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.