Saturday, December 04, 2010

A drop in the notion

Drops, Kodakotype by Pants

In 1953, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a serious stroke and was taken to his country home to recover. Under these circumstances, you would expect the PM's deputy to take over. Unfortunately, Anthony Eden was also quite sick. What to do?

The solution was to keep the job in the family and the British public in the dark. Churchill's closest aide, Christopher Soames, who also happened to be his son-in-law, sat in an outer Whitehall office gleefully making executive decisions which he then legitimised by forging the prime-ministerial signature for the four months of Churchill's recuperation.

Brushing the impropriety aside decades later, Churchill's daughter, the Baroness (Mary) Soames, ruefully quipped that people knew how to keep confidences in those days.

Fast-forward to the year 2010 and the WikiLeaks melodrama now stalking the world's stage like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In other words, a highly anticipated statement of the bleedin' obvious with crass song'n'dance routines but the kind of train-wreck allure that compels you to line up for hours in order to throw good money at it, despite the certain knowledge that the only thing 'hot' about it will be the air it exudes.

The whole 'who knewness' of the dripfed titbits is a cheap sideshow. US embassies acting as a spying network? Get outta town! Karzai corrupt? Bombshell! Russia controlled by Mafia? Zdra-stvu-eetee! Berlusconi vain, feckless and anybody's? Mamma Mia! Gordon Brown rubbish? Here's a feather - go your hardest! I know this stuff. Next door's cat knows this stuff. The Hermit of Mink Hollow knows this stuff.

The main event here is not the information itself, but the wholesale capture and dissemination of it, and what that means for the kind of opaque, fork-tongued 'diplomacy' that is the status quo. We are all John le Carré now.

The lust for the head of Julian Assange is also a sideshow. It's a case of training your WMDs on the messenger. Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Atlantic says,

The "culprit" is the Internet, and how it facilitates asymmetrical power and transparency and removes any individual's responsibility for that transparency and asymmetry. No single editor or newspaper editor had to take the hit for this. No one could stop it. Even if every MSM outlet refused to publish these, the blogosphere would soon swarm over downloads which could be shifted from server to server.

The only way to stop this is to ensure that no one in the entire government has access to non-top-secret info (impossible) or that government itself return to the days of carrier pigeons. This is our new reality. The character or crimes of Julian Assange are a red herring.

Culprit? Now that is a word that implies agency, even if you hang quotes around it. Blaming the internet for this is a bit like blaming the washing machine for turning your underwear pink or the oven for burning your cake. And, as Sullivan points out, that particular genie is out and proud.

So, let's return to the Churchillian AWOL from high office. The proprietorial assumptions Mary Soames deploys to dismiss what is clearly a very wrong thing to have done are outrageously risible but the only thing that has really changed in the last sixty years is the potential for damage flowing from the badly kept official secret.

Officials still do very wrong things and expect to get away with them. We are all Spencer-Churchills now. The most junior public servant, not to mention your average fourteen-year-old with a laptop and the price of a Big Mac, is capable of the cyber equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

That world leaders and their diplomatic representatives behave like petulant children and worse is no big revelation. We all knew that. It is palpable. The real leak here is the poison that is leaching into every aspect of global society by the march down the ranks of such arrogant venality. When it was confined to the aristocracy, the bad behaviour was containable and didn't appear to corrupt everything. No one ever looked to the Lords for moral guidance.

But now every developed-world municipality has a frontline of robotic little Hitlers poised to pounce on the slightest civic infringement while their bosses bounce from conference to conference in the name of 'networking'. Ostensibly, they're claiming to be sharing around their 'best practice' but since no better ways of doing anything at all ever result, we can only assume these beanos are actually dedicated to shag surfing and job hunting. Accountability - don't make me laugh. The quest for personal power at the expense of decency is universally lauded, and it's learned much lower down the management ladder these days.

If there is now no such thing as an unguarded moment in diplomatic circles, then surely this is a timely opportunity for a review of personal motivation and behaviour on the part of those we entrust with maintaining global civility. What it should not be is an excuse to hunt down a man who sets up a website to serve the public interest on what appear to be trumped-up rape charges. Given that most rapes are cynically dismissed and the victims vilified rather than supported, it is shameful to be exploiting rape as an excuse for a show trial in this context.

There's an old saying, 'it's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the world'. My message to all the reprobates whose tongues got caught in the WikiLeaks mincing machine would be, if you don't want your ships sunk, keep your lips together and your fat fingers away from the keyboard, especially after you've had a few. And if you don't want to come across as an arsehole, don't act like one. Much more efficient to change the culture than to go back to using carrier pigeons. Less messy too...