James Callaghan, Labor Party Prime Minister of Great Britain (1976-1979), is reported to have quipped: “You leak, but I brief”. In other words, while the politician that he was addressing leaked official documents to the media (a wrong, probably illegal move) he merely briefed the media. His practice, he was implying, was less blameworthy. The question is: is it?
Leaks of official documents and the leakers involved are in the news a lot these days. Some of these leakers are leaking documents on an epic scale, exploiting the weaknesses of modern electronic document management systems. Documents that in the past you would have had to break into safes in a thousand different locations around the world to access you can now find in a single online repository…if you have the right hacking or document stealing skills. While in the past a leaker would send a single document by mail to the editor of a leading newspaper, now we are getting thousands of pages stolen and shared all at once.
There is a romantic, Hollywood view of the epic leakers, and movies are also being made about them, usually hagiographies. The epic leakers are seen as heroic figures, doughty champions acting in the overall public interest. Perhaps. I have no doubt that there are leakers who are genuine whistle blowers, determined to expose wrong doing by public officials. But one also suspects that some of these leakers are complexly motivated individuals. And some of the epic leakers are egomaniacs who fancy themselves as world-historic figures.