Some questions from the ‘Daily Mirror’ regarding Wikileaks brought back memories of my first attempt to talk to journalists. This was in 1980, and some elements in government had realized that the rigid controls the Jayewardene government exercised were not working. I was asked then to address youngsters at the SLBC, and I began by challenging the current interpretation, trumpeted about at the time by the government press, of the old adage that facts were sacred and comment was free.

I started by saying that facts referred to events explored by the journalists, not what a government spokesman said was a fact. Before I could go further I was interrupted by a stentorian voice rising from a wheelchair in the corner. This was Nimal Karunatilleke’s. The once radical hope of the SLFP, who had heralded the 1956 victory by defeating Bernard Aluwihare in Matale, was now a dogmatic supporter of Jayewardene’s UNP. He declared that ideas from Oxford were not appropriate in Sri Lanka, where the media belonged to the government.

I tried to continue, to point out that comment being free did not mean one could say whatever one wanted. Opinions had to be argued with evidence and rationally. But by then all authority had fallen away, and I don’t suppose the youngsters were listening.

The principles I was trying to enunciate came back to me in the context of the questions asked about the ethical aspects of Wikileaks. Of course I believe their operations are ethical, for the simple reason that public business belongs in general in the public domain. While obviously some public business needs to be conducted with confidentiality, briefings that are conveyed to thousands of people cannot be taken as belonging in that category.

The exercise has I believe been salutary, because it will I hope teach the Americans, and indeed others, that statements should not be made loosely. Opinions are of course free, but when they are made on behalf of the public, when they are conveyed to others so as to influence decisions, they need to be based on logical reasoning and sound evidence. Sadly that is not often the case.

I see no reason why diplomatic reasons should be adversely affected. Everyone knows that the United States, like all other countries, has certain priorities and also prejudices, and nothing we have read with regard to attitudes to countries or particular leaders is surprising. I believe that much more damaging to the US have been revelations, including from other sources, about the methods it has employed to pursue its own interests – not because these are very different from those of other countries, but because some people in the US are sanctimonious about their ethics, which turn out to be non-existent in particular contexts. This can be more damaging to the world in the long run, given the enormous power the US wields. President Obama, like all American leaders, should study carefully the rubric to Spiderman.

With regard to Sri Lanka a careful study of the leaks suggests positive developments. Bob Blake, understandably for someone of his background, came here with certain prejudices, but as befits a very intelligent man he soon learnt, and realized that the LTTE was beyond the pale. In 2009, for various reasons, including some prejudices in some people in the new administration, combined with excessive cynicism learnt I fear from David Miliband, they were even inclining towards Sarath Fonseka, as the answer to their prayers, however dubious he otherwise was. But I think the new Ambassador too has learnt on the job. Unless the British Foreign Office continues to mislead both the new British government and the Americans – who have clearly understood the Labour Government’s motives, even while allowing themselves to be adversely guided at crucial moments – I am sure that we can repair relations with them, as we have managed with the Europeans, following the departure of the few prejudiced ambassadors who were leftover from the middle of the decade, when appeasement of the LTTE was considered essential.

Advertisements