Wikileaks vs the world: you couldn’t make it up!

Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy presents itself as a serious book penned by real Guardian journalists... but it is surely the greatest spoof ever written about the self-obsessed media.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

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This book is the finest spoof you will ever read. It is a laugh-out-loud parody of the self-importance of Wikileaks and the journalists who have been sucked into its orbit. Wittily and brilliantly, however, it is presented as if it was actually authored by two Guardian journalists! ‘By David Leigh and Luke Harding’ it says on the front cover, in order to give it a feel of being real, of being a true account of the Wikileaks phenomenon. But of course, as any reader with any nous will know, it’s just not possible for fully grown men to behave in the fashion documented in this tome, for hacks to refer to themselves as Jason Bourne-style pursuers of truth and to compare Julian Assange to Mother Teresa. No, this is stinging satire, and all the better for being so spookily accurate.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

‘Harding’ and ‘Leigh’ – who are these rascals of modern-day satire?! – capture brilliantly the disconnect between the circumstances of the leaks from Washington and the grandiose claims that have been made about those leaks by Assange and the Guardian. Playing the role of wide-eyed Guardian journos with spectacular panache, the spoof authors tell us on one page that the recent leaking of 250,000 diplomatic cables is ‘the biggest story on the planet’ and far more important than the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, which covered America’s war in Vietnam, in 1971. Then on the next page they tell us about the bizarre, decidedly apolitical and principle-free circumstances in which Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old American soldier in Iraq, leaked these files. He was listening to Lady Gaga and becoming increasingly incensed at what he was reading in secret documents. ‘There’s so much’, he said to himself. ‘It affects everybody on earth. It’s beautiful and horrifying.’

It takes a special kind of humour, a keen eye for satire, to present what was effectively a teenage tantrum by Manning as something akin to the targeted leaking of the Pentagon Papers by an insider concerned about the direction of America’s war in Vietnam. The true story of Manning’s leak is that a combination of US official incompetence and one young soldier’s feeling of immature self-righteous rage led to the random dumping of 250,000-odd documents into the lap of a web weirdo called Julian Assange. As Manning says, in his base in Iraq there were ‘weak servers, weak logging, weak physical security, weak counterintelligence… a perfect storm’. These weaknesses ‘fed opportunities’, he says, tellingly. When he complained about the gap-ridden security system to an officer, he was told: ‘It’s not a priority.’ So Manning effectively sought revenge against his careless superiors – he had become ‘scathing about the culture of the base’ – by leaking their secrets.

It’s a story, not of brave whistleblowers revealing a specific piece of explosive information, but of an agitated bloke, bored in his army base, Facebooking about how much he missed his boyfriend Tyler, deciding to take Washington’s own disarray to its logical conclusion by vomiting all of its documentation into the hackers’ arena. It was more Oprahite than it was principled, more therapeutic than tactical, more Jeremy Kyle than Daniel Ellsberg. In hilariously comparing this farcical leaking with the Pentagon Papers, describing it as a political event of unprecedented importance, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ nail the self-importance of Guardian hacks brilliantly. They kill with a satirical sword the attempts by the Guardian and others to doll up the contemporary, much-celebrated and thoughtless cult of let-it-all-out whistleblowing as a stand against warped political authority. I literally LOLed as I turned the page from reading about Manning’s childish informational incontinence to pages containing words such as ‘historic’ and ‘brave’. Brilliant.

The spoofers are also excellent at capturing the media’s cult-like embrace of Assange. ‘Harding’ and ‘Leigh’ recount what a creep Assange is, yet they then profess their ‘own’ and other Guardian journalists’ borderline crush on him! So in one section of the book, we’re told that Assange once signed up to an online dating site with the words ‘I am DANGER, ACHTUNG????????????!’, labelling himself as ‘87% slut’ and someone who likes ‘women from countries that have sustained political turmoil, [because] Western culture seems to forge women that are valueless and inane’. In short, he likes to have sex with exotic blacks rather than boring white birds because – ACHTUNG! – he’s a political rebel. Also, in the late 1990s, when the ‘spectral’ Assange (I think ‘spectral’ might now officially be his first name) first got into computer hacking, his computer was ‘his only friend’. Loser!

Yet in another section of the book, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ fawn over Assange, depicting him as the mastermind of an historic rebellion against Washington’s grip on world affairs. Hilarious. He is ‘too alluring to ignore’, they parody. At one point they even have the Guardian’s Nick Davies saying to Assange, ‘We are going to put you on the moral high ground, so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask’, before comparing the hacker to ‘Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa’. This is actually the only time that their usually bang-on parodying goes too far. I mean, come on guys. No journalist actually talks like that or is so fabulously and utterly sucked in by one man with a laptop, however spectral he might be. Journalists still have some skills of objectivity. Still, the spoof authors’ treatment of this socially inadequate hacker as a martyr to truth, who is ‘brave, uncompromising and dangerous’, parodies brilliantly the extent to which a liberal media bored of reporting on MPs’ expenses scandals and the ins and outs of Nick Clegg’s brain swarmed like wasps around honey when Assange waved a document marked ‘TOP SECRET’ under their noses.

Indeed, the real honeytrap in this whole debacle was not the one allegedly set by the Swedish women who accused Assange of sexual assault. No, it was the one set by Assange himself for liberal journalists desperately seeking something sexier and more serious to write about than domezzzzztic politics. As the rapscallion ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ parody wonderfully here, journalists fell for Assange in a far more slavish and borderline religious fashion than tabloid readers fall for Rupert Murdoch’s shtick. Really funny stuff.

The spoof authors are at their best when parodying journalists at the Guardian itself. I think they must have actually spent some time in the Guardian offices, perhaps undercover, so eye-poppingly accurate is their portrayal of a liberal journalistic set intoxicated by its own self-importance. Their manner of writing echoes the novelistic style increasingly employed by journalists who aren’t quite sure if they’re writing a thriller or a report (‘Glimpsed in the half-light of a London evening, the figure might just have passed for female’). They expertly ape the desire of modern-day journalists to become the story and ideally to have their experiences turned into a blockbuster movie. The book is littered with hints that this whole Wikileaks-Guardian hook-up would make for brilliant cinema. Assange’s first meeting with a group of Guardian journalists was ‘worthy of a John le Carré thriller’. When Assange moved into some posh bloke’s country pile in Suffolk, ‘it was as if a Stieg Larsson script had been passed to the writer of Downton Abbey’. It was like ‘something out of The Da Vinci Code’. Assange is ‘like Jason Bourne’. Hint hint, film world! Please get Colin Firth to play Alan Rusbridger and Matt Damon (uglied up) to play Assange! It requires a deep commitment to satire to have such subtle yet consistent flashes of journalistic self-obsession throughout a tome like this.

Best of all, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ wickedly juxtapose Guardian journalists’ conviction that they were doing something historically important – which might ‘give Hillary Clinton a heart attack’ – with the truth of what they were doing: using keywords to trawl through hundreds of thousands of documents handed to them by an outsider in a desperate bid to find a juicy story.

So they report that the Guardian set up a ‘war room’ for its Wikileaks operation and described its fourth-floor offices as a ‘bunker’. The Guardian also referred to the intended day of publication of the Washington cables as ‘D-Day’. And ‘borrowing inspiration from The Wire’, Guardian hacks bought pay-as-you-go mobile phones, or ‘burners’, so that they could communicate in a fashion that would ‘outsmart the cops’. ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ even have Nick Davies sneaking napkins with passwords scribbled on them between France and England, while saying that he felt like he was on an ‘exciting, very important adventure’. Time and again, they wittily nail the belief amongst some journalists that they are heroes in a made-for-cinema drama about Good (them) against Evil (America). Indeed, at one point they have Davies sending a coded (of course) email to Assange to tell him that he received various documents: ‘The good guys have got the girls.’ I would love to have been in the spoof authors’ offices when they came up with such a brilliant line to rip the piss out of the teenage-rebel fantasies of middle-class, middle-aged journalists.

Because in truth, as this satire slyly reveals, Guardian journalists were not involved in any dangerous enterprise of truth-uncovering. No, they simply received discs from Assange, took those discs back to their ‘war room’, and ploughed through them. That’s it. In their ‘fourth-floor bunker’, hacks would ‘spend long hours staring, increasingly dizzy-eyed, at the dispatches. It soon became clear that there was an art to interrogating the database…’ The way in which ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ mix wild stories about journos as channel-crossing, cop-dodging, Jason Bourne-style warriors for truth with the reality of them sat in an office using words like ‘Britain’, ‘corruption’ and ‘vodka’ to search through all the dumped data… well, you couldn’t have asked for a funnier, more humiliating exposé of the chasm between the reality and the fantasy of the Wikileaks phenomenon.

This was really a jumped-up version of press-release journalism, where hacks received and devoured info rather than going out and finding it. Best of all, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ report that Nick Davies, one of the ‘best-known investigative journalists’, has denounced much of modern journalism as ‘churnalism’… and then they have him and others literally churning through discs in search of sexy stories! It’s brutally funny. Churnalism is when journalists are ‘reduced to passive processors of whatever material comes their way’, says Davies. Er, hello??? Side-splitting.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with a weird political story is by parodying its protagonists. These two authors have done a brilliant job of that. Wikileaks is really a story of an incoherent American elite effectively farting its own secrets into the public arena, where they were then lapped up by hackers who are the close cousins of David Icke in their conspiratorial outlook and by hacks who no longer know how to find ‘the truth’ and so they wait for it to land in their laps, scribbled on a napkin, like a modern-day version of the all-knowing Dead Sea Scrolls. By dressing up this rather sad and sordid shebang as a James Bond-esque escapade involving brave spectral whizzkids and fearless journalists with macchiatos in one hand and cop-outsmarting mobile phones in the other, ‘Leigh’ and ‘Harding’ brilliantly ridicule the life out of the Wikileaks myth and nonsense. Buy this book if you like a laugh. 9/10.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here

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