We have interrupted our nonstop coverage of Apple iPad mania to bring you this important word about the freedom of information, more specifically, Wikileaks.org.
I've written about Wikileaks several times over the last few years, in part because it's a classic example of why the Internet is such an extraordinary telecommunications tool.
Wikileaks is usually described as a "whistleblower" site, but it's really more of a safe haven for secrets that need to be exposed, kind of like a Swiss bank only in reverse, so it's kind of fitting that a Swiss bank is one of its most famous targets. But instead of shielding people who are trying to hide their assets, it exposes them. Thanks to the nature of the Net, confidential sources can make those secrets public without putting their own necks on the chopping block.
Admittedly, these sources sometimes break the law or their legal agreements by doing so. And Wikileaks sometimes exposes information, like personal email addresses, of people who've done nothing wrong. It's far from perfect.
Through its work, Wikileaks has exposed money-laundering banks, brainwashing cults, repressive governments, corporate scofflaws, butter-fingered politicos, and all other manner of bad actors. Not surprisingly, the org has been sued by its deep pocketed targets, harassed by the authorities, and attacked by DDoSers. Now it faces the biggest obstacle of all: money, or rather, a lack thereof.
Wikileaks announced it has been forced to suspend its operations due to a lack of funds. That sound you hear is champagne glasses clinking in the boardrooms at Bank Julius Baer, at the Scientology HQ, in the government halls of Beijing, and in other elite locations around the globe.
I can understand why the wiki's donor pool dried up. About a year ago, Wikileaks sprung a leak itself and accidentally emailed a list of its financial patrons, some of whom probably would have preferred to remain anonymous. That email was then submitted to Wikileaks, which dutifully posted it like any other document it receives from anonymous sources.
Now it's seeking donations from the public to stay afloat, as well as technical resources (like servers and storage space) and legal expertise. Its supporters have started a Facebook group (numbering about 1,200 members at press time), and other journos besides yours truly are spreading the good word.
Why support Wikileaks?
Because investigative journalism is on a respirator, and the prognosis isn't good. For one thing, this kind of reporting is expensive. You need publications that can afford to pay a professional reporter, or a team of them, to dig into a story for months or even years without any promise that they'll end up with something worth publishing. Those stories might involve the use of a private detective, and they will almost always require the services of a team of attorneys to vet the copy carefully and defend the story later in court, if required. None of that stuff comes cheap.
Still, investigative reporting was how major news dailies and dozens of glossy mags made their bones back in the day. Now the number of publications that can continue to fund this kind of reporting have been whittled down to a handful, and most of those are teetering on the brink.
These days it's all about how fast you can publish a story online, even when it bears little resemblance to reality as defined by most people, and how much Google loves you as a result. There aren't a lot of rewards for reporting and reflection there.
Sure, the blogosphere can occasionally step in and break a story, just like a blind pig occasionally stumbles across an acorn. But only for the most brain-dead simple stuff, like the wrong font used in a typewritten letter.
Most investigative breakthroughs involve detailed painstaking work, deep understanding of a topic, and the ability to earn the trust of a wide range of confidential sources who are willing to put their jobs and possibly their lives at risk just by talking to you.
Those things are not generally available to obsessive-compulsive pajama-wearing typists who may or may not be using their real names. And they certainly won't be without resources like Wikileaks, which levels the information playing field for everyone, professional and amateur journos alike.
So it's your choice. You can spend £10 on a couple of lattes and a pastry, or you can spend it on keeping information flowing just a little more freely around the world. I know which one I'd pick.