Wednesday, November 30, 2011

@x7o on CharlieBeckett's #LSEwikiLeaks talk

Charlie Beckett gave a talk to promote his new book. Twitterer @x7o went along and tweeted all the following using the #LSEwikileaks hashtag. I have cut-pasted them here in chronological order for readability.

Commencing #timeslip #livetweet of talk by Charlie Beckett.

Beckett is, in many ways, more fair about the implications of WL than MSM is typically. Believes it is transformative.

Nevertheless, rhetorically bound to appeal to audience by reference to common slurs on the Assange in order to make point.

Effect of this is to pass over - at least in talk - some of the more important lessons of WL.

What we get, then, is a homogenized version of WL's value. The language is conciliatory, and sues for superficial balance.

Balance, here, means failing to fight battles on lines that the 'liberal' UK media have staked out. Numerous falsehoods.

The sense that these are battles he feels are not worth fighting, if only to impart some of the urgency of WL to media.

Beckett introduced by Sonia Livingstone. He is head of LSE POLIS think tank.

He begins by relating a bike accident that happened yesterday. Cheap shot that Assange might have said it was the CIA.

Usual self-satisfied chuckles from older throats. Implied consensus among audience is that Assange is a wacko paranoiac.

That this is a safe jibe is telling. Media smear largely successful in marginalizing Assange as silly.

Now Beckett does a quick audience poll. Raise hands who is a "supporter" of WL. Perhaps 15% of audience raises hand. Young.

Now he asks, who is an opponent of WL? Nobody raises hand. Nervous amusement among audience.

Beckett explains, though he worked as a BBC journalist, he would never describe himself as a supporter of a media organization.

"Support" of a media organization suggests partisanship, and is a category error in approach to a media org, he suggests.

He says that the prevalence of "support" for a media org, WL, suggests the extent to which media is changed by WL.

He might have remarked, but doesn't, about how WL does not deny it is - besides a press org - dedicated to pursuit of justice.

"Everyone has their own Wikileaks" he says. This is possible, because it is dynamic and vague in form. Changes a lot.

Beckett: Wikileaks has a history, and has changed a lot over its history, and is therefore hard to put a shape on.

Wikileaks, he says, is not a wiki, and never was. This is not true. It was a user-edited wiki in the beginning.

Users, he says, have no control over what happens. It is a closed system. Untransparent. Little interactivity with site.

Beckett: It has no home, being transnational. Virtually immune to conventional sanctions. Tax, regulation, unaccaountable.

Beckett: Wikileaks is journalism.

Beckett: Wikileaks is, in many ways, very traditional journalism, contrary to how many press orgs have tried to position it.

He says that the idea of leaks is something that goes back to 17th century pamphleteering. "nothing new here."

The idea that it might have positive political commitments is also nothing new. There are plenty of good forebears here.

Furthermore, the fact that it has a personality at its centre is not new. Many press figures are charismatic, crazy, he says.

Assange, he says, put himself at the centre of WL deliberately. But, he says, we must look beyond ego. Appeal to narrative.

Here, we can see an appeal to the common belief inculcated by Guardian that WL is an ego trip for Assange.

Anyway, Beckett says that there is nothing new about eccentricity. What is important is bigger than this.

As a source, editor and publisher of information, Wikileaks is a news organization uncontroversially, says Beckett.

Wikileaks, though, he thinks, is important for what it tells us about the media we have. Important case study.

Wikileaks exposes a battleground over which will be won the future of news media, thinks Beckett.

So why does it matter, he asks? First, we must look at WL's history. He gives us a nutshell history.

His nutshell history is somewhat accurate, but glosses over the intellectual history of the organization.

The theoretical underpinnings of the WL project, well documented, are telescoped into a psychoanalytic tale about Assange.

We hear about how Assange "perceived" injustice during his hacking days, over which he "had a lot of anger."

In the abstract, it sounds positively teenaged and inchoate. Theoretical fine points of secrecy theory and cypherpunks mute.

Various quiet approving hums in the theatre, as Wikileaks' history reduced to the revenge fantasy of a teenage insurgent.

Assange, we learn from Beckett, didn't really care about transparency. He wanted to use disclosure to fight for justice.

The mention of 'justice' brings a grunt from behind me. Smirks. Easy not to take seriously the way it was presented.

Beckett neglects to characterize this rather sophisticated stance in the way Wikileaks does, which is more representative:

Assange says: "The cause is justice, the method is transparency, but we do not put the method before the cause."

Beckett claims that, before the US leaks, Wikileaks was not very well known or popular.

He gives credit where it is due, and says that WL did some great work, in Kenya, while diminishing its significance somewhat.

No mention of the Kaupthing episode in Iceland. No mention of the Trafigura case in UK, or the Nadhmi Auchi censorships.

As a counterpoint to the Kenya case he invokes the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority disclosure. Intended comic banality.

Please see Assange's comments on this issue pursuant to this Aftergood post:…

There is the tone of a pat on the head to the relation of the Kenya work.

Anyhow, we are told, Wikileaks was ignored until Collateral Murder came along. (false)

Beckett shows us some clips of Collateral Murder. The first clip is from the unedited film. We see the van being torn apart.

The helicopter gunner remarks "nice."

Now, Beckett plays a segment from the edited film, as the men cross the road before being fired upon.

The heli crew false positive the camera equipment as weapons. We also see that some of the men carry possible weapons.

End of footage. Beckett remarks, the CM video shows the reality of modern war. He could be quoting Assange in his praise here.

It was shocking, it was very newsworthy, it was deeply troubling.

But, says Beckett, the edited version was edited. It was editorialized. It was prefaced with an Orwell quote.

There was a clearly intended interpretation to this version of the video. WL were encouraging a reading. Distortion of a sort.

Beckett is clear: This is not unusual. This is *what conventional journalists do.*

Beckett is not one who sees the editorializing as a sinister feature, as many media orgs pretended to.

Instead, Beckett sees editorializing as exercise of a new faculty by WL, bringing it more in line with classical journalism.

WL were manipulating material to make a strong case, he says. Quick to say, unlike most MSM, original material given too.

CM, says Beckett, failed to have the intended effect on the world. Mostly ignored by US media. No change in FORPOL.

Beckett: Nevertheless, it proved that WL were able to do something that the MSM could not do, or had not been willing to do.

He does not mention the possible suppression of the same footage by the WaPo, or David Finkel.

The subsequent leaks, however, says Beckett, got the notice that "Assange wanted." Again, reduced to crusade of one man.

The leaks WL brought out in 2010 were dream material for any journalist. Doesn't matter they were not top secret. Valuable.

WL, he says, realized they could only have the impact they wanted if they collaborated with the MSM for skill, brand, audience

Beckett: Assange later claimed it was a 'tactical alliance' but this is to belie how much WL needed MSM.

The materials were not "dumped" he says. A common media slogan. They were trickled, overseen, and collated carefully.

There was, says Beckett, a struggle for control over this process. Recriminations. Then, an uncontrolled release.

Beckett seems to implicitly place the blame for the uncontrolled release on WL, instead of on David Leigh.

He claims there were different ethical standards for risk taken. JA, he claims, was willing to risk more than the MSM.

He says all the journalists he has talked to would be prepared to work with WL again, if they had something new.

He believes that WL probably would do the same.

He calls the use of MSM by WL a "network exploit." To tap into immunity, cheapness, scale of publishing, etc.

Beckett: WL expoited the network of MSM, bequeathing skill, distribution, brand, reputation, etc.

This, he claims, exemplifies what Chadwick calls "the networked media." Includes source, activists, MSM and active audience.

"from an infographic in the new york times, right down to a tweet from a wikileaks supporter." I'll take the latter, frankly.

Wikileaks was so effective, claims Beckett, that it came under attack from all sides.

Governments sought to marginalize WL and destroy it. Journalists accused it of breaking sacred ethical codes.

Most serious, says Beckett, is the financial blockade by corporations controlling financial infrastructure.

This is most serious, says Beckett. All over the world, these actions are being used by regimes to justify their own actions.

The allegations surface from the world's tyrants that the West is no more open or free, and it is hard to respond robustly.

Freedom of expression, says Beckett, is not an absolute right. Must show that they are responsible.

To deserve freedom of expression, he seems to say, one must show that one is prepared to be responsible.

Wikileaks, he claims, demonstrated it was not responsible.

He seems to lay the Leigh's disclosure of the password for Cablegate entirely at WL's hands.

He claims Wikileaks had no understanding of the cause and effect of its actions.

He claims Wikileaks was not accountable.

He claims that Wikileaks had no sense of moral accountability.

He claims Wikileaks, as it is, is unsustainable and irresponsible.

This said, he hopes WL does not die, though it is severely endangered. He jokes that he needs something to write books about.

He asks, is not the real revolution happening elsewhere, somewhere quieter?

He asks, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is the real revolutionary? Too little disbelief in audience that he suggests this, frankly.

He links Facebook to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Just as an aside, Mark Zuckerberg once said this:

""a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant right now than people dying in africa" - arab spring architect.

Mark Zuckerberg is a banal moron who accidentally designed the Stasi dream machine. He is as far from revolutionary as can be.


Beckett goes on for a bit about the social movements enabled by the internet. "not going to end capitalism overnight."

Aftermath of Wikileaks has been the transformation of the closed press to become more open, articulate to internet.

Something that must be addressed, he says, is public skepticism about the MSM and the political establishment.

:The new era of citizen journalism has disintermediated world events, and provoked distrust of establishment channels.

The old order, he claims, cannot be reasserted. Wikileaks has changed the landscape forever. Harbinger of greater change.

The problem is not a problem of business model. It is a problem of a changing, more complex world.

Beckett thinks that that complexity is good, because there lies in it the potential for greater understanding and better media

Journalism, he says, is about holding power to account. In this, the role of outsider journalism will become more crucial.

He believes that there is a place for both the outsider (Assange) and the Oxford liberals (Rusbridger.)

Pardon me: Oxbridge.

What we have seen is a series of challenges to the status quo. Failings of MSM exposed. Mediation of power exposed.

Beckett claims that the partisan approach to judging the saga has prevented people from learning from it.

Taking notice of what WL signifies is more important than each little battle, he claims.

We must, he says, ignore Assange's ego. (Once again, appealing to the ego story.) Moral censure besides the point.

Beckett: Secrecy is still the biggest threat. Complexity is welcome. WL is networked media. We need it more than ever.

Just to summarize, I think Beckett is quite sympathetic, but straddles an uncomfortable fence for much of the time.

He's quite fair about the impact of Wikileaks' work, and more cognizant of the criticisms of MSM that WL raises.

He seems to feel beholden to now established "wisdom" about Assange's motivations and WL's ethical record.

Perhaps, in his book, he engages more explicitly with the theoretical basis for WL. That is interesting.

I speak here of "Conspiracy as Governance" and related writings.

On the face of it, the lecture seemed to advocate a rather tepid defense of WL ultimately.

Beckett is severely critical of financial blockade, but the impression is that it's more on principle. Which is fine, really.

He believes WL is important, not in itself, but because of what we can learn from it.

This fits in well with the artificial UK consensus that WL is a thing of the past, and that that's sort of as it should be.

He very much preferred the Guardian's version of events on how the unredacted cablegate was disclosed.

He actually recommended the Guardian's account of this to a questioner, with only a slight caveat about partiality.

He also recommended the MoreFour documentary as an account of same. (haven't seen it.)

I feel that the deeper significance of Wikileaks was passed over.

@x7o also posted his phone-typed notes from the post-speech Q&A session here:

Thanks to @x7o for this! Beckett says he will post a podcast later, but I think this analysis is probably more useful. I hope @CharlieBeckett reads it and ponders his failings.

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