Forget the Internet and digital age; July 2011 was dominated by an old tabloid newspaper, the News of the World. In case you missed it, James Murdoch announced the paper would close on 7th July after 168 years in print. One private investigator and the paper’s royal editor were jailed in 2007 for illegally hacking into the mobile phone messages of members of the royal family. Large sums were also reportedly paid to several high-profile personalities and celebrities to settle other phone hacking claims before they came to court. An ongoing police investigation revealed up to 4,000 people’s phones may have been illegally hacked, including that of a murder victim during the time she was actually missing.
But what tactics are legitimate for journalists in search of a story? Does it depend on the story or the targets? How much information, personal or otherwise, should be in the public domain? The Daily Telegraph paid for stolen information on the details of MPs’ expense claims and was widely praised for publishing it. But it was still stolen information, wasn’t it? BBC’s Panorama programme uncovered serious abuses of patients with learning difficulties at a care home in Bristol. But this involved someone posing as a care worker who secretly filmed the abuse. Again, was this legitimate? Is hacking mobile phones also legitimate if it reveals information that is ‘in the public interest’? And who decides what the public interest is, anyway?
Which brings us to Wikileaks. Founded in December 2006, the website allows anyone to submit material anonymously, mainly classified or restricted documents, videos and so on. This welter of material is then assessed by Wikileaks reviewers who decide what to publish online. Anonymity of submission encourages whistle-blowers in sensitive positions to contribute. Founder Julian Assange sees Wikileaks as a radical opening up of information so that people can see what is done in their name. In his words: ‘We are an intelligence agency of the people, casting pearls before swine.’
By making available military documents, secret diplomatic communications, email conversations and much more, Wikileaks opens up the behind-the-scenes machinery of international diplomacy and realpolitik.
Many governments see Wikileaks’ radical openness as dangerous and irresponsible. Web-hosting companies and financial firms such as Mastercard, Visa and Paypal, have withdrawn their services. Has it compromised national security? Has it put soldiers and undercover operations in danger? Could it ruin personal relationships in international relations and damage trade links? The ‘information age’ wasn’t meant to include this, was it?
Sociologically though, Wikileaks fits perfectly into the global age. Sociologists used to talk of the zeitgeist or ‘spirit of the times’, an indefinable cultural ethos in specific periods. This concept has fallen out of favour, maybe because it has too many ‘spiritual’ undertones for an empirical social science. But it is still helpful. One way of tapping into the zeitgeist is to look at specific trends which coalesce into an overall pattern. Wikileaks is part of a growing trend towards freedom of information and open communication, which can be found in many other areas of social life. Here are a few examples.
Job applicants can request to see ‘confidential’ references, local and national government make policy documents and expense claims publicly available online and freedom of information requests can uncover the salaries of public employees. Confessional TV encourages people to share their deepest secrets and reality TV broadcasts the minutiae of contestants’ everyday (but contrived) lives in real time. Tracy Emin’s ‘confessional art’ turns everyday experience into artworks, laying bare the intimate details of the artist’s life. Open-plan offices, open-plan interiors for homes, glass sheets replacing solid walls and large, open kitchen-diners are all de rigueur. Light is good, dark is bad. Giddens, Beck and others have also explored the way that frank and open communication has moved to the centre of intimate relationships. Mutual disclosure is demanded as a sign of trust and not to disclose brings mistrust and enmity.
But is complete openness necessarily good? The News of the World scandal suggests there may be limits. Richard Sennett saw the demand for openness and mutual disclosure as vestiges of Gemeinschaft, those community values and bonds that Ferdinand Tönnies described as authentic, solid and stable compared to the loose, fleeting mere associations (Gesellschaft) that typify urban life. Sennett argued that a return to small-scale life on the land is not realistic, but the Gemeinschaft ideal persists, mutated into the desire for open communication. Yet under modern conditions this ideal is destructive, infiltrating public life and politics, turning politicians into celebrities assessed on their personal qualities (as presented on TV), not their policies or what they actually do in power.
The ideal of entirely open relations, said Sennett, mistakenly assumes that the self is a box of delights, rather than the cabinet of horrors we all know it to be. Can we really handle hearing everything that others think, feel and say about us, however nasty or distressing? Anyone who has sent a ‘private’ email to the ‘wrong’ person, or indeed received one, will understand the problem. Not everything we think about each other ought to be out in the open. How else can people who don’t necessarily like each other get along well enough to work together for a common good? Some things are best kept to ourselves if there’s to be any sort of liveable, civilized life for us all.
Sennett’s argument cuts against the grain of the Zeitgeist. Can international diplomacy survive the opening up of every email, letter and phone call to public scrutiny? Will open communication improve our political culture? Will the Wikileaks principle enhance our freedoms or poison the emerging global society? Over the next few years it seems, we are about to find out.
Development of the mass media and the digital revolution are discussed in Chapter 17, The Media. Sociological theories of intimate relations are covered in Chapter 9, Families and Intimate Relationships, especially pp. 329-31 and 371-6. Tönnies’s ideas of Gemeinschaft are briefly outlined on pp. 208-9.
Philip W. Sutton