WikiLeaks
Today sees the publication of a new book by Guardian journalists charting the rise of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange from anonymous Australian hacker to the man who very publicly embarrassed the US government.

An extract from the book published in the Guardian this morning describes Assange's journey – literal journey – from London to Ellingham Hall, where he stayed while on bail over sex assault charges brought against him in Sweden.

The car made frequent stops in lay-bys along the route according to the book, switching the lights off and waiting in an attempt to evade possible pursuers. That wasn't all though, Assange also made the trip dressed as an old woman.

Treated to the strange sight of Assange arriving at Ellingham Hall that night in drag was journalist James Ball.

Ball had been approached directly by Assange after working on the Iraq war logs for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and recruited by the WikiLeaks founder in the run up to the release of the US embassy cables to act as the group's own in-house journalist - the only one in the UK.

"He needed someone that he knew had data experience, and evidently he decided that I fit the bill," Ball told Journalism.co.uk.

It was a bill quite unlike any other. Ball, who studied investigative journalism at City University, London, suddenly found himself near the centre of an unfolding global drama.

"There was never anything resembling an average day. The hours – needless to say – were long and erratic. I got forty minutes sleep the night the documents went out. The few days ahead of the release were spent working on the data and visualisations for up to 18 hours a day. The immediate week afterwards was spent dashing around doing interviews across London. Later, we had to start dealing with the fallout of the Interpol warrant for Julian and other elements of backlash."

Those other elements of backlash were significant, and WikiLeaks was soon fighting it's own war on several fronts. While lawmakers in Sweden and the UK were under pressure from the US to extradite Assange, the private companies on which WikiLeaks relied simply to stay afloat were also feeling the might of the US government bearing down upon them.

Soon Mastercard had withdrawn WikLeaks' ability to process donations and the site was being pulled offline repeatedly as internet service providers caved in to pressure to stop hosting the site. Then the data visualisations that Ball had produced for WikiLeaks were pulled by software company Tableau in what he calls a "strange act of self-censorship".

Tableau later revealed, along with a handful of other private companies which had withdrawn their services, that they had been urged on in their acts of apparent self-censorship by Senator Joe Lieberman, who was vehemently campaigning against WikiLeaks at the time.

"The backlash was in some ways quite scary. For all that WikiLeaks has volunteers worldwide, at its core it is a small, young organisation. Seeing Amazon, Paypal, Visa and Mastercard turn on you, at the same time as US congressmen and senators are calling for you to be branded as a terrorist, is an experience, to say the least."

But despite the size of the brands and the stature of the individuals, the attacks on WikiLeaks didn't amount to much, claims Ball.

"Ultimately, what should be noted is how totally ineffectual the backlash was: nothing ever took the site offline for more than a few hours, there are now over 1,800 sites mirroring the entire content of WikiLeaks, and more cables were released in the days Julian Assange was in prison than when he was free.

"Plus, even if the backlash had taken the site offline, stories from the cables would have kept appearing each day – unless the New York Times, Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais and Der Spiegel were taken down too."

But as the sex assault case gathered steam, some of the media partners which were so crucial to keeping the WikiLeaks material in print became part of that backlash.

Cracks had begun to appear in Assange's relationship with the Guardian and the New York Times long before the US embassy cables were released, but the Guardian's publication of leaked court documents relating to the charges against Assange opened up fissures in the already-damaged relationship.

"I don't think I'm spilling any secrets to say the relationship between WikiLeaks and the five media outlets involved in the embassy cables was fractious – and there's around six books coming out giving you every side of the story," says Ball.

"What I think gets forgotten is that five of the world's biggest newspapers – and WikiLeaks – held a shared timetable for three weeks. That's an unprecedented level of collaboration, and I think everyone involved will look back on it more favourably than perhaps they do at the moment."

But as the New York Times editor Bill Keller publishes yet more criticisms of Assange and his organisation, and the Guardian book hits the shelves, those harmonious days look far off.

Ball no longer works for WikiLeaks and will soon be joining Davies on the pages of the Guardian as the paper's new data journalist. He admits that the question of whether the newspaper has a duty of care to its source, and his former employer, is "tricky".

"While I think the duty exists to an extent, WikiLeaks wants to be seen by media outlets as a partner organisation, receiving due credit as the source of the material, being free to release its own stories and take on the subject matter, and to co-publish. I think that's a more activist and more controlling position than a typical source, and so perhaps means outlets have less duty of care than otherwise.

"No-one suggests tabloid papers have a duty of care to Max Clifford, after all."

The real care of duty, Ball says, is not to WikiLeaks but to the original source.

"WikiLeaks is a conduit which exists to protect the people who are directly taking the risks to get powerful material to the public. They are the sources that most deserve, and need, protection."

As the fruits of Al Jazeera's new Transparency Unit – a kind of in-house WikiLeaks – stir up yet more global political discomfort, and New York Times editor Bill Keller talks about creating the same kind of team at his own newspaper, Ball stresses that the idea doesn't represent anything particularly new.

"Dealing with leaks and sources has been a journalistic staple for decades – just look at the notoriety of the phrase 'arrived in a plain brown envelope'. That said, in the internet era, brown envelopes have a nasty habit of being traceable.

"As such, any extra security efforts news outlets can offer to sources – encryption, secure transmission, security advice – can only be a good thing. But we shouldn't treat leaking, or online leaking, as some new phenomenon created by WikiLeaks.

Ball will take up his role as a data journalist at the Guardian in a few weeks' time, working on the investigations team. As the WikiLeaks story ebbs and flows, Ball is likely to be repeatedly back at the heart of it, making sense of the vast swathes of data in which WikiLeaks trades.

"Data is definitely getting more and more important. Three years ago, pitching any data-based story was difficult-bordering-on-impossible. That's clearly changed, especially in the investigative field after a year of WikiLeaks scoops.

"Even outside of investigations, though, the volume of government and business data appearing is increasing exponentially, and too few journalists really know how to make data sing."

Ball is certainly one of those journalists and soon, after "a little rest and recovery", he'll join a newspaper that seems to understand their value. 

"I've spent most of my career trying to turn documents or data into stories, and hopefully will be doing more of the same. Who knows, I might even go out and talk to people now and then."

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