Friday 3 December 2010

Worrying about Wikileaks

I originally wrote this for my blog at Reuters AlertNet, where it ran on 3 December 2010.


With the number of pages of media commentary about WikiLeaks now possibly exceeding the original 250,000 cables in question, we seem to have almost every possible angle in play. Still, amid all the chatter, one consideration is missing.

Thoughts on the leaked cables themselves have been a mix of amusement, embarrassment, boredom and excitement. Opinions of Julian Assange and his actions have ranged from simplistic tributes to primitive calls for his assassination.

The more intelligent comment pieces have stepped back and tried to assess what this means for diplomacy. Some, like a recent New York Times op-ed, seem to lean a bit toward wishful thinking, hoping that secrecy can somehow be restored as a vital component of international affairs. Others take the more practical view, understanding that given current information technology, mass leaks are likely to be, as an Economist blog rightly put it, "a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping".

Indeed, there's no way of putting the genie back in the bottle.

Authorities are wasting energy attacking the WikiLeaks website and trying to find Assange - that is, generally pretending the world of information works the same way it did 20 years ago. The material is out there in countless places already. Moreover, at the rate of about 100 cables a day emerging from the newspapers that currently have initial access, it's not too hard to imagine that more mass leaks will appear before they even finish with that first lot. Diplomats will need to adjust to the new technological reality like pedestrians needed to adapt to the emergence of the automobile.

Still, there is one worrying thing, and that concerns the protection of sources and witnesses. Many have already noted that activists and human rights defenders who have come forward and revealed information in confidence to US officials need to be protected from their own governments and other forces, and the newspapers concerned have been making efforts to redact names and details from cables as they go along with that in mind. The question, however, is whether they are able, in all cases, to do that job properly.

Thankfully, the papers involved are some of the best in the business.

The Guardian, Le Monde, the New York Times, El País and Der Spiegel are all top of their class in foreign affairs reporting, with serious understanding of the journalist’s need to protect sources and massive reputations to defend.

Unfortunately, it is not simply an issue of intentions and experience, but also ability. Generally speaking, these outlets don’t have the extensive networks of foreign correspondents they used to. Like almost every other media outlet around the world, budget concerns and other priorities have hit some of these papers’ international coverage pretty hard, and in certain WikiLeaks cases, the reduced number of foreign bureaux and reduced on-the-ground news gathering capacity could have serious consequences.

A foreign correspondent is the eyes and ears of a news outlet in their country, the connection to that society and the reality check against the proliferation of baseless external commentary. He or she knows people on the ground: who’s in charge, who’s challenging for power, who's a chancer, who's a perpetrator and who's a victim. They understand the contexts best, because they've been there for years.

Now, all these papers still have foreign correspondents, but there are not as many as there were even just a few years ago. Most importantly, the papers don't have them everywhere where these leaked cables originated. Without on-the-ground knowledge in certain countries, continuous over a significant period of time, feeding into the cable review process, these newspapers are clearly going to have additional difficulties in judging what's safe to publish from what might get someone killed.

It's not just a matter of names either, of course, which are easy enough to cut out when in doubt. There are dates, locations and other bits of information that could emerge that would burn whistle-blowers and slap them with extremely grim consequences. In short, are these newspapers going to have the expertise to make what are life-and-death decisions in Ruritania if they don't have a correspondent in Ruritania City?

I don't want to suggest that the editors are not grappling with this issue responsibly. I'm sure they are doing the job as best they can given the challenges before them. My point is that they'd find it somewhat easier if they had the networks of foreign bureaux they used to have. Once again, we see how the general trend of decreasing international reporting from the field can have unintended consequences in foreign affairs.

The Christian Science Monitor has more on this.

Taking a step back, it seems that the news media are now facing a contradiction. The last few years have seen a dramatic drop in news-gathering capacities abroad, but the tools making mass diplomatic leaks possible mean that the need to understand local contexts has perhaps never been greater. Given that the technology cannot be reversed, perhaps the priorities of media executives ought to be.

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