a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Keeping an eye on Big Brother

For most of the past century, society has grown used to the idea of Big Brother watching us all.

Big Brother still does of course. But increasingly, thanks to Access to Information laws, advances in technology and changed attitudes, we have been keeping an eye on Big Brother.

WikiLeaks has provided us all with a reminder of that.

What is interesting about the latest document dump by WikiLeaks is how governments, business and other institutions seem to be resigned to a new age of disclosure.

Remember all the predictions a few weeks ago about international upheaval because thousands of pages of U.S. diplomatic cables were about to appear on the WikiLeaks site.

Well those documents are now out in the public realm and the international world seems to be stumbling along as well as it usually does. In fact, the very politicians who predicted chaos now seem to be dismissing WikiLeaks as a nuisance.

Sure, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be in a heap of legal trouble. The site may wind up being shut down, at least temporarily. But there will likely be someone else ready to step in with a replacement.

With a few exceptions, most of the material being disclosed on WikiLeaks can be classified as little more than gossip. And as long as human nature is what it is, there will be a demand.

Diplomats will go on speaking in euphemisms, extending insincere courtesies, and nudging and winking at each other. Governments will go on making deals with each other. And the world will remain as unstable tomorrow as it was before WikiLeaks.

Some of the web sites devoted to the public relations industry are now filled with chatter about adequate crisis planning just in case WikiLeaks blabs sensitive corporate secrets. No doubt some enterprising PR firms are already marketing Wikileaks damage control packages.

Bank of America is rumoured to be putting together a special WikiLeaks SWAT team because the bank believes the web site has some of its internal documents.

What’s interesting is how much Wikileaks is altering the media landscape so quickly.

A case in point is Canada’s spy agency, CSIS. For several years, CSIS directors past and present have been saying that the courts are too inflexible in dealing with terrorism threats. But CSIS could never get much traction in the media.

Thanks to disclosure by WikiLeaks of remarks by former CSIS director Jim Judd, the agency’s longstanding lament finally appeared on front pages across the country last week. A lot of government spindoctors will be assuming a sure way of getting something in the media is to leak it to WikiLeaks.

The Prime Minister’s Office seems to have developed a WikiLeaks play of its own.

As we know, William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, offered his resignation after he discovered the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted him as saying very unflattering things about Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

We know he offered to quit because his resignation offer was leaked to the Globe and Mail and National Post.

The RCMP is investigating this leak. But they probably don’t have to look too far for the leaker because the PMO had the most to gain.

Governments like to appear to be in front of a developing story instead of struggling to catch up.

The strategic leak is a time-honoured tool of all governments. Both the strategic government leak and now web sites like WikiLeaks will be around for a long time.


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