I’m not sure if my presence on this panel as a former Director General for Defence and Intelligence at the Foreign Office is intended to inject a note of scepticism or ensure you get a robust defence of the virtues of secrecy.
It’s not too difficult to think why some recent developments might not be unmitigated good news for diplomats. But while it is possible to argue about the effects of wikileaks and the rise of social media, perhaps the first point to make is that they are part of a process that cannot be reversed. Politicians and diplomats, like everyone else, are going to have to learn to live in - and adapt to – a new, more transparent world.
This is not just the result of wikileaks and social media. Even before the advent of the internet many democracies were set on giving the public greater access to information. The UK’s Freedom of Information Act coincided with the rise of the internet but was conceived independently of it. In the UK the growth of judicial review and enforced disclosure of evidence in cases like Binyam Mohammed have probably opened up the workings of government, including the most secret, more than the internet.
Nevertheless we should not underestimate the changes taking place. Not surprisingly, these are most striking in places where freedom of information has been curtailed.
There is a debate going on about how important a role social media played in events in Egypt and Tunisia. But there is not much doubt that we saw something new. Social media allowed citizens not just to be consumers of information but to share that information, to connect and to organise. The death at the hands of the police of an Egyptian activist, Khaled Said, resulted in a Facebook Group entitled “We are all Khaled Said” with half a million members. This group helped organise and publicise the 25 January “Day of Rage” which kicked off the protest movement. The gathering storm seems to have been swept along by a combination of social media and traditional media like Al Jazeera who broadcast coverage of the demonstrations – some of it provided by the demonstrators themselves who took photos and videos on their mobiles and uploaded them to social networking sites. By the time the authorities shut down the internet and later mobile networks it was too late.
Social media networks allow citizens to realise they are not alone, giving them the courage and the opportunity to act. As such these networks appear well suited to single issue campaigns. Given the right political and economic conditions, they have helped mobilise the protest movements we have seen in theMiddle East. But how effective will they be when it comes to what happens next?
Decisions about how those countries should now move forward are complex and contested, and it will be interesting to see what role social media will play in helping to formulate those decisions.
Access to more information and greater transparency should lead to better informed citizens. This in turn should mean more accountability and greater participation which should strengthen democratic processes. John Kampfner, writing recently in the Guardian about Wikileaks, said “the days when governments and corporations believed they had a right to secrecy to protect their narrow interests or save them from embarrassment are gone”. But does freedom of information mean an information free-for-all, in which anything can or should be made publicly available regardless of whether there might be justifications for maintaining confidentiality or privacy? If well informed citizens are good for democracy, is transparency good for diplomacy and government?
There is sometimes a case for whistle-blowing – leaking aimed at exposing errors and abuse of power. Wikileaks has some creditable achievements in this area. But the release of 250,000 State Department cables – judging admittedly by the small fraction so far published – does not appear to be about whistle-blowing.
These cables have not shown the US government up to its neck in conspiracies, cover-ups or other abuses of power. What they have brought to public view is, by-and-large, the normal traffic of diplomacy – information that governments prefer to keep confidential for the sake of their working relationships with other governments. This seems to me to raise some legitimate concerns.
Here I think it’s worth recalling the exemptions built into the Freedom of Information Act. These include national security, defence, international relations and the formulation of government policy. Negotiating with other governments, finding compromises, or working out the details of domestic policy, will always be more difficult if everything is open to public scrutiny. Getting diplomats to speak frankly, or advisers to give candid advice, will be impossible if their confidences cannot be respected. Without frank speaking, the quality of information on which governments must base their decisions deteriorates.
There are good, practical reasons why those FOI exemptions were written into the Act.
I said that we cannot turn back the tide. Much of the social media revolution has the potential to improve democratic accountability and participation. More information can and should be made available through legitimate channels. Governments should be exposed when they abuse their power or make mistakes. But governments are nevertheless justified in trying to keep some of what they do confidential. In the wake of Wikileaks, the American and every other government will be busy improving their cyber security. But since no security arrangements are likely to be entirely leak-proof, I suspect one adaptation to recent events is that some highly sensitive discussions are going to take place without detailed records or without records at all. The cause of transparency may not have it all its own way.
Former UK Special Representative for Iraq and Director General Defence and Intelligence at the FCO