Friday, 30 November 2012

My beef with former MI5 chief

I keep hearing Stella Rimington - spy novel writer and former MI5 supremo - lashing out at WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. This troubles me. Anyone who's read Rimington's memoir about her time in the spy business knows what kind of obstructions she had to fight in order to attain the lofty position she reached during her time in the agency. And she worked to open up the agency to the public. Witness the recent publication of the enormous history of MI5 which was written by an Oxbridge don. In Australia, ASIO is set to follow suit with a history to come out next year. In her memoir, Rimington applauds the statutes enacted in the mid-90s for both MI5 and its overseas cousin, MI6 (of which the British government had refused to even admit of the existence until that time!). And she worked internally to moderate the suppressive force operating within the organisation that prevents information from getting out. But when it comes to WikiLeaks, she totally caves, saying that this new type of organisation makes spying more difficult, if not impossible.

Protecting the identity of sources is essential, we're told, in the spy business. And this holds for eternity. Even a document that I got hold of through the National Library that dates from the 1950s in Australia, prepared by ASIO, contains redactions so that the names of sources are not made public. If source names are publicised, the logic goes, then in future it would be impossible to convince people to cooperate with a spy agency. Without people's cooperation, further, the spy business is impossible. Under this logic, WikiLeaks is an existential threat to spy organisations, even more dangerous, it would seem, than the terrorists or subversives it is supposed to be against.

So Rimington throws her lot in with the authorities globally who are trying to shut down WikiLeaks. For a liberal like me this is problematic. I admire Rimington's books because they're more interesting than most other spy novels. I also admire what Rimington achieved in her professional life, and condemn the forces that obstructed her rise through the ranks at MI5. But I equally admire Assange and his organisation, WikiLeaks, because I believe that there is too much secrecy in both government and governmental administration (the two must be considered separately). Of course there's less secrecy in government itself because we have laws that force publicity upon politicians, and anyway politicians are always eager to get their messages out into the space where the electorate can consume them. Spy agencies are not part of government per se, however. Secrecy in governmental administration is the journalist's bane, and I would say in the majority of cases where journalists have been denied access to individuals in the public service or to documents produced by the public service, the public interest is being ignored.

We need more oppenness. We also need equality for women and a high lever of professionalism in the public service. We need both. I applaud Rimington for bringing her talents to bear in order to achieve two of these goals, but I condemn her for condemning WikiLeaks, which is a new type of organisation that channels unauthorised document releases into the public sphere. If that happens, government has only itself to blame. The public's appetite for concealed information - like the plethora of (mostly) trashy books written about spies - is testament to the unsatisfied curiosity of this enormous and important demographic. You cannot run government for the benefit of politicians or of government departments. Government is always - and only - to be undertaken for the benefit of all the people.

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