Cablegate: That different to obtaining information from phone hacking?

There’s no doubt the Wikileaks revelations have been fascinating. As a journalist, there’s little to beat the thrill of getting your hands on something you’re not supposed to have.

The Guardian, seemingly Wikileaks’ preferred partner in the UK, has produced some beautiful visualisations of the data, and it would appear to be the gift which keeps on giving.

In some ways, The Guardian appears to have sought to treat its early-doors access to the Wikileaks documents in the same way the Daily Telegraph did the MPs expenses files.

There’s one subtle but important difference here though: as Wikileaks, which ultimately pulls the strings here, releases the US cables onto its site, plenty of other stories which those with early access have chosen to ignore or downplay (or even missed) come to the surface. A quick search of ‘Wikileaks’ in Google News demonstrates that. The Daily Telegraph’s expenses coverage, on the other hand, was totally in its own control.

And while, as a journalist, I find the sudden access to documents we should never expect to see fascinating, there are several things which trouble me.

The first concern is how different publishing material which was effectively stolen from a government is to publishing information obtained by phone hacking.  The Guardian has made a crusade out of trying to chase down News International and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson over the phone hacking allegations. It became such a crusade that many people had stopped listening to the Guardian’s protests and only began to take it seriously again when the New York Times appeared in London with allegations which, when boiled down, weren’t that different to everything the Guardian had been saying.

But how different is using information gleaned from alleged phone-hacking to using information which has been obtained using methods which many argue are illegal? Does the fact that you perhaps didn’t commission the potentially illegal act – as has been claimed of the NOTW – make a big difference?

By it’s own admission, The Guardian says it does not know for sure the source of the information. Obviously, the fact someone has been arrested provides one potential clue.

The obvious defence in such a situation is to argue that it is in the public interest to know. You could certainly argue that in the case of earlier leaks via Wikileaks around Afghanistan and the excellent work done around the Iraq war logs.

But in the case of these cables, we have some very interesting – and potentially very important – stories emerging but each cable is, generally, the thoughts of one person, feeding information and thoughts – some say gossip – into the US government. Just because the words are written in a cable doesn’t mean it’s the full story, nor does it mean it’s true.

Is it really such a surprise that Saudi Arabia was worried about Iran? Or that Prince Andrew can be rude? And what of the claims about Pakistan’s lack of security around its nuclear industry? Interesting, of course, but in the public interest given that the result may be that global figures may be less likely to share information with the USA in the future for fear of information leaking out? The Fox News doomsday scenario is that such a situation increases the chances of a terrorist attack. That’s a big leap to make, but what are we actually gaining from knowing the thoughts of US government figures?

But perhaps the biggest worry in all of this has been the repeated promises by The Guardian, Wikileaks and others involved that they are redacting or not releasing at all information which could put people at risk. That’s a very noble pledge, but I’m not convinced it’s one a journalist – or group of journalists – can ever guarantee to deliver.

Journalists have no way of knowing what piece of information could be used by someone to work out who said what, and therefore put them at risk. It’s a bit like jigsaw identification from court cases – all it takes is one piece of information, no matter how random it appears to the journalist, to identify someone – and there’s no way a journalist can be 100% confident they aren’t putting people at risk.

The big difference between the previous US government leaks and the current round of cables is that the war logs dealt with new facts which came to light. The cables generally deal in opinion. They are often just one person’s take on what went on, or information they have picked up.

Time will tell what impact they have. The Guardian tried to build things up on Sunday night by saying world diplomacy was in crisis in its first report. Other newspapers given preferential access by Wikileaks spoke of ‘meltdown’ on Sunday night.

On the surface, three days in, neither assertion appears to be true. If the smoking gun is there, it’s yet to be revealed. Maybe it will be, and the public interest will be demonstrated – but at the moment, it feels as though we’re dealing with little more than a lot of previously secret opinions obtained in a way which could have broken the law. Is that so far removed from phone hacking by a third party?

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