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Saturday, 18 December 2010

In the public sphere trust is a commodity and we pay for it, either with actual money or with our attention. The media is deeply involved in this market of trust, and newspapers try to project an image of themselves as trusted sources of information. But there are other important actors, too. Politicians attempt to project a trustworthy persona in the public sphere. The media, for its part, bolsters its claim on our credulity by using experts such as university researchers and teachers in the articles it publishes. There are other experts, as well, including people who work at non-profit organisations and think tanks.

Then there's WikiLeaks, a new actor in the public sphere and one whose trustworthyness is currently being tested. Since the release of classified US military information earlier this year, the authorities there have been trying to erode the quantum of credibility WikiLeaks possesses in the public sphere. The Swedish "rape" claim - it's not a charge yet - may be beside the point, technically, but by throwing at least a modicum of opprobrium at WikiLeaks, Swedish authorities have achieved what the US government has so far been unable to achieve: create a compelling spectacle in which WikiLeaks is forced to defend itself against a threat to its credibility.

From the outset, US authorities have tried to call into question the very premise and platform WikiLeaks uses to justify its existence. So far, there are those who support WikiLeaks on principle - which includes a large proportion of people working in the media (WikiLeaks has gifted them a slew of interesting stories) - and then there are those who are on-principle against WikiLeaks. This latter camp includes politicians everywhere. Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was forced to explain her comments on WikiLeaks (she had said that Julian Assange's actions were "illegal") yesterday in a media conference slated to deal with a separate issue. Her solution to the dilemma raised by being paired off against the whistleblower clearinghouse was to say that the initial event (the taking of diplomatic cables from the source) was illegal. She said she was "not a fan" (as though those who support WikiLeaks are mere 'fans' of the site). And she resuscitated the old chestnut about the possibility that third parties mentioned in the cables could be endangered by the WikiLeaks release. This has been the US government's line from the beginning. So far, there is no evidence that anyone has faced a threat due to the release.

Public players such as the Australian prime minister and the US government are fighting not only against WikiLeaks but also against the entrenched distrust they face all the time in the public sphere. Trust is not easily earned. Trust is a commodity that these players cannot simply buy by repeating their condemnations against WikiLeaks because each time they condemn it they are drawing down on their "capital reserves", as it were. In Julia Gillard's case - she came to power in August - there is a fair bit in reserve yet, one would imagine. The US government is in a more tenuous position because it's precisely this unelected complex of departments, managers, policies, and tenured positions that is being questioned by WikiLeaks. In short, it's a bloodbath.

Which explains why these guys are hammering away at WikiLeaks' credibility tooth-and-nail. So far, there has been no attempt on the part of the authorities to discuss the leaked cables. The only way that has been used so far has been to attack WikiLeaks itself. The authorities know that they lost a certain segment of the population a long time ago. Those people are not their audience in the current fracas. The real audience is the uncommitted majority who continue to place trust in, for example, the media. For the most part, the people who are best placed to question the media are already on the side of WikiLeaks. The ones who didn't do a master's degree in international studies or whatever - they're the ones still in play.

The notion of trust in the public sphere is an old one. Jurgen Habermas' seminal book, where the term "public sphere" was coined (as Ben Eltham reminds us - thanks Ben) came out in English in 1962. But in 1961 there was another publishing event relevant to the current post. It was the publication of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in A Strange Land, a science fiction novel about the return to Earth of a young man raised on Mars in an atlernative civilisation. Heinlein invented a class of player in the public sphere of his novel called a "Fair Witness". From Wikipedia: "Fair Witnesses are prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe." They are favoured people in the society, and they are trusted for their objectivity. The fact that they're in a science fiction novel should tell us a lot about the way Heinlein viewed the media. It's still a problem today, and WikiLeaks will continue to enjoy privileged status for many observers of this international drama. The longer they continue, the more trust they will generate in the public sphere.

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