Embassy cables UK newspapers lead with the embassy cables story this morning. Photo: Mousetrap Media
Potentially harmful, condemnable, a breach of security, reprehensible - all terms used by the US ambassador to the UK Louis Susman to describe the latest leak by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks of more than 250,000 secret or confidential cables sent by US embassies across the globe.

"Releasing documents of this kind place at risk the lives of innocent individuals - from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers and diplomats. It is reprehensible for any individual or organization to attempt to gain notoriety at the expense of people who had every expectation of privacy in sharing information," he writes on the US Embassy in London's website.

Yet, as with WikiLeaks' recent Iraq war logs and Afghanistan leak, several media outlets have officially partnered with WikiLeaks to help publish the cables as they are drip fed to the wider world.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, one of the partner outlets, told the Today programme this morning that the news partners' roles was to give necessary context to the data that would otherwise be dumped in the public domain.

"WikiLeaks would have published all this material anyway, they would have published it in a gigantic dump and what the involvement of newspapers has been able to do with the Afghanistan and Iraq episodes has been to redact sources and to give context. I think the White House itself has acknowledged that newspapers have played a helpful role in this," he said.

In an editors note on Guardian.co.uk, the paper explains that WikiLeaks is the source but not the editor in its coverage: "It has played no part in the preparation, editing and reporting of the individual papers. Co-operation with WikiLeaks has been restricted to agreeing the dates on which we could cover specific regions. The news organisations have redacted some of the cables in order to protect a number of named sources and so as not to disclose certain details of current special operations. We have shared our redactions with WikiLeaks."

Despite the paper's arguments that this material is in the public interest, it is clear from the editor's note that publishing even redacted cables has not been a decision taken lightly. Warning was given by all publications involved to the US government of an intention to publish and there are some cables that the Guardian will not release or that are prohibited by UK libel legislation, it says.

Building on the success of its data journalism from previous WikiLeaks releases, the Guardian has once more made databases of the cables available to download and for readers to play with on and offline, in addition to plenty of its own reporting and analysis, with more scheduled.

Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais and the New York Times have also had pre-publication access to the cables and are running dedicated sites. Der Spiegel has posted an English FAQ on how to read the cables and make sense of them as well as linking out to coverage by the other partners, and European news sites including Corriere della Sera, Politiken and Presseurop.

According to reports, the New York Times only gained access to the material via the Guardian, having been cut out of the loop by WikiLeaks this time around. Nine days of coverage on about 100 diplomatic cables is planned by the Times. Using The Lede blog the Times will also be accepting questions about the paper's decision to publish.

"The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match," it explains in an editors' note.

"Of course, most of these documents will be made public regardless of what The Times decides. WikiLeaks has shared the entire archive of secret cables with at least four European publications, has promised country-specific documents to many other news outlets, and has said it plans to ultimately post its trove online. For the Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public."

The media's role is a crucial one in making the release of this information responsible, argues Le Monde on its website. "Transparency and discernment are not incompatible - and that's probably what sets us apart from the basic strategy of WikiLeaks," the paper explains on its site.

But is it possible for news outlets to partner with WikiLeaks and not get caught up in the storm of controversy that seems to follow the organisation? If the treatment of the New York Times is anything to go by, the whistleblower's relationship with even its media partners seems to be a fraught one.

Data journalism outfit OWNI.fr, which created a site in collaboration with WikiLeaks for the Iraq war logs leak, is once more working hard to publish the information in a reader-friendly way.

The mastermind behind the State Logs site, which has been developed with media organisations Le Soir in Belgium and Slate.fr, Nicolas Kayser-Bril told Journalism.co.uk that it decided not to work with WikiLeaks this time, but to act alone, receiving the material from another source close to the organisation. This has allowed more freedom and independence in handling the material, says Kayser-Bril, with reader-friendly tagging of the cables as they are released a crucial part of making the information more readily searchable.

The whistleblowing site has shifted from a "news agency for the people" to an outlet that issues embargoes and drip feeds content for maximum media effect, said Kayser-Bril - a stark contrast to how it started but also a more beneficial way of working for media outlets.

"In the UK, free speech is regarded as a negotiable commodity. An interest group's right to be offended is seen as just as important as the right to air an opinion. A government's right to secrecy is seen as more important than the public's right to know.

"The war logs were testimonies from daily life during war time (including collateral damage),whereas the diplomatic cables show the dark side of international relations and foreign policy. As some pundits put it, what is the power of a government without secrets? For the first time, a website has opened the floodgates of diplomacy, where opacity reigns. For the media, it's a tremendous opportunity to illuminate this shadowy scene. As WikiLeaks will release data in dribs and drabs, we'll be able to work on a lengthy mode, investigating the cables carefully," Olivier Tesquet, a journalist for OWNI.fr, told Journalism.co.uk.

While WikiLeaks may need the media outlets to maximise the impact of the material it releases as a payback to the sources supplying the information to them, is the organisation's attitude to authority and what Susman would describe as reprehensible breach of security an antidote to a toothless media? Writing in the Independent today, director of media freedom group Index on Censorship John Kampfner argues that WikiLeaks is showing up the UK media for failing to challenge authority.

"Newspapers that have no compunction about invasions of privacy or about shrill comment devote precious little time or energy to challenging authority through rigorous investigative journalism. Most political "scoops" are merely stories planted by politicians on pliant lobby hacks. Editors and senior journalists are habitually invited into MI5 and MI6 for briefings. These are affable occasions, often over lunch. There is no harm in that. What tends to happen, however, is that journalists are tickled pink by the attention. They love being invited to the "D-notice" committee to discuss how they can all behave "responsibly". It makes them feel important. Many suspend their critical faculties as a result," he writes.

"Once this latest flurry is over, prepare for the backlash. Mr Assange's industrial-scale leaking may lead to legislation in a number of countries that makes whistleblowing harder than it already is. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Wikileaks revelations is not that they have happened, but it took someone as mercurial as Mr Assange to be the conduit. Rather than throwing stones, newspapers should be asking themselves why they did not have the wherewithal to hold truth to power."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).

blog comments powered by Disqus