ASHER MEIR 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WikiLeaks made big news at the end of last year when it published a trove of
classified US diplomatic cables. Now it is making news without publishing
anything, as the world waits for the other shoe to drop in the form of leaked
documents from the banking sector.
In November, WikiLeaks head Julian
Assange announced that in the beginning of 2011, he would release a large amount
of documents from a major US bank, and only a few days ago Rudolf Elmer, a
former executive in Swiss bank Julius Baer, announced with fanfare that he had
provided Assange with a large number of bank documents relating to tax evasion
and money laundering.
No documents in either case have been published,
but anticipation is high.
In November, the business magazine Forbes
published a long interview with Assange in which he presented the philosophy
behind his leaks and the private sector leaks in particular. His answers are
When asked by interviewer Andy Greenberg what is the
intended result of the bank release, he replied that “it will give a true and
representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way
that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume... there will be some
flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also
be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive
ethos that comes out.”
In other words, just as the government leaks
continue in a long tradition of journalists pursuing the public’s right to know
about the workings of government, the private sector leaks continue a long
tradition of muckraking and disclosures of flagrant practices in private
And just as Assange would like to be considered in the
public sector as an heir to Neil Sheehan of Pentagon Papers fame, in the private
sector he would evidently like to be considered as an heir to Upton Sinclair,
who gained fame over a century ago for his expose of the US meat-packing
industry and for the reforms his expose stimulated.
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In a previous column,
I discussed some potentially worrisome differences between the diplomatic cables
and the Pentagon Papers. The problems involved tendentiousness and reliability.
Since the leaker and his motives have never been disclosed, we can’t know if the
original motivation for the leaks was to disclose wrongdoing or perhaps to gain
a political or diplomatic advantage. And verifying the reliability of a huge
number of small documents is orders of magnitude more difficult than verifying
the reliability of a single large document as was the case in the Pentagon
In the Forbes interview, Assange disclosed that he is not worried
by tendentious leaks in the private sector context. On the contrary, he
considers “competitive” leaks part of a process that will lead to more ethical
conduct in business generally.
Overall, he asserts that “WikiLeaks means
it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all
CEOs should be encouraged by this.”
If you want to run a clean company
but your competitors are playing dirty, leaks will harm them and help you. If
you try to help matters along, so much the better. In fact, Assange frankly
urges managers, “Do things to encourage leaks from dishonest
The consequence will be that “honest companies producing
quality products are more competitive than dishonest companies producing bad
products. And companies that treat their employees well do better than those
that treat them badly.”
It remains to be seen if WikiLeaks will create a
revolution in business competition, giving a competitive advantage to ethical
and law-abiding businesses, or if it is merely the contemporary representative
of an eminent muckraking tradition.
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