How Wikileaks is copying 16th-century Amsterdam

First published in the Telegraph on 1 December 2010

There was a period when British MPs would spend their every night quivering at home in terror as they waited for the latest in the Telegraph’s expenses revelations to break, hoping and praying that it wouldn’t be them. It is to Wikileaks’ credit (or shame, depending on where you stand on the matter) that with their publication of cables from US embassies and the State Department, they have managed to create that same atmosphere of paranoia around the entire diplomatic community.

But embarrassing as the revelations are, and fascinating as it is to hear the gory details of what the Americans (or for that matter Prince Andrew or Mervyn King) think of their international counterparts, don’t be fooled into thinking that Wikileaks represents something unprecedented in journalism.

Let’s recap: a source has provided a vast amount of information to a news/information organisation. After careful consultation with its lawyers, the organisation has then redacted certain bits and pieces, plucked out what it judges are the most interesting parts and published them on their website, along with stories to explain them. OK? Except… that’s wasn’t Wikileaks – that was the Telegraph’s Expenses series of stories. And the same template is true of any number of big data-heavy recent journalistic scoops (I pick the Telegraph merely because I know, since I worked there at the time, before finding my current niche as a layabout student).

There is nothing particularly novel about what Wikileaks is actually doing – it is actually rather primitive journalism – though none the less brilliant for it.

What really is different is that the site and its servers are rootless (actually they’re in Iceland and a few other places, but that’s by the by), so it is not bound by any of the national journalistic conventions traditional news providers assent to – off-the-record briefings with government officials, media laws, freedom of speech restrictions. This is what really panics Governments around the world: as irritating as they find the media, at least traditional journalists tend to behave within a set of well-defined parameters. Wikileaks does not obey those rules. There are of course important questions about whether the revelations pose a risk to national security (less so in this case than with the Iraq/Afghanistan leaks, I’d argue) and over the intentions of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange – but I leave these issues to others.

In the end, though, how revolutionary is this? This dilemma has been playing out for some time: amateur bloggers, who aren’t provided journalistic protections (hacks can sometimes print things they wouldn’t usually be allowed to if they can justify that doing so is in the public interest), have been printing what they want for some time. Some have already gone to jail for doing so.

But disregard the technological sheen; Wikileaks is even more old-fashioned than that. Back in the early days of the printing revolution, when Reformation-period governments realised the power of the printed word, they slapped as many restrictions as possible on owners of presses. About the only place without those restrictions was the Dutch Republic, and Amsterdam in particular. So it was there that pamphlets and newspapers really started to develop into the thrusting, story-breaking political animals they are today. By contrast the ones in Britain were pretty tame and confined themselves to vague moralism until the Civil War came along and changed everything. (I’m borrowing here from Asa Briggs and Peter Burke’s A Social History of the Media, and the modern-day analogy comes via Clay Shirky of NYU).

Wikileaks is to the modern world what Amsterdam was to post-reformation Europe – a subversive home of free speech, testing the patience of politicians around the world. Except this time around it doesn’t take a few days for a story to get smuggled out of the country. Thanks to the internet (the real revolutionary force here), it arrives on our screens and iPads instantly.

Will history repeat itself? Does this foreshadow far more freedom of speech – as the early Dutch newspapers did in the 16th and 17th century? One thing is for sure: governments will have to rethink their relationships with the press. They have two options: a) suppress, cutting the information off at source, or b) propagandise, engaging with the news and attempting to shape public reaction to it.

The intital signs are that they will try to do the former, shutting down as many servers as possible, potentially re-writing press laws (which are, anyway, rather chaotic things). That didn’t work in Reformation Europe; does it stand any chance of working today?