Edward Snowden, left, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, right, are among the world's best-known contemporary whistleblowers. (Guardian/AP, Anthony Devlin/AP, Patrick Semansky/AP)
The conscientious public servant, having agreed verbally with the reporter that the conflict of interest in his department is egregious, has privately explained how it works - and has now nervously consented to make available a document that will authenticate the story. There is a brief encounter in a busy public square. An envelope appears out of one briefcase, disappears into another. A silent whistle has been blown.
That was an actual transaction that occurred on an overcast autumn day in 1977. A crooked mayor lost his job because of it.
This week on the fifth estate: "The Strange World of Julian Assange." The controversial WikiLeaks founder gets the Hollywood treatment in the new movie 'The Fifth Estate'. Watch CBC Television's the fifth estate this Friday, Nov. 1, for the inside story of Julian Assange in his own words.
It's a scenario that has played out many times. A provincial cabinet minister once handed me a devastating analysis of a hugely expensive public project. I had it for a weekend, it was about 150 pages long. Trusted friends and I laboriously copied the entire document on a typewriter before I gave it back - and started to report its contents.
Another leak: an associate in Ottawa drove to a residential address where, by arrangement, an envelope was recovered from a private mailbox. The document retrieved from that mailbox was instrumental in derailing a secret process to licence an agricultural drug of dubious value and demonstrated peril.
That’s the way the whistle blew in “the old days.” Now the revolution in technology has simplified the process and amplified the whistle to a degree that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.
'Even the agencies of espionage are now publicly accountable for their tactics - all because a young civilian named Edward Snowden found some of their activities abusive and corrupt.'
The secret diplomatic pouch is now potentially transparent, as demonstrated by an outraged U.S. army private, Bradley/Chelsea Manning, who co-operated with Julian Assange and Wikileaks to blow the whistle on a global scale. And even the agencies of espionage are now publicly accountable for their tactics - all because a young civilian named Edward Snowden found some of their activities abusive and corrupt.
The names Assange, Manning and Snowden are associated with a transformation in the vulnerability of institutions in both the public and private realms.
Institutions gather, store and analyze vast amounts of information about individuals and other institutions. The process, even when intentions are benign, is nonetheless invasive.
The purpose of the information gathering is, in one rendering, to protect us from each other and ourselves. But it is also for the purpose of manipulation, to influence how we vote and spend and think. And so, people of a certain moral profile who have access to the information will be offended and some will risk liberty and life to let us in on what the institutions know about us.
That’s the way the world has worked since people first discovered the utility of information and the power of secrecy. In a memorable scene from the movie The Fifth Estate, a journalist opines that speeches in the British House of Commons were once so secret that people caught leaking them to the public were hanged for it. Not exactly true - but the Commons debates were conducted secretly, and people went to prison for reporting them in pamphlets. Public outrage, fired by whistleblowing, eventually put a stop to secrecy in parliament.
The modern pamphlet is a blog or tweet, the brown envelope is now a tiny thumb-drive with the information-carrying capacity of a truckload of paper documents. And from the opposing perspective, technology has also enabled institutions to delve deeply into private lives for law enforcement, commerce and the vague new project known as “public safety”.
'The human tendency to be offended by abuse - torture in a secret prison, a lie told under oath to fool the public, squandering of public treasure - remains a vital force in conscientious people.'
Technology has changed, but human nature hasn’t and that’s a good thing. The human tendency to be offended by abuse - torture in a secret prison, a lie told under oath to fool the public, squandering of public treasure - remains a vital force in conscientious people.
And we witness their responses with sufficient frequency to remind the advocates and practitioners of secrecy that they are vulnerable, too. They're at the mercy of basic human instincts (be they narcissistic or humanitarian), and the technology that makes their secrets more accessible and portable than at any other time in human history.
The furious response to Manning and Wikileaks and Snowden underscores the impact of the message in their actions just as it obscures a fundamental question: Why did they do what they did and for whose benefit?
There was no possibility of personal gain and almost certainly they faced the prospect of severe punishment. They have been accused of recklessness and treachery. Extremists have called for their deaths. Manning will spend decades in prison. Both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are fugitives from a prosecution that would be familiar to a Guantanamo detainee.
Maybe they were delusional. But the information inherent in the act of whistleblowing is perhaps more useful than the sordid details in the documents they leaked.
What we know shapes what we think. What we think determines our behaviour. There will always be clandestine efforts to manage what we think and thus control how we behave as consumers and as citizens. But there is also a fundamental human impulse to resist manipulation and, because secrecy is essential to manipulation and control, there will always be individuals who will rebel against it.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham put it strongly - but his words have been embraced in principle and often quoted by politicians and jurists while making and interpreting our laws: “In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape have full swing.”
In another essay more than 200 years ago, Bentham said, “Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government”.
Those are words that whistleblowers live by, which makes them auditors of governance and guarantors of our democracy.
[This week on the fifth estate: "The Strange World of Julian Assange." The controversial WikiLeaks founder gets the Hollywood treatment in the new movie 'The Fifth Estate.' Watch CBC Television's the fifth estate this Friday, Nov. 1, for the inside story of Julian Assange in his own words.]