Palestinian leaks' positive side

By Daniel Finkelstein, February 9, 2011

I have just started reading a book on political hypocrisy. It has started rather well but I haven't got to the point yet. You see, the back cover promises that, by the time I get there, the book will have explained why hypocrisy is not as bad as it is usually painted. It is an honourable part of liberal democratic tradition, apparently. I hope that is right because, otherwise, I've just wasted a lot of time reading about Thomas Hobbes. But I bet Julian Assange is even keener than I am to learn that hypocrisy has its plus points.

One of my favourite moments of the last year in politics (a year with quite a lot of high points) came when Mr Assange was granted bail in London over Swedish sex allegations. Lawyers for the founder of Wikileaks then applied - get this - for his bail address to be kept secret. The defence made for this hypocrisy - that he was concerned about his security - was laughably bad. He'd have cut more ice explaining about Thomas Hobbes, I reckon.

What the bail address incident shows is that, while Mr Assange and his allies cite freedom of information as their cause, it isn't really. They are as interested in data security as the next person. Their cause is to undermine US foreign policy. A quick look at the people backing him is enough to demonstrate that.

And freedom of information was not the cause motivating the leak of the Palestinian papers so brilliantly analysed by the JC's correspondents last week. The desire for a scoop was involved, clearly, but those behind the leak were obviously hoping also to undermine Fatah moderates.

Yet the motivation behind both these leaks isn't what is important about them. Nor the content. Nor the character of the people involved. What is important is the fact of them.

The ability to publicise secret data did not exist 15 years ago

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk to a group of Tory MPs and peers about the implications of the data revolution for political parties. I explained how distributed data processing would strengthen independents and undermine party discipline. One peer - someone who had served in one of the highest Government offices - furrowed his brow as I spoke. This, he said, would be a very bad development. It would undermine the ability of Governments to make laws. It would be hard to govern if I was right.

I acknowledged his point. And then I explained that it didn't really matter whether he was correct or not. The consequence of the data revolution would be felt whether it was good or bad.

The dispersal of the ability to access and process information has changed power relations irreversibly. The most obvious recent example of this was the MPs' expenses story. The ability to obtain the secret data and to crawl all over it simply didn't exist 15 years ago. It has changed entirely the relations between MPs and those who elect them.

So whether or not we like Wikileaks or the Palestinian leaks, and leaks similar to them, and think they should have happened isn't really that important. They are going to happen whether we like them or not. Their transformative power isn't dependent upon our approval.

But, oddly, this is precisely why we should take heart from the Wikileaks and Palestinian papers saga. On the surface, we see people who wish to undermine moderate foreign policy, yet underneath it is a development that strongly favours liberal democracy and peace. And therefore favours Israel and Jews.

The data revolution has two big impacts, both of them positive. The first, as we are now witnessing in Tunisia and in Egypt, is to make authoritarian government very hard. It is not impossible, of course, as Iran shows, and as China shows and as developments in Egypt may well show. But, in the end, the fact that it is hard for governments to control information makes it hard for governments to control people. If you believe, as I do, that authoritarianism is the enemy of Jews everywhere, then this is obviously welcome.

The second impact of the data revolution is to make strangers seem, well, less strange. The basic impulse of human beings is to snuggle close to the insider and hate the outsider. The information revolution stretches our network of contacts all over the world. It makes us - on the whole, and not in the comments section of individual websites, I grant - feel peaceful feelings towards those we might otherwise wish to fight.

The Palestinian papers weren't leaked by people who wanted to advance peace. Their contents don't advance peace either. But one day we may see them as a brick on the road to peace, nonetheless.

Daniel Finkelstein is Executive Editor of 'The Times'

Last updated: 10:36am, February 9 2011