‘While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive,’ wrote the Swedish-born philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok.
In terms of global news stories, this year may be remembered as the year of the whistleblower.
The event that most dominated world headlines this year was probably the BP oil spill off the Florida coast.
As BP struggled to find a way to limit environmental damage, whistleblowers leaked internal documents suggesting that the company was not keeping accurate records of how its rigs were built. This would make diagnosing and solving specific rig problems much harder.
Meanwhile, another whistleblower accused BP of cheating when it tested equipment designed to prevent disastrous blowouts on its rigs. Whistleblowing wasn’t at the centre of this story, but it certainly made its presence felt.
Whistleblowing was at the centre of a more recent story, which focused on accusations of impropriety at the heart of the 2018 football World Cup host selection process. England reportedly lost the right to host the cup because of media reports that had been fuelled by leaked documents and secret discussions with FIFA insiders.
Yet one story more than any other put whistleblowers on the map this year: the ongoing Wikileaks saga. In this instance, whistleblowing has moved from being the source of a story, to becoming the subject of the story.
The notion that employees should expose corrupt or unethical practices in business or government is no new thing. Had Watergate happened today, Deep Throat, aka William Mark Felt, Sr. would have instantly become a respected member of the whistleblowing fraternity.
In the 1980s, a few brave souls compromised their careers, reputations and safety to challenge the big tobacco companies. After this, ‘whistleblower’ became a term of respect and whistleblowers were often rightly lauded as moral crusaders.
These days, whistleblowing has become part and parcel of business life. Official figures published in March showed that the number of UK employees claiming to have been sacked or mistreated for exposing corrupt practices at work has increased tenfold over the past decade.
Whistleblowing has been growing in influence since the 1970s. Yet the Wikileaks story - and the activities of its founder Julian Assange – has turned whistleblowing into something akin to a career choice.
Wikileaks has provided an unprecedented platform for those who want to leak sensitive secrets and the publicity it has attracted has glamorised their work.
Some commentators argue that Julian Assange and his colleagues are champions of free speech. Others see them as defenders of press freedom. Still others claim that the Wikileaks crew are making a stand in support of the true culture of the internet and the world wide web.
There are good reasons to be wary of all three arguments.
In any society, true freedom of speech requires that citizens take responsibility for what they say. Acclaiming individual rights without recognising concomitant social responsibilities is the beginning of anarchism.
When the authority you claim is of the moral variety – the most powerful of all – you must be seen to be above reproach, which means that you must allow yourself to be measured by some standard beyond yourself.
Assange and his crew have demonstrated no accountability except to their own internal culture and their individual consciences. In this they have diluted any potential authority as a voice for free speech among the wider population, most of whom live not in subservience to as much as respect for social structures.
Wikileaks also challenges systems of governance without offering any suggestions as to how they might be improved. It attacks not just abuses of the current system, as was the case with Watergate, but the system itself.
In this it has possibly revealed itself to be more about cyber-anarchism than cyber-activism.
As for freedom of the press, there are once more reasons to be cautious. Wikileaks says that it is a clearing house for raw data provided by whistleblowers. Then, when it suits its purpose, it claims instead to be a journalistic body, which implies the presence of rigorous fact-checking and some sort of recognised editorial oversight.
Wikileaks is staffed for the most part by non-journalists and though it is obviously a rich source of juicy material for journalists, most probably wouldn’t recognize it as a legitimate organ of the press.
In recent weeks, Mr Assange has taken to calling himself a journalist. Presumably, this is to gain both credibility – ‘computer hacker’ doesn’t sound like a reputable career – as well as political coverage against possible espionage charges in the US, where freedom of the press is held in almost sacred regard.
Yet he seems ignorant of the fact that one key tenet of journalism is that reporters should never allow themselves to become the story.
In reporting Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein and their editor Ben Bradlee were openly opposed by powerful forces of government. Yet to the end, the story about Watergate remained just that. The story-tellers did not create a plinth for themselves at its core.
Mr. Assange seems either incapable of this type of self-effacement or unwilling to attempt it. He doesn’t seem to mind being the centre of attention, even if his profile or reputation are damaging to the cause.
For all of this, there are those who see the Wikileaks volunteers as the last true defenders of internet freedoms.
The original web pioneers, hovering over dim, blinking screens, saw the online world they were creating as a frontier where ideas would roam free. They foresaw a realm where people could exchange data and converse without interference from the tinkling of commercial cash registers or the meddling of lawyers and politicians.
Now, as news organisations experiment with charging for online content, as legal eagles continue to fight file-sharing and as the web becomes increasingly commercialised, cyber-purists see Wikileaks as a body of crusaders for original web culture.
Yet its most ardent supporters either can’t see or won’t acknowledge that by its actions Wikileaks may be making the case for even higher levels of internet regulation by governments. And this would be supported by groups outside of government, such as business groups, who fear that Wikileaks and its kind may turn on them next.
What would happen if a Wikileaks-inspired body decided to share proprietary information online, or to publish the secret conversations held at corporate board meetings? It is already threatening to do so with regard to certain banks.
The business world, under threat, would fight back – by lobbying government for control of the internet.
Sprouting largely unprocessed, proprietary or government material freely into cyberspace, where national governments have limited authority, also makes the argument for mechanisms of global governance.
If Wikileaks, or whatever follows it, becomes so threatening to governments that they look to establish supra-national governing bodies to deal with it, even more secrecy will result. And this time, it will be at a level of government unprecedented in human history.
Wikileaks is providing an apologetic for those political philosophers and economists who argue for global government.
As Daniel Finkelstein noted in The Times recently, the human story reveals that new systems of communication lead to wider and potentially more intrusive levels of government.
As new communications technologies extend the reach of human communities, power is passed from one group to a broader group. Taking in the sweep of change from the printing press, mailing systems, telegraphs and modern IT, says Finkelstein, ‘The trend towards global government is unmistakable.’
For some, this may sound innocuous or even desirable, but new strata of government always lead to greater controls upon the citizenry, usually in the name of security or harmonisation. They also bring with them higher taxes, because new layers of government require even bigger layers of bureaucracy.
And the higher the level of government, the greater the power; with more power comes more deal-making behind closed doors and more resource devoted to keeping secrets hidden.
Some will argue that in an ideal world publishing secrets would not be a crime, especially if they reveal flaws in the process or personalities behind those in power. Yet in an ideal world secrets would not be needed at all.
In the real world we have now, populated as it is by sometimes noble and altruistic, sometimes myopic and self-interested human beings, secrets are sometimes needed.
Wikileaks may think it is nobly doing us all a favour by publishing its ‘secrets’. In fact, in many ways Mr Assange and his colleagues are doing us no favours at all.