Loyalty in an age of whistle-blowing and Wikileaks

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


Until recently, leaking – the disclosure of confidential information – was generally perceived as an act of disloyalty, irresponsibility or betrayal. It was also rare, and for the leaker it involved a moral dilemma. More recently, it is secrecy, confidentiality and privacy that have been stigmatised. So what was once castigated as an act of betrayal is increasingly recast as the heroic deed of a brave whistle-blower. Loyalty is no longer seen as an unalloyed virtue, disloyalty no longer viewed wholly negatively. One reason breaches of confidence have become normalised is that trust in officialdom and institutions, from parliament to multinational corporations, has been steadily eroded. We seem to take it for granted that politicians lie and big business is involved in dodgy dealings behind closed doors. In such circumstances, it is not what politicians, officials and business leaders say or do, but rather what they are allegedly trying to hide that becomes the subject of interest. Hence, the leaking of information per se is presented as an heroic act: anything that means more transparency can only be good.

This feeds a new form of conspiratorial thinking. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and his followers argue that as long various networks of conspirators are free to plot behind the scenes, their domination of the world will continue. Thus, exposing their nefarious activities to the public gaze represents a blow for freedom, since it diminishes the flow of ‘important communication between authoritarian conspirators’ and weakens their grip over society. Others suggest this worldview is overly simplistic, and actually fuels rumour, suspicion and mistrust? If people believe their lives are controlled by hidden forces beyond their comprehension, won’t the public become even more immobilised and cynical? And if institutions and individuals in positions of authority constantly fear their private deliberations and confidential correspondence may be leaked, won’t they become more wary of frank exchanges? More guarded, more secretive? And how useful is all this leaked information anyway? While leaks can embarrass individuals and institutions and occasionally bring to light important facts, are they a serious replacement for what can potentially be learned through analysing the world, through research and investigation, and, of course, through the clash of opinions and ideas?

Should organisations expect loyalty from staff? Should colleagues demand loyalty from one another? What distinguishes loyalty from blind obedience? Is the problem that there are too few organisations and causes that are genuinely worthy of loyalty?

Mick Hume
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

Joyce McMillan
chair, Hansard Society Working Group in Scotland; judge, 2010 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award; theatre critic, Scotsman

Henry Porter
political columnist, Observer; UK editor, Vanity Fair; novelist; author, Brandenburg winner of Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award for best thriller

Gwyn Prins
research professor, LSE; director, LSE Mackinder Programme for the Study of Long Wave Events

Richard Sexton
partner, PwC

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive