SCOTT BURCHILL: There are leaks and then there are leaks

Apr 24, 2019

The arrest of Julian Assange in London for his activities as head of WikiLeaks has renewed the public’s focus on the role of whistleblowers, and the prosecution of journalists who embarrass governments by exposing their lies, corruption and crimes.  

Accountability and the public’s right to know what governments do on their behalf are the lifeblood of every liberal democracy. But in the age of surveillance capitalism, when governments increasingly insanguinate the private lives of their citizens while concealing their own activities behind a veil of secrecy, the encryption of personal information and the leaking of state secrets may be the only ways of pumping oxygen to the body politic: they have become life-saving infusions from the democratic blood bank.

Governments need to keep some information confidential in order to function, particularly in areas such as intelligence and defence. No-one seriously contests this. However, the burden of proof is always on those who claim that secrecy is necessary. It is never on those arguing for greater transparency.

In key quarters there is selective hostility, and in others outright opposition to the leaking of information that elected representatives wish to conceal from their populations. Strikingly, much of this comes from the 4th estate, which can be consumed by professional jealousy and is generally more conservative than its adversarial reputation suggests. So called free speech liberals are also at the forefront of opposition to government transparency. No-one has prosecuted the war against whistleblowers more vigorously than Barack Obama.

There is no independent body which can arbitrate what should and should not be revealed to the public. Ultimately, we have to rely on the subjective judgement of journalists. This is both unsatisfactory and unavoidable.

And then we must confront an equally difficult though important task: sifting real truths from those that have been ideologically massaged. As the great English radical historian E.P. Thompson noted in the 1980s,

The foulest damage to our political life comes not from the ‘secrets’ which they hide from us, but from the little bits of half-truths and disinformation which they do tell us. These are already pre-digested and then sicked up as little gobbets of authorised spew.

How are leaks viewed by journalists, academics, the national security state and think tanks? The answers can be very instructive.

Leaks come in four broad categories and are viewed in very different ways. Attitudes towards them are largely determined by their effects on centres of corporate and state power.

  1. Constructive or Retail Leaks

This is the most common form of leaking, where government ministers, MPs and bureaucrats leak information to servile journalists who can be relied upon to publish the information without alteration or attribution: these journalists are essentially conduits or stenographers for their sources.

This kind of leaking is preferred during leadership challenges (eg by Rudd, Turnbull, Abbott et al), for the tactical release of unpopular policies (Budget nasties) or to undermine political opponents (LNP leaks to the Murdoch press). These “authorised” leakers have little interest in whistleblowing or informing the public, and are preoccupied with conferring political advantages on their favourites.

These leaks are usually un-sourced and evidence of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media. Journalists who get “scoops” are often praised as leaders in their field, with access and exclusivity being privileged over dispassionate analysis. The leakers themselves are often habitually incontinent.

  1. Professional Leaks

A minor variation of “constructive leaks”, in this category “crusading journalism” is conducted within tightly circumscribed parameters: usually targetted at individuals, not the system which has produced and rewarded them. Journalists internalise the boundaries of expressible dissent and normally don’t need to be told what is permissible to publish. Often the leaks are a result of grievances – a political axe to grind – and frequently take the form of “fly on the wall” journalism.

Investigative reporters such as Bob Woodward have made lucrative media careers out of cultivating sources and receiving information from insider contacts. In the case of Watergate this helped to bring down President Nixon, though it was more a story about one faction of the US ruling class attacking the other rather than a systemic or legitimation crisis.

More commonly, professional leaks take the form of sensational accounts, gossip or claims from anonymous insiders that can reframe news coverage and even become the “news story” itself (eg inside Trump’s White House, how the Iraq War was conceived, etc,).

Recipients and publishers of professional leaks are seen as heroes within the profession (and in Hollywood), and like to think of themselves as adversarial – holding the powerful to account. It’s a self-serving image because they rarely do and are, instead, often obsessed with trivia or trying to make the existing structures of power work better: feigned dissent rather than dissidence. We know this because they are rarely prosecuted for “doing their job” regardless of whether highly classified government secrets are revealed.

  1. Benign Leaks

These are leaks which often produce media headlines but rarely affect the interests of corporate or state power. The reaction of elites to this category of leaks is characterised by disinterest, especially if there is no commercial downside or if the culprit is politically partisan.

Sometimes concerns have to be registered. Revelations that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica breached the privacy of millions who use the former’s social media platform were met with half-hearted complaints in the US Congress. However, concerns were quickly assuaged by earnest apologies and promises from Mark Zuckerberg that his organisation would do better in the future: which in fact hasn’t happened. In fact quite the opposite has occurred.

Why were the concerns of elites so fleeting in this case? It was more than just influence peddling by overpaid lobbyists working for the social network. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were simply monetarising their businesses by marketing the private details of social media users for commercial gain: they were leaking the private information of their customers for profit. First and foremost, these people are entrepreneurs and businessmen. That’s a problem for their customers who don’t want their private details on-sold, not the businesses. So there is no problem.

The scale of privacy breaches in this case is unprecedented, however the victims here are private citizens not the national security state, so the leaks are by definition benign as far as the ruling class is concerned.

  1. Nefarious Leaks

Leaks which challenge, undermine or embarrass established centres of power are fiercely opposed by the state and it’s commissars in the media, journalism and think tanks.

Whistleblowers such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, perform an enormous service for humankind and should be celebrated by those who value freedom and democracy.

However, they are never forgiven by those they expose and must be severely punished for both their specific transgressions and as examples to others who might consider following in their footsteps. Daniel Ellsberg, responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers which exposed the lies of presidents Johnson and Nixon about the Vietnam War, is in this category.

Exposing war crimes, deceptions and information which political elites do not want the public to see is routinely criticised for jeopardising “national security” or undermining the “national interest”. This is rarely the case. In fact these whistleblowers perform an invaluable public service by lifting the veil of secrecy that protects powerful state officials from being held to account for their lies, high crimes and misdemeanors – as well as their hypocrisy and mistakes. Leaking this information entails great personal risks and, unlike conveyers of professional leakers such as Bob Woodward, no commercial advantages.

The response of the commissar class is predictable. Ad hominem attacks on nefarious leakers are the norm, as if their personalities are more important issues than informing people about what is being done in their names. They are redefined as “not journalists” and “not publishers” as if this axiomatically disqualifies them from any legal or professional protections. This tactic also disguises the broader threat to journalism that these attacks represent.

These whistleblowers are “irresponsible” and “unprofessional”, in apparent contrast to those who instinctively know that their proper role is to maintain state secrets. Media critics who have failed to reveal anything like the valuable information released by these interlopers are horrified by the whistleblowers’ disdain for obedience and conformity. They are professionally jealous at being out-scooped and, despite subsequent hypocritical protestations, would have undoubtedly published the information if it had been leaked to them. Academics are too easily cowered, while think tankers looking for future jobs in politics or the national security state know how to keep their heads down.

For reasons never explained, the mainstream news media which worked with these whistleblowers to publish the information they obtained – to increase sales and profits for their employers (The Guardian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald) – are apparently not guilty of the same ethical or professional breaches. Rather than protecting or defending their sources, these same media companies and their in-house journalists and editors have become their loudest critics, as if they are purging themselves of guilt for their earlier collaborations.

As a general rule, the greater the service that these leakers perform for the public, the more hysterical and extreme the reaction is from those who want to punish and silence them.


Government surveillance and draconian laws which invade the privacy of ordinary citizens, more recently on the pretext of grossly inflated threats allegedly posed by terrorists, act as a diuretic for those concerned by the loss of their civil liberties. They are inversely proportional reactions.

Despite the risks involved we should therefore expect further “nefarious” leaks in response to these worrying trends, and consequently even more severe repression by the state and their unpaid agents of stasis in the media, the academic world, governments and their bureaucratic adjuncts.

This article borrows from and adapts the bloodbath typology devised in Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection And Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume 1 (Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney 1980).

Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University.

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