The culture of the leak

The culture of the leak

From multiple fissures, information is leaking out of the edifices of multiple establishments. Karnataka politicians leak documents about each other’s misdeeds. Somebody leaks the contents of the Niira Radia tapes to media houses. Wikileaks has its biggest year yet, its stash of diplomatic cables only the latest of thousands of documents it has procured from within the US administration. Even the design of the iPhone 4 was, inadvertently, leaked to the public. “Leak" is the word of the year.

What does it say about our culture of information that so many leaks have been sprung? Optimists ascribe it to the thriving new media spaces of the Internet, offering an option, to honest whistle-blowers, to pass on information, knowing that it will be accepted, vetted to some degree, and publicized.

Pessimists, however, will note the high-pitched whine emanating from behind the scenes, the sound made by many, many axes being ground. Perhaps this applies less in the case of Wikileaks—where documents have been purportedly passed on by lower-ranking personnel—and more in the case of the Radia tapes and the documents on B.S. Yeddyurappa’s land scams. The agendas behind some of these leaks range from transparent to somewhat obscure, but there is no doubt that the agendas exist, and that they determine what information is leaked, when, and to which sensation-starved media outlet.

The argument could be made that leaks of accurate information are always in the public good, if they reveal corruption or mismanagement. But this assumes that such revelations will spark carriages of justice—and that doesn’t always happen. After Wikileaks posted a video of a US helicopter attack in Iraq that killed journalists and civilians, a US Central Command official was able to say, within days, that the military would not reopen its investigation of the strike. By contrast, Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with leaking this video, is facing court martial. In Karnataka, Yeddyurappa continues as chief minister, bucking his party and shrugging off taint.

These incidents seem to indicate the prime limitation of the leak: What next? But they also point to the abject failure of the establishment to examine and indict itself.

Contrary to the cliché, sunlight is not always the best disinfectant. Sometimes an emetic or a powerful dose of antibiotics is needed to truly expel the disease from the body.

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