Are the #cablegate cables too important to be left to WikiLeaks, New York Times, Guardian etc?
This was the question that occurred to me after listening to Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the New York Times, and Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, last night at a discussion at Columbia University (well reported by Micah Sifry here).
There were several striking revelations from the discussion, though I am not sure that they were those intended by Rusbridger and Keller.
Rusbridger said that the Guardian had now completed its reporting of the cables, but it was clear from what he said that the Guardian had not read all the cables. Instead they had run word searches on the database. Keller said the same. Both implied that WikiLeaks itself had used the same technique. In other words, one can infer, no one has read all the cables.
This is understandable given the huge volume of cables. But the description given by Rusbridger of the method the Guardian had used to search the database did not inspire confidence. He said more or less: "we ran all the word searches we could think of and looked at what came up". He added that after this process, the Guardian had invited readers to suggest what searches they wanted run on the data, and this had thrown up about two thousand suggestions, some of which Rusbridger described as the usual conspiracy theories.
Secondly, Keller's answer to a question from me provoked similar doubts about the New York Times's understanding of the data. I had asked why the Times had not reported the extraordinary cable revealing that the US was conducting secret aerial surveillance of Lebanon (presumably of Hizbollah positions) at the request of the Lebanese government, data that is presumably then shared with Israel: a rather toxic revelation for the Lebanese, to put it mildly. Keller claimed to know nothing of the cable, and suggested that this was why the Times had not reported it. Either he is being economical with the truth, and the Times had succumbed to US pressure not to publish this potentially destabilizing revelation (he had earlier confirmed again that the Times showed every cable it intended to report to the State Dept beforehand), or he really did not know about it. Neither inference is very encouraging.
Again, we were treated to the rather smug presumption from both editors that since no harm had been proven from the leaked cables, no harm had been done. The moderator did not press them on the several cases of cables whose release is potentially harmful, and where there appears little public interest in their publication (I have discussed some of these cables in this article). Another panellist, Jack Goldsmith, a former US Assistant Attorney General, repeated the very mistaken suggestion that there was little truly revelatory in the cables, a claim frankly that can only be made by someone who has not read them.
Despite these evident weaknesses in the Guardian's and Times' comprehension of the data, both Rusbridger and Keller repeated that they would not countenance releasing the whole stock of cables. Rusbridger claimed that the public would not understand them and that there would therefore be little news in them (perhaps he was jet-lagged but I really did not understand his point). Keller contradicted him and said that he thought that lots of people would rummage around in the data, including experts, causing a "cacophony" (heaven forbid!). But he suggested, as he has before, that the public cannot be trusted with the data (but of course, he did not need to add, the New York Times can be).
All in all, Keller and Rusbridger gave a rather unimpressive exposition of these papers' handling of the most important release of diplomatic and political data in recent times. I should add that both were notably dismissive and critical of Assange. Keller in particular went out of his way to make some silly and sneering remarks about Assange, which reflected rather worse on Keller than they did on Assange himself. Keller described Assange as a mere "source" and one got the impression that Keller was distinctly unhappy with WikiLeaks' assault on the authority of newspapers to disseminate only what they see fit as news.
I will leave to others to comment on what seems to me, as it did to others, a turning point in the culture of journalism. Jack Goldsmith in particular made some very cogent points on this score, pointing out that a fundamental shift was underway towards more open data, posing a great challenge to government but also, he did not need to add, to the established citadels of conventional journalism, like the Times and the Guardian.
On the part that interests me, namely the political content of the cables, I was left with the following conclusions:
Neither the newspapers nor WikiLeaks have the capacity fully to analyse the full stock of leaked cables, thanks to the sheer volume of cables but also their extremely broad and manifold political significance. Nonetheless, the newspapers have decided to stop reporting the cables, and believe that they have no duty to release further cables to the public.
Secondly, neither newspaper necessarily has the capacity to understand the potential impact of the cables. This is because the data is simply too complicated and voluminous for any one authority to claim to understand in full. Rusbridger at one point commented that an Indian journalist told him that the cables from New Delhi alone would produce thirty front page headlines in India.
I don't particularly blame these newspapers for not being able to command this vast stock of material, but I do think they are being rather arrogant in assuming that they can. What should be done?
I too am hesitant to suggest that all the data be released in full, for the usual reasons. But I do think that a more comprehensive method needs to be established to handle releases, archive and file the data, and to analyse it properly and fully. Some kind of body needs to be established, not government obviously, comprising a network of regional political experts, but also with a transparent and credible method to assess the potential danger of releasing certain cables. Perhaps the Guardian and the Times could set up such a body, rather than handling this material through their existing news teams. Perhaps some brave foundation could fund it. It would be a very necessary service. For it was clear to me last night, that for all the contribution they have made in bringing this remarkable material to public sight, neither the Times, nor the Guardian, nor WikiLeaks itself is fully capable of handling, analysing and editing this data in the manner which it deserves.