Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:55 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:55 | SYDNEY

The secrets economy


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

15 March 2012 14:28

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

In the twin realms of politics and government, secrets are a tradable commodity. 

In this market, knowledge really is power – or a function and a facet of power. To use an economic framework: secrecy, knowledge and power are all 'coin of the realm', the legal currency of a political system.

The word 'market' is used with intent, because applying an economic model shows the reality of what politicians, minders and senior bureaucrats actually do with secrecy and secrets. Secrecy can confer monopoly power on a pollie. And the market model also leads quickly to that key economic question – who profits? Various participants in this market will price secrets in different ways. Demand, supply and sales get complicated when you stir in government ministers, journalists and the military.

An important distinction must be made between the values attached to secrecy by the political class (ministers, pollies, minders) and the military. The military believe secrets have an absolute value, while politicians view secrets as having relative value, according to the needs of the market and the size of the secret. Public servants are supposed to view secrets in the same way as the military (an imperative imposed by their customs, training and the law) but constant contact with pollies means senior bureaucrats can come to understand the benefits of trade, even if it is seen as black market activity.

The military must believe that secrecy is an absolute value; if secrets leak, operations can fail and people can die. This is core value stuff, well illustrated by Jim Molan's contribution to this debate: 'There is a need for secrecy and there is abuse of secrecy. There is a lot to be protected and some good reasons for protecting it. One of the greatest forces for getting the balance wrong is government convenience.'

Jim leads us quickly towards an understanding that those at the top of government often regard secrets as having only relative value – not the absolute, unchanging measure of value used by the military. Ministers can go into a cabinet meeting to discuss documents that are supposed to stay secret for decades, engage in a cabinet debate that is also supposed to stay secret for decades, then emerge to give detailed briefings to journalists, backbenchers, lobbyists, business types and lots of other interested parties.

To use the most famous example of this syndrome from the last decade, if making the case for war with Iraq involves going public with 'secret intelligence' about weapons of mass destruction, then that is merely politicians making a sale and meeting the market. If the product didn't actually work as advertised, well, caveat emptor.

The beauty for politicians is they get to play both sides of the secrets street. One moment, they can be strong and eloquent advocates of the importance of secrets to the nation's safety and proper conduct of government. The next moment, they're leaking and plotting for motives both vicious and virtuous. As an example, recall the momentary frisson when Australia's longest serving Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, revealed how he used to trade information with a then rising Labor MP called Kevin Rudd. Black arts and black markets, indeed!

Politicians in a democracy can never have a monopoly on information, but secrecy offers governments the next best thing. Nick Gruen's discussion of soft secrecy in the media age is good on the motivation and mentality — and the modern demand for ministers, minders and mandarins to strive 24/7 to manage  'all aspects of everything they do that has any chance of being or becoming public'.

For this debate, WikiLeaks is a wonderful window on the market and the values participants bring to what is being priced and how it is sold. What is striking about WikiLeaks is how non-secret many of the secrets were, and how little damage revealing all those secrets actually inflicted. It is worth going back and reading the first response of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when WikiLeaks began to gush:

It puts people's lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems...this disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community – the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.

Amazing, really, that the sky hasn't fallen and the world has kept turning pretty much as before. The politicians can draw on the law and high principles of government in chopping against WikiLeaks. But just on the other side of the street is a traditional marketplace where a lot of self-interest is at stake. WikiLeaks threatens a cosy cartel arrangement that has ticked over for decades, serving the interests of politicians and journalists. Politicians leak as they choose and hacks get scoops.

It's not surprising that politicians hated Julian Assange on sight. What was interesting was how many journalists quickly turned against Assange. The clash was as much about interests as personality. The deputy editor of the Guardian made the point that Assange was trying to create a brand that meant whistleblowers went the Wiki route rather than going to the newspapers:

He wants you to think if you are a pissed off analyst in (the military) or wherever and you have got something you want to share with the world, 'I will send it to that Assange fellow, not to The Guardian.’ Which poses a really interesting question for traditional media partners like us, which is: Have we helped to create, as it were, a brand which people will go to in place of traditional media?

See Wikileaks as a brand rather than as black market traffic or market failure. And ponder whether the greatest threat Wikileaks poses is to a traditional monopoly long enjoyed by government.

Photo by Flickr user Meredith_Farmer.