Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 6 News List

UK must ‘wise up’ over WikiLeaks: watchdog

FALLOUT:The British information commissioner said governments should be more proactive in publishing information and that the best defense was transparency

The Guardian, LONDON

The British government should take the WikiLeaks revelations as a lesson that civil servants and ministers can no longer assume they operate in private, and “wise up” to a world where any official communication could be made public, according to the information commissioner.

Christopher Graham, the independent freedom of information watchdog, said the Web site’s disclosures had profoundly changed the relationship between state and public, in a way that could not be “un-invented,” but he warned against “clamming up,” saying the only response was for ministers to be more open.

Speaking after weeks of revelations from US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, he said: “From the point of view of public scrutiny, the Web and the Internet has empowered citizens. Governments now need to factor in that things can be WikiLeaked. We are strongly of the view that things should be published. Where you’re open things will not be Wiki-Leaked. Whatever view you take about WikiLeaks — right or wrong — it means that things will now get out. It has changed things ... government and authorities need to factor it in. Be more proactive, [by] publishing more stuff, because quite a lot of this is only exciting because we didn’t know it. You can’t un-invent WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen. Government and authorities need to wise up to that.”

Governments around the world have condemned the leaking of 250,000 US embassy cables, which has produced startling revelations about diplomatic briefings, the behavior of governments and international relations. The Guardian and four other newspapers around the world have published in-depth reports from the cables, redacting some information to protect individual sources where publication could put them or their families at personal risk, where there are questions of national security and military sensitivity, or legal considerations of defamation.

Graham, who has been information commissioner since last year, said he opposed the indiscriminate leaking of information. The information commissioner is appointed under the UK Freedom of Information Act to weigh up a presumption of publication of government communications, with the necessity to protect national security and individuals’ privacy.

He said: “The difference between what I do and what Julian Assange [Wiki-Leaks’ editor-in-chief] does is the difference -between freedom of information and free-for-all. -Freedom of information accepts that there are some things where you need to strike a balance. The free for all says isn’t this exciting, we didn’t know it — never mind the casualties.”

He said the revelations would inevitably impact on how governments work.

“The best form of defense is transparency,” he said.

The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act by the previous government had begun to change officials’ attitudes, but too often many still behave as if they are governing “in private,” he said. “If we were much better about being open and upfront, if all of us just accept that this is the people’s information and 99.9 percent should be out there in all its tedium, you wouldn’t have WikiLeaks.”

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