Steve Richards: Wikileaks: Lack of information isn't the problem

The leak is on such a scale the intake of breath is greater, but it is the mechanism that is sensational and not the words that arrive

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We are deluged with information. It is difficult to know where to turn this week without being hit by another torrent of revelatory words. Yesterday, we read Mervyn King's various memos and emails in which his views on Cameron, Osborne and the deficit were made a little more vividly clear than they were before. King's hawkish views on the economy, and his naive misjudgement that the Conservative leadership might not share them, are there for all to read.

The Wikileaks scoops pour forth. From titans and tyrants in the Middle East, to a Bank of England Governor, in the UK there is no escape. Their words are reported in the brightest of colours because they were not written for public consumption. A locked door is open. As we look inside we discover that one of the revelations about the Wikileaks publications is that they are not revelatory. They confirm publicly available information and take us behind the scenes, like a tour of a theatre for an audience that has already seen the production. If the stories of recent days are reversed, they would have been mind-blowing exclusives: "Mervyn King called for increases in public spending!"; "Israel relaxed about Iran's nuclear ambitions!" Instead, the mechanism of a leak generates excitement over predictable and unsurprising information. In this case the leak is on such a gargantuan scale that the intake of breath is even greater. But it is the mechanism that is sensational, not the words that arrive as a result.

As Prime Minister in the early 1990s John Major once complained that no one ever paid any attention to his policy announcements. He suggested desperately, but also insightfully, that if he left a speech in a brown envelope for someone to discover, his words would be on every front page and portrayed as a terrible embarrassment and a sensational leak. Major was speaking on the eve of history, before the explosion of the internet. But his words apply now. Important information is publicly available and unknown while leaks appear more significant than they often are.

I find that the biggest revelation in recent days came in a column from my esteemed colleague, John Rentoul, last Sunday, before the Wikileaks volcano had erupted. Writing on comments made by Howard Flight about the link between levels of benefit and "breeding" habits, Rentoul cited an old report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies: "It found that since Labour increased child-related benefits in 1999 there was an increase in births by around 15 per cent among the group affected by the reforms." The paper was published in December 2008, and was called "Does welfare reform affect fertility?". I had not read it and did not know of its existence until Sunday.

As far as I can tell the only person in the Western world who knew about the IFS study was Rentoul, even though it was publicly available. In contrast, anyone in the Western world with a passing interest will know about Mervyn, David and George. Indeed, anyone interested would have already known before this week's publications.

Mervyn King has expressed his resolutely alarmist views in speeches and in front of the Treasury Select Committee. In the final years of the last government he was more powerful than the Prime Minister and Chancellor, both of whom were heading for electoral defeat. Brown and Darling did not feel strong enough to remove King when his first term ended and so the non-elected Governor has spoken with the authority of someone who would be around for some time to come.

King told the Treasury Committee publicly in the spring of 2009 that there was no scope for a further fiscal stimulus in the UK, while Brown was touring the world urging other countries to increase public spending in advance of hosting the G20. Brown's entourage could never tell whether the sabotage was deliberate. Apparently the next time King spoke to an apoplectic Brown it was to raise the issue of a schools poetry competition organised by the Treasury. He was seemingly oblivious to the political fall-out of his comments. Still the comments were there in public, an early sign of the hawkishness he has never hidden.

His condemnation of Cameron and Osborne earlier this year for showing more interest in winning an election than in detailed economic policy is more a reflection of him than the ambitious duo. Who can blame them? They did have an election to fight. Life is so much easier for lofty academics who do not have to face voters. But again there is no great surprise that King would be worried on the basis of the U-turns in economic policy carried out by Cameron/Osborne during the opposition years.

The dynamics of the Wikileaks exercise give a false impression that much of the time we are kept in the dark while mighty leaders make malevolent plans in secret. The opposite is closer to the truth. We have access to so much information that a lot of it passes us by. Look at that IFS report that only John Rentoul had read. By "we" I do not mean solely the media, but anyone with an internet connection, who can buy a newspaper or have access to the BBC.

In a powerful article on Monday in The Independent John Kampfner argued that Wikileaks showed that journalists had failed in their task. I can assure him that most elected politicians, at least in this country and the US, are fearfully adamant that the level of media scrutiny makes their vocation almost impossible at times. No doubt there is plenty that we should know that we do not, but nowhere near as much as the excitement over Wikileaks suggests.

To give a very parochial example, I laugh when I read or hear pious media commentators ask: "Why didn't journalists tell us about the fuming tensions between Blair and Brown?" Some of us wrote of little else from before 1997, to the point where our readers must have despaired. Donald Macintyre exposed the intensity of the rivalries in his biography of Peter Mandelson in the late 1990s, including the publication of genuinely exclusive letters from the protagonists. Now, when the memoirs from that era are published, there are Wikileaks-style intakes of breath, but again the mechanics are the cause.

During the recent inquiry into the Iraq War one of the star witnesses was the Foreign Office official Elizabeth Wilmhurst. She had resigned honourably in advance of the conflict because she thought it broke international law. As she was interviewed several years later by the inquiry, the headline under the rolling news coverage was "Breaking News – FO Official Thought War Illegal".

Wikileaks are in the same mould. They keep us more on edge than we sometimes need to be. One of the great British political columnists, Peter Jenkins, wrote: "A characteristic of a modern mass democracy is not scarcity of information but rather a surplus vastly in excess of what most ordinarily busy people can process." He made the observation in 1977, long before the information revolution. Ordinarily busy people know a lot more now, but fear they know a lot less.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/steverichards14

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