland security.

WikiLeaks expressed disappointment with Amazon, and insisted it was a breach of freedom of speech as enshrined in the US constitution’s first amendment. The organisation, in a message sent via Twitter, said if Amazon was “so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

That last phrase may come back to haunt Mr Bezos.  Out of the business of selling books and into the business of selling newspapers is surely a case of jumping from the proverbial frying-pan into the fire.  And if everyone seems so cheerful with Bezos’ purchase of the Post, maybe Citizen Kane’s final lines quoted above have more than a little to do with the matter.  He could lose money hand over fist for the next sixty years and still keep the Post afloat.

The real question, of course, runs as follows: given that the people at the top of the paper have known, liked and admired Amazon’s founder for quite some time, it doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility that Bezos was already weighing up the options to buy into America’s newspaper-land when Amazon cut off all hosting services to WikiLeaks back in 2010.  It kind of paints the view we may have of that operation in a quite different way from anything we may have thought to date.  Not just a case of yet another US tech company giving in to the American security services but, rather, an example of a latterday Citizen Kane playing a very long plutocratic game.

And the problem won’t be what Bezos does at a newspaper.  The problem will be, as both a privately and publicly powerful and super-connected newspaperman who is also owner of the Public Transit Company Amazon, how his soon-to-be-extremely-close relationship with government and its many tentacles might affect the ability of his distributor, publisher and hosting-provider side to do what’s right in the ever-thorny matter of freedom of speech in a globalising world.

Especially in a globalising world which – post-Snowden – we now know to be under considerable US and British surveillance.

They already stumbled with WikiLeaks – even before Mr B decided to become embroiled in the ball-game of news diffusion.

The room for dark forces to expose him to political blackmail – as owner of a mainstream news outlet and as CEO/whatever of a portfolio of major communications-associated companies – only increases with this gently curate’s egg of a purchase.

I do, of course, wish Mr Bezos and the Post well.  He has far too much money for me to contemplate reacting otherwise.  But my internal alarm bells do begin to make tiny noises when hyper-powerful men start talking about defending the ordinary, decent and hard-working seven-dollar-an-hour subjects and citizens from the corruptions of (other) plutocrats.

Just look at what happened to Citizen Kane.

Sometimes even the powerful hit heights outside their natural envelopes.


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Feb 182013
 
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About eleven years ago I was studying in Spain for a Publishing Master.  There were many great and good craftspeople who taught us the ins and outs of a very particular trade – a very special trade.  At the time, I was looking to set up an online publisher.  I was aiming to cut costs in the industry by using technology to combine the roles of various skillsets in one individual.  This wasn’t the paused, many-handed and time-honoured way of publishing – but in time it has come to pass, and ten years later we live in a quite different world.

What really was focussing minds ten years ago, however, at least in Spain and at least in this course, was what was seen as the evermore pervasive and encroaching danger of an American search-engine upstart called Google (the bold is mine):

Google began in March 1996 as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey BrinPh.D. students at Stanford[1] working on the Stanford Digital Library Project (SDLP). The SDLP’s goal was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library” [...].

Google’s aims were clear – as least to the Spanish tradition of editors.  Whether you liked the idea or not, whether you were prepared to collaborate or not, whether you accepted the terms as laid down by the powerful or quixotically attempted to resist their impositions, Google’s ultimate aim was to turn your thoughts, your lives, your very own selves and – finally – even your carefully guarded intellectual property into nothing more nor less than the virtual equivalent of the water that since time immemorial succeeds in seeping everywhere.

In the name of transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS), Google would one day be ripping out the very heart and soul of your entity.

And so that, as well, has come to pass.  Online caches of all kinds mean that however careful a maintainer of your content you are, anything and everything you post is likely to come to someone’s preserving notice and instincts.

But, what’s more, instead of being used to promote the transparency, openness and sincerity (TOS) I mention, it’s become a sorry old tool of a most traditional bent: a tool which, in hindsight, my dear Spanish opponents were right to fear – and perhaps even right to resist.  Google’s asserted desire to make knowledge available to all comes at a massive cost.

The cost is the Googlefying of you, me and the cat’s mother.

*

The Americans have consistently trashed WikiLeaks for opening the door to all kinds of communications they firmly argue are better kept secret.  And yet, from their very own apple-pied backyards, we have Google invading every corner and content we could possibly conceive.  The instinct to bare souls is shared too: you and I, our friends and family … all of us spill our bleeding-edge thoughts into the ether that now embraces everyone.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Googlefying instincts which a decade of brutal exposure has engendered should have now reached the chambers of our democracies.  This story, for example, from 2011:

AN internet blogger has been arrested after she tried to film a Carmarthenshire Council meeting from the public gallery.

Now it would appear that no crime had been committed, nor local law infringed.  The council in question simply took exception to its proceedings being recorded in such a way.  I’m sure that the immediate reaction of most people in the Twitter- and blogosphere would be one of anger and surprise.  And I suppose I’d feel pretty obliged to go along with such reactions – if only it wasn’t for the history of Google I’ve just gone and recounted.

Images and video are such cruelly permanent matters.  Can we honestly argue that our democracy is entirely better for encouraging the kind of politicians who thrive on television appearances and firmly taped and registered political events?  Many would argue, of course, that the transparency they bring is only ever going to improve the transparency of our political processes.  But I’m really not sure this is the case any more.  Images and video seem – of late, anyhow – to promote the worst kind of manipulation our body politic has seen for a very long time.

And if the arguments people have used against WikiLeaks – a dumping mechanism of all kinds of unwary data which makes private truth-telling and negotiation impossible to promote – are to be considered at all sustainable in any way, then equally the Googlefying of our wider world – of which random and unannounced filming of council and other democratic process is simply one of many examples on the horizon – needs to come under a far closer scrutiny.

From a very personal perspective, I would like to see far more politicians who can speak to the public without falling into the temptation of speaking to the gallery.

So ask yourself this, then: which, in the end, will the Googlefying of the world really encourage?


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Sep 202012
 
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This piece from Rob Marchant, from the end of August, has just come my way via Bob.  It’s about the Guardian newspaper’s online presence – in particular, the mini-website Comment is Free.  Worth reading in its entirety – so let’s read it.  Meanwhile, I’ll wait for you to catch up.

*

Whilst driving back from Spain this end-of-summer, I remember feeling just about everything Marchant says in his piece: essentially, that something was going haywire for the paper with respect to Comment is Free.  I read Norman Geras’s blog quite regularly too.  I don’t always agree with what he says in his focussed and concise posts, but I always value his measured way of saying it.  And if you’ve been reading the latter’s posts over the past year or so, enough evidence of streaks of left-leaning anti-Semitism has filtered into the daylight of his virtual column for anyone to want to wonder exactly what is happening..

I’m instinctively inclined to believe there is a reason for everything – and when that reason is difficult to understand, it’s simply we haven’t thought profoundly enough.  In the case of Comment is Free, however, the reason really isn’t that deep or disconcerting.  The freedom to comment – in a liberal society, both a sacred responsibility and right – is being used quite crassly as a marketing tool to drive, engage, maintain and sustain web traffic to the paper’s digital advertising.  This is, of course, from a business point of view, entirely understandable.  In an age of “free” content, building a media environment which can continue to pursue the kind of investigative, current affairs and societal reporting the Guardian undeniably provides is a damn difficult job – especially when social media coattails almost require you to engage in good faith with the audience-chasing enemy.

But who said working in the professional media industry was going to be easy?  The greatest challenge doesn’t lie in the money you need to raise; that’s a marketing process, and there are plenty of marketing rules and tools out there.  That’s a question of turning interesting writing into product advertisers want to be seen alongside.  It’s a question of selling.  It’s a question of positioning.  It may, of course, be that advertisers have pretty poor taste these days; it may be that voters and citizens are to be more generally distrusted than the leaders they are supposed to distrust; it may be that social media inputs are, more generally, degrading our intelligences.  But whatever the reality, the job of pushing content consistently has its sector, its costs and its solutions.

No.  The greatest challenge in the kind of publishing the Guardian is currently involved in – moving as it is from a print-based medium to the rough-and-tumble of non-immersive content – lies in striking a balance between informing and engaging in a popular way and informing and engaging in a populist way.

Perhaps we are truly at the edge of a kind of precipice: whilst there are those who say the kind of investigative journalism which brought the Murdochs to heel will never take place without the populism of Comment is Free, there are others who might argue that citizen journalism, properly executed, combined with a revamped form of WikiLeaks-style information dumping, would manage to do the job just as efficiently and just as precisely – as long as, of course, freedom of speech and freedom from consequent government persecution were both guaranteed givens in our societies.

What’s absolutely clear is that – long-term – any attempt to create a vehicle for social change out of the mad pursuit of eye-goggling page impressions is condemned to serious failure.

And to be honest, what I’d really like to recover from my youth is my old and much-treasured Grauniad – that organ of gently idiosyncratic information, humane enough to contemplate regularly corrected spelling slip-ups.  A newspaper which felt it knew what it was to be English: slightly eccentric; an honest combination of reporting and journalistic angles; a slightly inefficient way of covering the news which allowed for real voices, individual styles, good faith and a kind of referred people power.

Those communicators were people, first and foremost.

Not brands, defining their and our expectations.

Marketing has its place, of course.  I just wish those who use it knew what that place was.

____________________

Further reading: I’ve just stumbled across this post I wrote back in spring.  These paragraphs are particularly appropriate, I think, to Marchant’s general thesis:

Which is why it does occur to me that in much the same way as Thatcher lived on in Blair, and in much the same way as Blair’s legislation has facilitated Cameron’s destruction of the Welfare State, so the Guardian‘s proud talking-shop which is Comment is Free has more than a little of that vacuous and morally empty hole which is said to have occupied Murdoch’s empire.

“We do what we do because, essentially, it sells news.”  I imagine these words, of course – I’m hardly privy to the private thoughts of Mr Murdoch.  But in the Guardian‘s trajectory, in its allegedly partial attachment to certain causes – and in its resistance to others – we have the makings of an argument which suggests that our favourite liberal paper has so grown up in the shadow of Murdoch that it has replicated, on the left, whether intentionally or by accident, even his empty soul.

Along with everything this might imply.

Which brings me to my initial question: does Murdoch’s legacy live on in the alleged amorality of the Guardian‘s Comment is Free?


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Aug 192012
 
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I suggested in my previous post that the WikiLeaks publishing model – with a moderately curated information-dumping mission to whistleblow politics and business – needed revisiting.  The value such an institution might add to representative democracy, once the ground rules were rewritten and duly communicated to everyone who has access to the kind of power that almost inevitably seems to lead to abuse these days, would hardly be inconsiderable.

Something, after all, you have to agree, is needed to counteract the overwhelming ability that top-flight politicians and corporate leaders have these days to impose their points of view without healthy and logical debate.  And not because we envy their privileges: rather, because acquiring them as they do, without proper discussion or democratic oversight, is simply prejudicial for the future of our shared civilisations.

But I think we can go further than simply praise WikiLeaks as an institution our democracies and business environments would benefit from.  WikiLeaks is the most notable model of an absolute attachment to revealing unnecessary and inefficient underbellies the world over.  How much better would the process work, though, if WikiLeaks was first and foremost only the first step in a wider industry?

That WikiLeaks was always likely to be at the mercy of Western governments unhappy to be caught with their democratic pants at their undemocratic lead boots is undeniable.  That it needed to be the case – however – is quite another matter.  WikiLeaks may have done it biggest, best and early on – but it hasn’t done it quite as intelligently as it could have done; nor, indeed, as representative democracy needed it to.

What I’m really saying is that WikiLeaks needs competitors to sharpen up its act.  But in order that such a competition should arise from the very many challenges presented by the cesspit in which representative democracy currently finds itself, we need a clear declaration on the part of Western democracies that the WikiLeaks mission – to whistleblow serious and socially prejudicial malpractice in politics and business both – is a mission which we require and desire our media to carry out.

Perhaps, then, what we really require and desire of our governments is a common recognition of and signing up to a Whistleblowing Charter.  A recognition of the principle that whistleblowing is good for politics, good for business, good for society and good for the progress of humanity.  Only then would sufficient groups and organisations feel that pursuing political and business miscreants – difficult and challenging in itself – would not also imply the heavy burden of US disapproval, excommunication or worse.

For curiously enough – in a century where one might presume the freedom of speech the US has treasured for so long would have its ultimate opportunity to shine – the issue ends up being a question of whether the US is prepared to contemplate a proper control of its most powerful.

It’s my assertion that only through a competitive marketplace of serious information can we at all hope to recover the democratic engagement which once guaranteed our marketplaces, our societies, our cultures and our technologies.  But without that Whistleblowing Charter I mention above, who would now dare to follow in the footsteps of a slightly megalomaniac publisher by the name of Assange?

Even where such a megalomania is well documented and established in publishing history.

And even where a massive ego may be necessary to get such a project off the ground in the first place.

After all, in a sense we could conclude that WikiLeaks, with its charismatic and highly visible editor, is more in the tradition of traditional Fleet Street empires than the crowdsourcing intelligences of the 21st century web.  Just think if instead of a rather centralised and overbearing editing and publishing model, we chose to decentralise as per the recent history of the web not only distribution but also mission; not only content but also direction.

And just imagine if this were possible with the explicit permission and sign-up of regenerated democracies – democracies which decided, for their own survival and intellectual efficiency, that they had to look to progress out of the 19th century mindsets which right now they still sadly occupy.

A dream of the foolish?  Well, that’s where these pages often find us.  But in order to build a better world, sometimes you do have to imagine it.


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Aug 182012
 
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I just tweeted the following thought:

WikiLeaks, as a publishing model, made two-faced politics (as well as business, let’s not forget) very challenging. It deserves fresh look.

And I think it’s true.  Whistleblowing in many large organisations is strongly supported and part of continuous-training programmes for all workers – certainly, the theoretical message we often get from HR departments leads one to believe that such an act is an honourable and sometimes all too necessary one.

And WikiLeaks has been nothing more nor less than a virtual implementation of a real-world instinct which perhaps more of us should take on board and exhibit.  That its very visible editor has allegedly fallen foul of the law shouldn’t allow those of us interested in the wider issues of publishing in the 21st century to forget that WikiLeaks offers up an interesting challenge to what was clearly un secreto a voces: those who occupy the top and middle-range echelons of power quite casually lie to their voting publics about sincerely serious and significant issues.

But, perhaps more importantly where the private sphere impacts on the public, this two-faced behaviour, so casually redolent of corrupting Communist regimes of the 20th century, and where allowed to take place, is permitting the private sector – in some cases literally – to get away with murder.

Yes.  WikiLeaks was unfair, in one very important sense.  Everyone knew they could speak their mind behind the closed walls of supposedly democratic government.  And speaking one’s mind is sometimes not a pleasant moment to witness – even as it may be appropriate and, perhaps, inevitable.  Yet what WikiLeaks did was to radically change the ground rules without warning the participants that a smoke-and-mirrors operation was suddenly to become a goldfish bowl of revelations.

If we were to contemplate anew a fresh sort of WikiLeaks, where to some degree democratic government understand the value of an almost absolute public oversight of almost all democratic deliberations, and where it was also judged and agreed that private industry should be submitted to the same rights of whistleblowing access in order to prevent abuses of power and quasi-criminal activity, then perhaps we could move on from what has clearly become a series of personal questions – questions where the behaviours of one individual have come to represent and substitute reasoned argument about the institution in question as well as its philosophy and mission.

I would go further, in fact.  I would submit that if we are to have half a chance in the next decade of rescuing representative democracy from the clutches of private fascism and individually motivated and levered criminality, we will need the kind of constructively merciless and truthful institution which WikiLeaks could quite easily have become.

And if you feel I’m wasting my time on this matter or can’t see the need for modern politicians and businesspeople to hide behind their expensively mounted façades of PR-engineered realities, just take this final thought away with you: how many traditional politicians and businesspeople who you know would be happy, comfortable and in favour of working in the limelight of an independent and exclusively information-dumping organisation run along the conceptual lines of a WikiLeak’s publishing model?

And if the number collapses to fewer than the fingers on one hand, ask yourself exactly why.

Before, that is, you ask that the hand in question be cut off.


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Aug 182012
 
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There’s a simplistic piece over at Labour List today where those who dare to defend – even if only partially – the non-extraditing of Julian Assange to Sweden are defined in this easy and casual paragraph:

When it comes to the United States there are some on the left who adopt the very same “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” attitude that the US government itself held as a central tenet of its foreign policy during the Cold War; a policy that caused untold misery and bloodshed in Latin America.  There’s another irony in there somewhere.

There may be some on the left who adopt this attitude – my disagreement with such an extradition lies, however, elsewhere.

If Assange needs to be extradited to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct – accusations I feel natural justice demands he face – why doesn’t the US government come out in public and say it will then not proceed with any moves to extradite him onwards to the US at a later date in relation to the WikiLeaks case?

Whilst all of us who care about freedom of expression find it difficult within ourselves to be entirely in favour of such a move to Sweden, and in the meantime get accused of double standards – or even worse – by simplistic deniers of Realpolitik everywhere, the circles in question could easily be squared if the US laid its cards clearly out on the table.

I’ve got no problem with Assange facing justice in Sweden for alleged rape.

I do have however, if the US is deliberately being quiet about its intentions in relation to the diplomatic cable publishing saga which in some way brought us all here in the first place – a saga which surely deserves a profounder, as well as parallel, analysis than Assange’s rape case is currently allowing for.

If Assange’s alleged victims deserve justice, it is surely not that of seeing their alleged rapist whisked away from Swedish process to the deep, dark and unpredictable entrails of US maximum security injustice.  And that – I would suggest – is what those of us on the left most fear about this case; it is certainly what personally I would be unhappy to witness.


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Apr 192012
 
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The prostitution scandal currently affecting the American Secret Service, and which has already led to three dismissals, is interesting.  If we were still living in a world where WikiLeaks held sway, this would surely have been a story they’d have run.  But it isn’t such a world.

So why – and more importantly how – is the story being run?

It’s not being run because upstanding Americans from the Moral Majority – or indeed the liberal left – are unhappy at such acts.  This is clear enough from recent political declarations, which, while mentioning ethical issues in pretty quick passing, go on to display the following narrative arc:

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ms Collins, a Republican who represents Maine in the Senate, also said she had asked Mr Sullivan a number of questions during her phone briefing.

“Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons, or… jeopardised [the] security of the president or our country?”

The question of course, as always, is who does it benefit to run such a story at such a time?  Obama, because it distracts from other matters out there?  The Republicans, because it casts Obama in a bad light in the eyes of Hispanic voters?  Or maybe the newspapers themselves from a pecuniary point of view, because they’re owed one for previous favours rendered?

In reality, it leads one to believe that an intruded-upon secrecy simply doesn’t exist.  Whatever we see, it’s because someone who knows wants us to see it.  We’re always going to be at the mercy of that manipulatory instinct to engineer our perceptions; always going to be unable to see things directly and with clarity ourselves.

If our politics is really as “crap” as some are now saying, we need look no further than the above impulse to know the reason why.

Politics does not search out the truth.  Politics looks to degrade our appreciation of what’s right and what’s wrong.  And pretending, occasionally, that our media serve to cast light on dark realities is just one more part of the game those in power are playing with their voters.


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Dec 062011
 
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The other day I suggested we revolutionise Big Pharma by permitting its access to confidential NHS patient records in exchange for it agreeing to open source any resulting research.  Today, we have this self-evident scandal where it would appear lobbyists are bending the ears of those at the very top of government.  As I point out, also today, this is hardly surprising with 20-odd millionaires currently making up the British Cabinet – but, hey ho!, I’m not in the business of perpetuating political walls and prejudices.  So if such lobbying is here to stay, how can we make it an honourable process? 

After all, making representations is surely the essence of democracy.  And lobbying must have started out – at some point in time or another – as a logical tool of democratic discourse.

Perhaps, in a way, we could “open source” the lobbyists – and, by extension, wider government itself.  For such would appear to be the ability of our security services to listen in on our conversations these days that I do wonder if it mightn’t be most democratic of our state to use the capability of our spooks to ensure clean and honourable governance at the very highest levels.

If all lobbying activities were thus opened to public scrutiny – that is to say, all conversations and electronic exchanges between lobbyists and government representatives were automatically made available for any institution or member of the public to trawl – surely this would improve the levels of democratic discourse.  It does, of course, remind me of what I believe the essential goal of WikiLeaks once was: to ensure that people behave behind closed doors as they might do in front of the public gaze.  The basic flaw in WikiLeaks argument was, of course, that before you invoke such a sea change in state governance and behaviours, you should really give people sufficient notice of the rewriting of the ground rules.  Notice which WikiLeaks clearly neglected to offer – or, even, more sadly, contemplate.

Nevertheless, once tried and discarded, we could approach the matter more sensitively.  We could do far worse, in fact, than to ask those nice gentlemen and ladies at GCHQ not only to protect our democracy from international and home-grown law-breakers – but also from the kind of rank behind-closed-doors advantage-taking which those at the top of the tree would appear, from the latest reports, to be engaging in.

A democracy where Big Brother watches the makers and shakers as well as the miscreants – and ensures a healthy debate and democracy by removing, in equal measure, all hiding places from everyone.

Why not?

They do, after all, claim all global conversations are now being scanned.  If the capability exists in counter-terrorism, why not in the field of democratic process?


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Jul 152011
 
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Open-data initiatives have been bubbling away for a while now.  The recent News International scandals show us we need such initiatives more than ever:

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. While not identical, open data has a similar ethos to those of other “Open” movements such as open source, open content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established (for example in the Mertonian tradition of science), but the term “open data” itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web and, especially, with the launch of open-data government initiatives such Data.gov.

The connection may not be immediately obvious, but a piece by Heather Brooke writing in the Guardian yesterday describes how the former may avoid the latter in the future:

[...] The fact is, all information is vulnerable to release – it is simply a matter of the resources someone wants to devote to obtaining it. In Britain information is not equally accessible to all, rather its release depends on one’s wealth, power or privilege. Only the richest and most powerful media organisations have a shot at access and they, in turn, only want to expend their resources on investigations they believe will guarantee a story and a big audience – thus the focus is on sex, scandal and celebrity.

Brooke goes on to point out that:

When journalism is treated as just another widget in a commercial enterprise, the focus isn’t on truth, verification or public good, but productivity and output. [...]

To finally conclude that (the bold is mine):

Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel. They give everyone an equal right to access information. You don’t have to take anyone out to lunch. You don’t have to pay anyone or suppress a damaging story to maintain a flow of information. You simply ask, with the full power of the law behind you. The way to stop this black-market trade in official information isn’t to further criminalise valuable civic data, but to legitimise those records necessary for good reporting. By doing so we remove the patronage power of the elite and open the door to a new form of civic journalism.

And it is precisely this need for a more civic journalism which could release and allow both the Fourth and Fifth Estates to engender a useful partnership in the future –  a partnership where paid journalism and its unpaid equivalent could ensure that government and business behaved both morally and efficiently.

For if the price of information becomes as close to zero as makes no difference … well, instead of those privileged eyes running corrupt news-gathering regimes for their own private interests, we’ll have those millions of crowdsourced intelligences accessing the truth on a daily basis.

A true civic journalism where the professional and amateur are bound together productively in one.

The WikiLeaks’ dream, in fact – without the histrionics and melodrama thrown in.


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Jul 052011
 
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If you’ve been reading these pages and any around the mainstream and social media these past few days here in Britain, you’ll have realised that editing reality has become a dangerous activity. 

Not long ago, we had Julian Assange, upsetting almost everyone with WikiLeaks’ ultimate gesture in favour of open government.  Not surprisingly, those in power have decided that this cannot be so – and pursue this revolutionary editor with the inevitability of monolithic governance.

Not so revolutionary, though – as his piece which I link to above points out:

IN 1958 a young Rupert Murdoch, then owner and editor of Adelaide’s The News, wrote: “In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win.”

His observation perhaps reflected his father Keith Murdoch’s expose that Australian troops were being needlessly sacrificed by incompetent British commanders on the shores of Gallipoli. The British tried to shut him up but Keith Murdoch would not be silenced and his efforts led to the termination of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

Nearly a century later, WikiLeaks is also fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public.

Meanwhile, whilst the very essence of publishing involves running risks, and editors already know the difficulties associated with framing the truth as well as the need to get down amongst the “dirty dirty”, journalism has always claimed for itself an ability to somehow objectivise the truth. 

And there are essentially two ways to achieve such objectivisation:

  1. by putting forward both points of view – both extremes at either end of a spectrum of belief – and then proceed, in some automagical way, to define objectivity as some middle conciliatory path
  2. by showing one’s own prejudices right up front and then telling it only as one sees it

There is of course a complication to the above simplifications, as far as gathering the data required is concerned: some journalists will believe entirely in the kind of investigative approach which, quite sadly, has obviously been abused and stretched beyond belief by people working on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s News International.  Meanwhile, others will believe – and I count myself amongst them – in a more intertextual approach where a series of opinions can be used to triangulate the truth.

Unfortunately, even this rather more academic way of getting closer to reality seems clearly to have been abused by people I would prefer to have believed might have chosen to steer clear of such strategies.

So those of us who still believe in the value of wanting to edit reality really do have a tough job of working out where we go from here.  Do we base our journalism only on facts we have first-hand evidence of?  Or do we use the intertextuality social media in particular is teaching so many of us to understand and feel comfortable with?

The former and its exponents?  Well, you can criticise Rupert Murdoch’s empire for many many things – but the News of the World simply wouldn’t work if it never told the truth.  And that search for awkward truths is what drives such publishing projects forwards.  “OK,” you may say.  “But this happens because they’re only interested in making money.”  Well, of course they’re interested in making money.

Aren’t we all?

In the most important cases of wrongdoing then, as well as the more trivial which sell acres of newsprint, this naturally means we must strive to uncover – often by illegal methods (let’s not be squeamish about telling this truth) – data and information the powerful want kept hidden. The problem, then, is not the breaking of the law in the interests of higher purpose.  Rather, the issues seem to arise when perfectly legitimate tools (in a moral not legal sense of the word) are used to what we deem lower purposes which refuse to countenance an “enhancement” of our civilisation.

As I said in a previous post, I was chatting the whole Johann Hari thing over on Facebook yesterday.  It has been suggested that the gentleman in question should have all kinds of journalism awards torn asunder from his unhappy soul – in particular one relating to George Orwell.  In fact, in the latter case, there seem to be more examples of this complicated series of behaviours going on.  And yet Orwell himself, in a more overtly fictional context, has been both accused and then excused of the crimes of plagiarism – mainly because his literary copy seemed to have improved on the original.  An argument which came up in the Facebook conversation I mentioned, and which I answered thus:

Yeah. I don’t mind that he improved on it – mainly ‘cos I think it’s always pretty difficult to actually *be* original in form and structure. Seven basic plots and so forth. It’s the treatment that matters and adds the real value. But I still have to take issue with your idea of fiction. In the virtual world of social media, where people are mixing up themselves, how they see themselves, how others see them, what professionals *and* “amateur” user-producers say and do with content, the lines between “reality” and “fiction” are inevitably blurred. Just as has always been the case with the real world equivalent of chatting with the neighbour over the garden fence. The hub of the matter is not “reality vs fiction” – but something quite different we are still not understanding.

I then went on to point out the following:

And even though the lines are being blurred in social media, most of us can immediately detect something which doesn’t ring true – if not when it comes out, in retrospect and shortly afterwards. So it must be supporting *some* perception of reality, some ability on our part to understand this alternative vision.

My conclusion then?  So many bloggers and commentators out there are running down the sordid and hoary old uncivilised Western route of focussing on individual miscreants and losing sight of a much wider – and much more systemic – picture.  Assange?  Murdoch?  Hari?  Orwell?  You and me on social media?  Hallowed journalists harvesting random bloggers’ ideas?  Using Twitter as a brainstorming tool and repeating thoughts that appear there in other places – without due attribution? 

To tell the truth, the only conclusion we can come to is that we’re all beginning to become intertextual beings.  This was inevitable ever since the first hyperlink.  In fact, I’m convinced the way we see, think about and absorb information relating to our world has changed dramatically – and fundamentally – over the past five or ten years.  Not just the way we do it: actually, the structure of our brains.

If the term “psychosis” used to be reserved for those classified as being mad, I think there has now come a time for us to redefine what we understand by such classifications.  Thinking simultaneously, thinking in brand new ways, thinking upside down, redefining reality to uncover hidden truths – these are all features of good editing; all elements of fine publishing which work.  No wonder so many brilliant editors of the past have fallen foul of mental wellbeing. 

They do see further.

They do understand life more clearly.

And it’s the madness of knowledge that drives us towards the hubris that so many brilliant writers – so many reality-editors – clearly suffer from.  A fascination with the power of the printed word means that reality can find its shape – literally because all I need to do is say so. 

And especially if one is able to string together fascinating words in ways that easily fascinate.

Just like computer programming since, publishing and journalism have all served to edit reality quite savagely – quite imperiously.

But those individuals who finally find themselves truly savaged by such magnificent tools of definition are not at all those at the receiving end of their implementation; the ordinary people generally manage to escape with their integrity intact. 

Rather, it is the exponents and the users who suffer the most in this process.

Who end up – quite psychotically – unable to separate the frame from the content; the reality from its edition.

So what – ultimately – can we do?  Base our work on hard-nosed breaking-the-law investigative journalism?  Or use a more seemly recognition of the value of thoughtful analysis of existing material – of which, surely we can agree, our Internet now provides more than enough?

Or, perhaps, more happily, a judicious combination of the two?

A final couple of thoughts to be going away with.  Is anyone capable of consistently seeing further without falling down on the wrong side of hubris?  And is there anything worth doing in the offices of modern communication which doesn’t involve running the risk of such utter moral collapse?


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Jun 212011
 
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This, from a BBC report dated 6th June, on the hacking collective called Lulz:

Their success may have more to do with the security failings of their targets than it does with their command of computer code.

Meanwhile, also from the BBC but published today, we find out that a 19-year-old has been arrested in relation to alleged hacking activities

It does make me wonder, though.  If anyone really wanted to give the proponents of open government a hard time, they could do worse than support a wave of high profile website attacks such as those that companies like Sony and Nintendo have suffered over the past few months.  Making everyone wary of releasing official data to ordinary citizens wouldn’t, under such circumstances, be difficult to achieve – in what would be a miasma of confusing but scary messages.  It would also serve to make us forget – at least for the moment (though apparently not today) – the inevitable incompetence shown by authorities who choose to centralise massive amounts of significant data in the hope that no one will manage to find the keys to the kingdom.

On the other hand, we could just as easily argue the opposite: if data is so difficult to protect – if, indeed, everything is susceptible to being broken into – why not engender a shared culture of openness like nothing we have ever experienced before? 

Perhaps the cyber criminals need to be treated like drug barons: essentially cut off privileged access to products of choice by allowing us all to freely trade in the information which, to date, we’ve been so half-heartedly protecting.  In Norway, for example, I believe it is the custom to release financial data of all citizens on government websites.  We could do worse than to follow their example.  If we make our information less secret, if we create a society where hiding information is an exception to the rule, if – for example – we follow the WikiLeaks model, not only will the value of information for criminals drastically fall but it will also become far less necessary to keep it under competent lock and key.

We may – in the end – be driven to open government because we really have no practical alternative.


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May 182011
 
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Yesterday, I observed:

Just a footnote to this piece: I am shortly to be made redundant and am looking to set up a business.  I would like my business to be sustainable in some way – to support me in both my work and my life.  I would like to make good money without become obsessed by the subject of money.  I am, however, beginning to wonder how easy this may be to achieve.

And I ask myself the following: does the necessary pursuit of money inevitably lead to the loss of sense and sensibility in other matters?

I was reminded of these thoughts as I read this post providing background on and legal analysis to the employee and associates’ gag that my dearly beloved WikiLeaks was looking to enforce.  In particular, this comment from an ex-spokesman for the organisation:

“WikiLeaks has become what it despises: a repressive organisation, using restrictive contracts to gag its staffers, cultivating intransparency and unaccountability.”

And I was then reminded of the importance of choosing with care those you wish to compete against.  For we are all condemned, in some way or another, to mimic the tics of our oppositions.

The real problem arises when you don’t have a choice.  That is then when incoherence can strike.

I would, in fact, argue that WikiLeaks’ conversion into an “intransparent” institution was a given from the start – whilst “unaccountable” was always going to be hard on the heels of opaqueness.  Which leads to me to another train of thought on the completely different subject of big versus small government.

If we on the left are to face the issues of the day, we must take on the chin the rank sterility of arguing that big government always equals good government and small government always equals bad.  It’s not, then, the size of government which is important but, rather, how it functions.  If democracy is to allow the corporate figure to coexist as an active participant in appropriate harmony with real people, the discussion we should sustain on the progressive side of the debate is not whether this is fine or despicable but, rather, whether we can ensure the oversight we would expect of traditional governance in what is essentially a new hybrid world where unelected but not necessarily unaccountable corporations help fashion our societies.  And, what’s more, perhaps, whether we can effectively determine when in the economic cycle our government needs to be big or small – as well as how to achieve such resizings with as little trauma as possible.  Mr Stiglitz’s quote in my previous post will serve us well again here:

Behind the free market ideology there is a model, often attributed to Adam Smith, which argues that market forces–the profit motive–drive the economy to efficient outcomes as if by an invisible hand. One of the great achievements of modern economics is to show the sense in which, and the conditions under which, Smith’s conclusion is correct. It turns out that these conditions are highly restrictive. Indeed, more recent advances in economic theory –ironically occurring precisely during the period of the most relentless pursuit of the Washington Consensus policies–have shown that whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always, and especially in developing countries, then the invisible hand works most imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market. These restrictions on the conditions under which markets result in efficiency are important–many of the key activities of government can be understood as responses to the resulting market failures.

If MPs’ expenses should have taught us anything by now, surely they should have taught us that those who wish to participate actively in government need to be overseen as closely and permanently as was the case with all our traditionally public servants of yore.  If, indeed, the corporations truly wish to help run the countries of the West, there needs to be put in place a much more robust and effective sequence of publicly accountable checks and balances which position the directors and CEOs of these organisations on a par with the MPs, lords, congresspeople and senators which, these days, evermore symbiotically people our shared and common civilisations.  The spending patterns of these executive leaders, these private-sectored shakers and makers, whom they wine and dine, whom they aim to deconstruct … all these elements and factors surely need now to be placed far more under the merciless gaze of mainstream and social media – in much the same way, in fact, as our more traditional public servants are already accustomed to.

This is, essentially, what I’m trying to say: if you want to compete against governments, you must occupy all the terrain that comes with such a role.  If you choose to compete with the public sector, some of what the public sector has, to date, been required to put up with is bound to rub off on you – needs to rub off on you.

An example then?

Where WikiLeaks has gone so sadly sour is in its top-down heavy-handed corporate reflecting of the worst kinds of quasi-presidential governance gone mad.

Meanwhile, where in my opinion the broader corporate world still hasn’t thought this properly through is in this reality of public-sector role I sketch out above.

And these are the questions I would, as a result, ask it to consider: so you want to get more involved in national governance?  Just think of the awful downside that is public accountability.  Is that really where you want to go?  Do you sincerely want the complicated unseparating of public and private, just so you can get your greedy short-term mitts on money-pots such as the health services of the Western world?

Have you really weighed up the advantages and disadvantage of entering a far more public sphere than the one you currently occupy?

Are you truly ready to compete and function under the gaze of the tabloid mentalities?

Of the tittle-tattle?  Of the trivia?  Of the short-termism of everything our current democracies encapsulate?

For you may think that you can impose your ways of doing on the public sector – but democratic bureaucracy has a long and noble history, and may be just a little more resilient than you all think.


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Jan 112011
 
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My brother made the following observation yesterday:

What the USofA goverment is doing in persuing anyone who might have once idly typed the word Wikileaks into Google or Yahoo search is right out of the DDR’s Stasi Training Manual.

Imagine how far Honecker could have got if Facebook and Twitter had been around in the seventies.

He’s right, isn’t he?  And temptation is a grand thing.  Where technology allows you to do something, whether it is right or wrong, temptation will surely follow.

He also points out that:

Watching the Wikileaks affair explode I have realised that, as I would not choose a Russian or a Chinese Webmail, internet search or social networking service (because of possible political interference and resulting arbitary denial of service) I have finally to accept that I cannot rely US web services either for anything than the most innocent of interactions (that is if any interactions can be considered innocent in this day and age).

Here I am of two minds.  I wonder if the Internet, paradoxically made so robust by the American military itself, can now ever be fully tamed by its creators.  The genie is out of its bottle – like any fabulous creature, it may turn round and bite its progenitor where it least expects to be bitten.

So I agree.  The subpoenas may fly left, right and centre – and we may suddenly realise how fragile the integrity of our data is.  But wasn’t it ever thus?

To be honest, in any case, I think the battle for privacy is lost.  The battle, that is, for our own privacy as citizens.  Given that there is little more we may be able to do, where I now believe we should locate the battlefield is on that moral high ground of equal lack of privacies for all – whether government inspector or bin collector, whether national security agent or travel agent.

Little by little, mind.  Not all of a sudden.  Let’s give everyone a chance to put their private lives in order.

But, little by little, let’s make this world of Facebook – where governments already know who thinks what at that most trivial of levels – a world which everyone should share.

Whatever their station in life.

Which, in fact, is what WikiLeaks is all about – and why the US government is so eager to bury its own true intentionality so utterly in an obfuscation of anger bordering on the petulant.

WikiLeaks is the Facebook of the powerful.  And we have suddenly been given access to their trivialities.

Ouch!  How that hurts!  No wonder they protest …


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Jan 092011
 
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Interesting stuff.  This, via Dave Winer, came my way this evening:

US subpoenas Twitter, seeking information on WikiLeaks’ 635,561 followers. http://r2.ly/6ixh

The article he links to can be found here:

A Dutch investigative journalist blasted the US Department of Justice for requesting information on everyone following WikiLeaks’ Twitter account and everyone they follow.

So this doesn’t only mean that I now potentially form part of a US government criminal investigation.  It also means – if I’ve understood the slightly ambiguous phrase correctly – that if by any chance I decided to follow you on Twitter, you, as the recipient of the attentions of someone who also follows WikiLeaks, may just as easily find yourself the object of the attentions of some random US National Security official who – at some time in the future – will end up sticking his or her legalistic nose in your electronic communications, bank details, personal associations and cloud data.

But not because you yourself followed WikiLeaks.  Simply because someone else who followed you also followed WikiLeaks.

This is most unreasonable.  I may have chosen, quite wittingly and in full awareness of the consequences, to follow the WikiLeaks Twitter account.  But the fact that I have followed that account and followed yours at the same time, whether or not you have followed me back, shouldn’t impact on your freedoms or your right to the integrity of your data.

It shouldn’t, actually, impact on my freedoms either.  But that would be a matter for quite a different post.

This is McCarthyism of the very worst kind.

The US has recently suffered at the hands of awful rhetoric and attempted political assassination.  Now you tell me that it has decided to go into reverse gear and hit the 1950s at dreadful speed.

I really can’t believe it.

Isolationism is not the way forward guys.  The rest of the world and the rest of its laws count too.  Anything else just confirms this is becoming a sadly hollow empire, rotting rapidly from the core as its leaders jump through intellectual hoops.

My brother was right.

Unfortunately.

Tell me he wasn’t, do …


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Jan 012011
 
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This came my way via Dave Winer tonight.  A damn good editorial and publisher’s defence of why the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables needed to be published:

Cynics will argue that none of what we have learned from WikiLeaks differs from the usual way in which high-level international politics is conducted, and that without diplomatic secrets, the world would be even less manageable and more dangerous for everyone. Political classes on both sides of the Atlantic convey a simple message that is tailored to their advantage: trust us, don’t try to reveal our secrets; in exchange, we offer you security.

But just how much security do they really offer in exchange for this moral blackmail? Little or none, since we face the sad paradox that this is the same political elite that was incapable of properly supervising the international financial system, whose implosion triggered the biggest crisis since 1929, ruining entire countries and condemning millions of workers to unemployment and poverty. These are the same people responsible for the deteriorating quality of life of their populations, the uncertain future of the euro, the lack of a viable European project and the global governance crisis that has gripped the world in recent years, and which elites in Washington and Brussels are not oblivious to. I doubt that keeping embassy secrets under wraps is any kind of guarantee of better diplomacy or that such an approach offers us better answers to the problems we face.

The incompetence of Western governments, and their inability to deal with the economic crisis, climate change, corruption, or the illegal war in Iraq and other countries has been eloquently exposed in recent years. Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we also know that our leaders are all too aware of their shameful fallibility, and that it is only thanks to the inertia of the machinery of power that they have been able to fulfill their democratic responsibility and answer to the electorate.

The powerful machinery of state is designed to suppress the flow of truth and to keep secrets secret. We have seen in recent weeks how that machine has been put into action to try to limit the damage caused by the WikiLeaks revelations.

Given the damage they have suffered at the hands of WikiLeaks, it is not hard to see why the United States and other Western governments have been unable to resist the temptation of focusing attention on Julian Assange. He seems an easy enough target, and so they have sought to question his motivation and the way that WikiLeaks works. They have also sought to question why five major news organizations with prestigious international reputations agreed to collaborate with Assange and his organization. These are reasonable questions, and they have all been answered satisfactorily over the last four weeks, despite the pressure put on us by government, and worse still, by many of our colleagues in the media.

You can find the original article and full resource at El País itself here. It’s well worth reading in full.  Damn good read.  Damn good newspaper.  Damn good links.  Damn good reasons.

*

Re-reading this justification makes me realise exactly why world governments were so very unhappy about this release of documents.  What they reveal most clearly is that incompetence is the bread and butter of political discourse nationally and internationally.  And, whilst at first we citizens did not fully understand, from that very beginning these governments most clearly did appreciate both Assange’s true agenda and precisely why such substantial and reputable mainstream media organisations were prepared to bet their all on the making public of so much classified information.

It’s notable that the organisations involved – to a greater or lesser degree and each within the context of their own culture and peoples – have always been committed to engaging with the improvement of the societies they operate alongside.  As clear as Assange’s agenda now is, how much clearer must it be that the mainstream media involved in the release of these cables into the public domain have wanted, with these revelations, to stop the abuse of a public trust that they have surely been privy to for such a long time as privileged observers of the body politic.  And it is to their tremendous intellectual credit that they have taken the decision to no longer trade on the information gap as a way of making money out of their readers.

They have, instead, chosen to continue generating the income all publishing ventures need to sustain their entity by doing quite the opposite: by closing the gap that for so long so many – operating in collusion with the powers-that-be – have managed to make a living out of.

Something so many self-interested political journalists have deliberately avoided in the misguided interests of their profession for such a long and disgraceful time.
____________________

Further reading: an accurate dismantling of the American empire’s claim to legitimacy can now be found here at www.truth-out.org.  As the piece concludes:

In their desperation to retain the empire, the US political class is undermining the remaining vestiges of the empire’s legitimacy over the WikiLeaks affair. They may also be preparing to expand the definition of treason to include those who are dedicated, as is Assange and WikiLeaks, to freedom of information, especially when it reveals the duplicities of empire. Beyond WikiLeaks, the crisis of empire, according to Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello, “bodes well not only for the rest of the world. It may also benefit the people of the United States. It opens up the possibility of Americans relating to other people as equals and not as masters.”

Well worth reading in full.


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Dec 302010
 
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All you need to do is look at this web page.  More background from John Naughton here and Dave Winer here.

As Naughton concludes (my bold):

[...] Amazon’s original reasons for dropping WikiLeaks always seemed feeble — and indeed unlikely to stand up in court. But the company’s decision has been useful in drawing attention to the underlying issue. Political discourse is increasingly conducted via cloud services like Amazon’s. That means that it’s moved into a space that is essentially private. As someone observed at the beginning of the WikiLeaks affair, it’s as if our political discourse had moved from the parks and streets and into shopping malls. And that means that important aspects of free speech will henceforth exist at the mercy of corporate whim. This is bad news for democracy.


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