Shooting the messenger to discredit the message

From ancient times, envoys, messengers, heralds and town criers have all had to live with the risk of the messages they delivered incensing their audiences sufficiently to cause a backlash against the messenger. “Shooting the messenger” is then the metaphoric expression of this illogical but understandable lashing out against the bearer of bad news. Envoys and heralds were sometimes arrested or beheaded and sent back not just because the message was disliked but to create and transmit a new message by the action itself.

But it is only in modern times with the advent of readily available duplication (micro-film, photocopiers, magnetic tapes, electronic scanning and now cut-and-paste) and of easy dissemination across the globe (fax, computers, email and internet) that the leaking of confidential documents has come into its own. That confidential documents have always existed and will always exist is axiomatic and it is not only governments that have an interest in keeping documents secret. While the act of keeping some information secret may well be to hide some wrongdoing, it is not in itself indicative of illegality. Nevertheless the judgement that something needs to be kept secret is in itself  acknowledgement that the information would cause harm – to someone – if disclosed.

“Whistleblowing” – defined as revealing wrongdoing which is being kept secret – is now taken to be  admirable whether the wrongdoings are by politicians or governments or corporations.  Legislation is in place in many countries ostensibly to “protect” whistleblowers but is usually quite ineffective in preventing reprisals against the whistleblower. Often the legislation is intentionally ineffective and the only purpose is to project an image of “open government” but not actually to permit the disclosure of government secrets. Reprisals have often been crude and violent. In India, whistleblowers have even been killed out of hand. So-called Freedom of Information legislation also strives to maintain this balance of creating an impression of openness but where what is desired to be kept secret can be maintained secret (either by rejection of the request or by introducing delays or by deletion of sensitive information).

The messengers today are often a part of the message. Whistleblowing may have a political agenda. Whistleblowers may be political activists trying to mobilise the forces of public opinion. “Shooting the messenger” in the form of discrediting the messenger or his objectives has now come to be seen as a legitimate method of trying to discredit the message. This was attempted in the Climategate disclosures. Numerous articles were written to label the disclosure the work of a “hacker” (and therefore an illegal act) rather than that of a “leaker” (and therefore the act of an internal whistleblower). In the event the substance of the revelations carried their own weight and even so called “whitewash” enquiries carried out to downplay the substance of the revelations have not been very successful.

Logo used by Wikileaks

Wikileaks: image via Wikipedia

In October this year Wikileaks disclosed the Iraq War Logs. Governments around the world first tried to prevent the release by claiming that people would be in danger of their lives and security would be undermined. Nobody denied that the information was authentic. Once the material had been released, the objectives of the release and the people behind the release were attacked. Governments across the world cooperated to try and discredit the messages. “National Security concerns” became the common theme for the governments in the US and Australia and the UK. The Swedish authorities have accused the Wikileaks founder (Julian Assange) of rape and attempted rape in a crude and rather bizarre incident – but presumably as part of a concerted effort to prevent further revelations. But the information revealed about the number of civilians killed in Iraq and the manner of their killing can no longer be kept secret.

Now, further revelations of confidential US State Department information are expected from Wikileaks. The attacks on the messenger have started. The US government has contacted scores of other governments to try and defuse and discredit the information before it is disclosed. As the BBC writes:

The plan by whistleblower website Wikileaks to release millions more classified US documents will put lives at risk and damage national security, the state department has warned. A spokesman said it would do harm to US international relations if the leaks contained diplomatic cables.

The Pentagon said US military interests could also be damaged. The Wikileaks website said the US authorities were afraid of being held to account.

The state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, said the release of confidential communications was “harmful to our national security. It does put lives at risk. It does put national interests at risk”. Mr Crowley said that diplomatic cables involved discussions with governments and private citizens, and their release could erode trust in the US as a diplomatic partner. “They are going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world,” he said. “When this confidence is betrayed and ends up on the front pages of newspapers or lead stories on television or radio, it has an impact,” Mr Crowley said.

It is notable that when information is disclosed there is not much effort expended in denying the authenticity of the information. Instead the focus is more and more on attacking the purpose of the disclosure and on attacking the messengers. But even the most horrifying disclosures do not seem to have increased the accountability of governments or their desire to justify their behaviour. “National Security” is the new mantra they can hide behind.

But I cannot help thinking that this tendency of governments, politicians and officials increasingly to attack the messenger is ultimately due to an inability to stand up for one’s own behaviour. It boils down to a lack of courage.


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One Response to “Shooting the messenger to discredit the message”

  1. Former head of India’s counter-terrorism division expects next Wikileaks release to be about corruption « The k2p blog Says:

    […] ease of information dissemination and increased covert operations by governments around the world, attacks on the messenger only reduce the credibility of the attacker and are counter-productive. B. Raman: image […]

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