Why Wikileaks Should Matter to Writers

Guest post by A.L. Berridge

I lost my political virginity in Ireland, when I heard for the first time the reality behind the Troubles. English schools hadn’t been too hot on explaining why these nasty IRA terrorists wanted to blow us up, and I’d been content to accept a simple world of good guys and bad guys—as long as my country was the former and the foreigners were the latter. Overnight I had to bin all that, grow up, and start comprehending shades of grey.

I had no choice. I was there to work on scripts, but how can a writer understand her characters if she doesn’t know why they think or feel as they do? And if she doesn’t understand, then what right has she to write? Those months in Dublin were when I began to open my mind and take the first steps on the road that made me a novelist.

The loss of illusion was still shattering, which is why my heart goes out to Americans right now. The US isn’t the only country whose moral ugliness has been exposed by Wikileaks, but it’s the one where the biggest shock has been to its own citizens. I’d imagined the horrors of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew about Abu Ghraib, but what I hadn’t realized was how much the American press had suffocated the earlier story. Pictures were edited and withheld, and when Salon posted the first exposé the Pentagon claimed they ‘were damaging national security by publishing such inflammatory images’.

Sound familiar?

Similar charges have been laid against Wikileaks, although journalists from The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel have all worked on the cables to redact the names of anyone conceivably at risk. Where’s the physical danger in people learning a government kidnapped and tortured an innocent German national, that it threatened Spain if it took action against torture of its people, or that it ordered diplomats to get DNA and credit-card details of its allies in the UN? Where’s the risk to security in knowing Pfizer used the African meningitis epidemic to test drugs on 200 children, 11 of whom died? What those governments queuing up to condemn Wikileaks really fear is that people will think less of them. This is now a war over what we are allowed to think.

But we’re writers. Thinking is in our job description. We have to question the world around us, see it in a new and different light—and communicate what we see. If we live in a government-controlled vacuum, what can we say that’s of value?

And if we found something, would we be allowed to say it? It’s not just Wikileaks being threatened now, but the whole concept of free speech. For years now concerned US citizens have had to look outside the mainstream media to learn what everyone else already knows—as in this recent attempt to suppress news of fresh atrocities in Afghanistan. The NYT has published Wikileaks material, but with government censorship – and there are still calls for it to be muzzled further, with Senator Joe Lieberman demanding an investigation for possible espionage.

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter in these internet days when it’s simple to find out what other countries are saying—but even that’s under threat. Members of the US Air Force are already finding their access blocked not just to Wikileaks, but to the foreign newspapers that report on it. There are still international messageboards, we can still communicate with the outside world—but is that safe? Professor McNeal, specialist in national security law, warns students against reading about leaked cables on forums: “I don’t think looking at them alone could hurt anyone. The problem is when you’re looking and then supporting and endorsing, then you start running into trouble.”

It’s the casualness of that I find chilling. He says you can look—as long as you don’t think.

And will it end there? When the publisher is imprisoned on extraordinary rape charges while US politicians try to change the law to get him on something else? When the alleged whistleblower is kept in solitary confinement under conditions tantamount to torture? When companies like Amazon and PayPal appear to bow to government pressure to drive Wikileaks from the net? And we shouldn’t underestimate US power in this respect: the Department of Homeland Security has already made two web raids this year, taking over domain names of sites it doesn’t approve—even when they belong to businesses in other countries. The internet has given us unparalleled freedom to communicate with each other all over the world, but now that too is threatened.

It’s no wonder our fellow writers (and thinkers) are uniting to demand an end to this suppression of these most basic freedoms—to learn, to think, and to write. Daniel Ellsberg, hero of the Pentagon Papers, is a staunch defender of Wikileaks, and so is the respected journalist John Pilger, whose reports led to $45 million being raised for the relief of Cambodia. He is the first signatory in an open letter supporting Wikileaks, which is also endorsed by UK writers Iain Banks, Yvonne Ridley, Caryl Churchill, A.L. Kennedy, Alexei Sayle, and Andy de la Tour.

Banks, Kennedy and Sayle are novelists, not journalists, but fiction needs freedom too. ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is a novel, so are ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’—all banned at some time, including in some areas of the US. So is Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, which (incredibly) was supported by Soviet premier Khrushchev on the grounds that a society ought to be able to look itself in the mirror. Do we really lack the courage to do the same?

Suppression of this kind affects all writers, even if we don’t have an overt political message. Writers are receivers as well as transmitters – we need constant contact with the minds of those who lead different lives from our own. If there’s one essential quality a fiction writer must have it’s altruism—the ability to think ourselves into the minds of others. How else can we write a serial killer, a man on Death Row, a woman of a different age or culture or sexuality or religion? We have to learn, and to do it we must venture outside not only our own comfort zones, but those of our governments.

And once we’ve learned, we must be free to communicate. Words can be a weapon in the hands of an Orwell, but they can also be a lifeline, a channel for the vision that can bring enlightenment and comfort to others. When I saw the impact of Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ on women who had believed themselves lonely freaks in the universe, I felt for the first time the power of words to reach out across borders of culture and geography, to break down walls and smash through silence, to link us all together in a community that recognizes truth.

A writer who turns her back on truth is unworthy of the name. I write mainstream commercial action-adventure, but even for me it would be a disgrace. My first two novels are about honour and humanity in a ruthless world, and if I’m to keep any writing integrity I need to own my words and act on them. This is the G.K. Chesterton extract that prefaces my first book, and it might have been written for what’s happening right now – human rights abuses, waging of unjust war, and the secrecy and lies of governments who don’t care:

From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men;
From sale and profanation of honour and the sword;
From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!

Most of all ‘from sleep’. Apathy will be the end of us if we don’t remember that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. The film of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ ends with the memorable scene of the living ‘books’: men, women and children walking up and down reciting sentences of Dickens, of Austen, of Tolstoy, preserving the forbidden words for the generations to come.

We are those people. We are the storytellers, and it is time to remember we are strong. The war on Wikileaks is one of words, and who knows how to use them better than we? We can sign that petition, we can write books and articles and blogs like this one, we can post on message-boards, on Twitter and Facebook, we can write on the bloody walls if we have to.

If we’re writers, then this is our war.

Let’s fight.

U.K. writer A.L. Berridge is a novelist and award-winning television producer, whose bestselling debut novel Honour and the Sword was published in April 2010 under the Michael Joseph imprint of Penguin Books.

Author: MacAllister Stone

Owner and Editor-in-chief of AbsoluteWrite and CoyoteWild.

11 thoughts on “Why Wikileaks Should Matter to Writers”

  1. It seems that Wikileaks has had adverse affects here in Thailand.

    About 4 years ago, there was a coup here. Although it is forbidden here to speak about the monarchy, many people accused them of supporting the coup that deposed the most popular elected leader in Thai history. But it wasn’t until a Wikileaks cable confirmed it that the majority of people believed it. Needless to say, Wikileaks, and any website publishing the information, has been blocked in Thailand.

    The main lesson I have learned from Wikileaks is that corrupt people stay in power through censorship and misinformation.

  2. This is a great post. Another take-away from this round of Wikileaks is that governments around the world, including “democratic” ones, rely more and more on authoritarian strategies and methods to maintain control of the people.

    It’s also interesting to see the splicing of information so that people in differrent countries see only what their power elites want them to see. This only furthers mistrust and conflict between people of different regions, nations and cultures. All to the benefit of the ruling elite.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I can’t accept that wikileaks has anything to do with writers. In fact, I don’t accept that wikileaks is even some kind of morally virtuous activity.
    Governments need to have secrets, pure and simple. This can range from ongoing investigations, tax audit information, the location of spies, and contingency plans in case of terrorist attack. Exposing corruption is one thing. Exposing the normal workings of government seems morally pointless.

    Assange lost me when he released unredacted information about Aghani informants against the Taliban. When asked why he did this, he said that Afghans deserve to know who the “traitors” are. Either he doesn’t realise what will happen to these people and their loved ones if the Taliban turn against them, or he doesn’t care.

  4. I do agree with you, D.A.Monroe, that governments should have some secrets, and your examples seem reasonable to me.

    This is not, not, however, the kind of information Wikileaks is releasing. In most countries actions like the kidnapping and torture of ally nationals, the spying on United Nations officials, the bullying and ‘punishing’ of other countries to force them to use GM crops, and the murder of innocent civilians, do NOT constitute the ‘normal workings of government’. If ever they do, I very much hope Wikileaks will reveal that fact so we can try and do something to stop it.

    The naming of Afghan informants is a legitimately delicate subject, but you will remember 1)that even according to the US govt no actual harm HAS come to anyone as a result of the leaks, and 2) that Wikileaks tried to redact as much as possible even of these early logs – but the Pentagon refused to co-operate. A good analysis of the actual facts can be found on
    http://wlcentral.org/node/379

    In the interests of fairness, I should say that this is a pro-Wikileaks site, but it links to many that are not, and quotes directly from US government sources.If you’re interested in this subject I really do recommend looking beyond the NYT or CBS or any other media source tied so tightly to a government’s interests. For instance, look how many papers ‘blacked-out’ the news of the arrests of Dan Ellsberg and Ray McGovern for protesting outside the White House last month – see report here:
    http://www.mediaroots.org/media-black-out-of-veterans-chained-to-wh-fence.php
    This media control is true to some extent of all countries, which is why we need the net freedom to look elsewhere.

    Returning to your last point, I can find no evidence that Assange or anyone else at wikileaks simply ‘did not care’ – and plenty to the contrary. I’ve looked at the relevant Assange interviews but can’t find the quote you mention anywhere – perhaps you could give a link? I know we can’t insert hyperlinks easily here, but if you copy-and-paste into a comment I can copy it into my browser.

    Thank you for commenting and broadening the debate. As long as we’re engaging with the issue then the truth stands a much greater chance.

  5. There is an interesting social part of this that I am unsure anyone is looking at. It is called trust. As much as I can identify with Assange’s idea that there should be no more lies and no more secrets between nations there is always a trickle down effect and when there is no more secrets in the world how do we trust our friends or even make friends when the secrets that are the closest to our hearts can be screamed to the world on the Facebook or Twitter? Someday we might live in a society where we can’t talk to anybody because we are too timid to tell them who we really are.

  6. Much appreciated and something I can use as a resource when I find myself in arguments about Wikileaks. Calmer than I can be, that’s for sure!

  7. Craig, I agree with you that trust is at issue here, but I’m afraid that your comment only addresses one side. The very heart of the issue is that governments are abusing the trust we place in them. I think it’s fair to say, from the reactions to the published abuses – and the very fact that we think of them as abuses – that governments are not adhering to the standards that we commonly accept.
    A.L. Berridge has addressed D.L. Monroe’s comment quite well, but I would also like to add that there’s a vast difference between keeping the due process of law under wraps, and hiding breaches of both law and morality to avoid embarrassment, prosecution or impeachment.
    Yes, actions such as those of Wikileaks need monitoring and criticism, and sensitivity to their effects, but the censorship of their activities by those named and shamed is simply giving that responsibility to the accused. Would this work in a court of law?
    The proper pressure to apply to groups like this is the kind of discussion we are having right here – in public, not behind closed doors.

  8. I truly feel the sting of restriction. They tell us we are free, yet when novelists have voiced their opinions in the past, the government has been quick to gag them out. There should be no such thing as a banned book. Never. Period. As much as I loathe the idea of O.J. Simpson and his novel, if they’ve cleared him and set him free, why then, isn’t he free to write whatever he feels like writing? I could have written the same book. Would it have had the same response? I should think not.

    I truly think everyone has the right to think, feel, and even write whatever they choose. It was supposed to be one of the largest benefits of freedom. I must have missed the fine print resting near the words ‘Free Country’. I suppose they would read something like:
    Free to do as you please, as long as it’s government censored.

  9. I personally have never heard of WikiLeaks until I randomly came across this site, but I agree that it is definitely an issue worth addressing. I think everyone can agree that name-slinging about sensitive topics might be the wrong way to go about it, but I for one am tired of the subtle (and sometimes blatant) control the US has put on words. Obviously this issue is not just an American issue, as many governments around the world seem to feel threatened by the writer’s pen. It seems to me that those supposedly “powerful” governments have become afraid of the awesome shadows their ill deeds have created. Not a power I would covet, I’ll say that much.

    Furthermore, I would love to live in a world where all my deepest and darkest secrets were laid bare along with everyone else’s. Why? For the plain fact that EVERYONE has secrets they are ashamed of, and so we would then all be on a level field. At least in that society, no one would have anything left to hide.

    Craig mentioned “Someday we might live in a society where we can’t talk to anybody because we are too timid to tell them who we really are.” But we already do live in that society, don’t we? The more restricted speech becomes in the world, the less anyone will have the courage to speak out. However, there are always those few that cannot stay silent. And today we are finding more and more that don’t feel the need to keep their mouths shut.

    In closing, the last point I would like to make is that of the mainstream media’s single-mindedness about issues, whether restricted or not. There are always at least two sides to every issue, and no matter which side you are on, there always seems to be one overplayed and one never said. Whether it is about the government’s atrocities, the layman’s underhanded secrets, or even the pop stars lifestyle, why is it that the majority of the media take the same side? I’d like a bit more perspective to my news, personally.

  10. Those who praise Wikileaks and Mr. Assange, acclaiming “freedom of expression,” have no idea what they’re talking about and are mostly driven by either naivete or malice. A megadump of a quarter of a million classified U.S. govt. cables is not whistleblowing. It’s vandalism. If individuals, businesspeople, NGO’s, universities, police organizations and other institutions have legitimate reasons for keeping certain private or sensitive communications confidential, what makes governments exempt?

    By the flawed rationale of Wikileaks defenders, nobody’s communications should be private. By this rationale therefore why not have every world citizen, every bank, every corporation, every small businessperson, every law enforcement agency, every lover, you-name-it simply put everything they write out there on the internet for the whole world to view? Does this make sense? If you believe so, let’s start with your publishing for the rest of us to see your bank statements, your investments (including account numbers please), your business negotiations, your emails, your medical records, your personnel files, your love letters, etc., etc. Let’s then see what happens to you after every piece of formerly confidential information on you and your work and personal life are laid bare for humanity to feat on.

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