WikiLeaks was the subject of an intensive panel debate at Columbia Journalism School in New York City on May 4, 2011. The event titled “Life after WikiLeaks: Who won the information War?” was organized by the UK-based Index on Censorship, with their Executive Director John Kampner moderating.
The event attracted an overflowing audience of students, professional journalists and interested parties from more than a dozen countries along with the five distinctive panellists. The range of issues and questions raised in the 90 minute event demonstrate the continuing impact of this unprecedented electronic dump of information on the changing relationship of the media and governments in a transparent age.
The panellists included Weekly Columnist Richard Cohen from the Washington Post, Emily Bell Director of the new Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, UK Lawyer Mark Stephens who defended Julian Assange in extradition proceedings to Sweden, Russian investigative Journalist Andrei Soldatov and P.J. Crowley, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. Crowley was a last minute addition to the panel who served, until last month, as chief government spokesperson for dealing with the Wikileaks issue in the US. He attracted the most questions from audience and panellists alike.
After five minute opening statements from each panellist, Kampner led the panel in a wide ranging discussion that was followed by 30 minutes of questions from the audience. The issue was raised about how the 250,000 documents came to be available because of a US government policy on information sharing that has since been modified. WikiLeaks would not have been possible otherwise.
Many questions centred on the danger to individual lives, careers and efficacy of government actors all over the world. Stephens defended Julian Assange’s claim that “nobody has been killed” as a result of WikiLeaks. The panel agreed that the depth of impact still remains to be proved but audience questions reflected several concrete examples of the danger. Bell described the potential to analyse impact from WikiLeaks data in real time using electronic tracking to trace a “public contagion effect” that will yield hard numbers for these questions.
Soldatov described the revelation that WikiLeaks proved that readers all over the world are keen to read information about international politics. This is something that wasn’t being fostered by traditional journalism. In his country there have been several websites modelled after it that are even shedding light on old issues.
The engagement of the audience was obvious throughout the debate and many arms were raised at the end for additional questions that could not be answered in the time allotted.