Wikileaks – Dispatches from the Frontline

To the Frontline Club last night for a panel-discussion-cum-press-conference on Wikileaks and the US embassy cables.

Making our way through the media melee and a miasma of Wiki ‘will he, won’t he?’ (he didn’t), we were faced with our expert panel for the evening:

So, here’s a relatively unmediated data dump of some dispatches from the event:

1. Kristinn Hrafnsson said the general public had reacted with ‘gratitude’ to the cable revelations, while there had been a ‘very heated response and even threats from government and commentators’, as expected. Hrafnsson said it was interesting how most of the ire had been turned on Wikileaks and not the well-established media organisations it had chosen to share the information with.

2. Julian Assange was in a secret location with staff working on the project.

3. James Ball said the ‘incredibly significant’ material provided a ‘huge insight into how the world is actually operating right now’. If secrecy in diplomacy was the exception, not the norm, and citizens were kept informed, the only stories would be the tittle-tattle (such as the Prince Andrew angle).

4. Ball deployed a domestic analogy, arguing that the secrecy in US foreign relations contrasted sharply with the openness in domestic politics. Sir Richard Dalton later called this ‘bogus’ – you didn’t see the domestic equivalent, private conversations between US cabinet members, in the press.

5. Colleen Graffy thought the leaks had not damaged the image of the US – some of the stories were very positive, showing that diplomats were doing what they were supposed to be doing. The implications for communications between diplomats were much more concerning – it would be like asking journalists to reveal sources. It would have a ‘chilling effect’ – countries want their diplomats to be honest. Would journalists want to talk to diplomats if they thought the conversation might not be private? The intra-government information pool which allowed the leak to happen only came from the need, after 9/11, to share intelligence.

6. Dalton said ‘The facts of power are the same after the release of this material as before’. After a ‘clamming-up period’, matters were likely to return to as they were before. The material released does not belong in the public domain – citizens want governments to think, and act responsibly, and be subject to long-term accountability. That said, journalists have to do better at ‘ferreting out’ what they need, and governments should be more open and clean up their foreign policy acts (e.g. fewer invasions), otherwise leaks would continue.

7. Hrafnsson said Wikileaks had not been paid by the media organisations it was working with.

8. Graffy contrasted the Wikileaks cables with the Pentagon papers leak, and argued the difference was that there had been a specific reason, identifiable ‘malfeasance’, behind the exposure of the latter. She wondered how far Korean unification might have been put back by the leaks. Hrafnsonn replied we didn’t know what the effect would be; Graffy accused him of not caring. Hrafnsonn responded: ‘surely it is in the public interest for the people to know China’s position?’

9. Hrafnsson said Wikileaks had acted ‘in a responsible manner and will continue to do so’ – the Iraq war logs had removed all names and therefore posed no threat to any individual, despite Pentagon statements to the contrary. Graffy replied that you didn’t need names to work out whom or what was being described.

10. Dalton felt the USA should have guarded its data better – any news organisation would have published it if in possession.

11. Hrafnsson was asked when people would get bored given how many cables were left, and about what would be revealed next. On the latter point, Hrafnsson wouldn’t tell us (to shouts of ‘transparency!’ from the audience), but the documents would be released in bigger batches and Wikileaks expected to work with more media organisations.

12. While Wikileaks does not comment on ongoing projects, Wikileaks did – as Assange suggested to Forbes – have information on the operations of a bank. The bank is an American one.

13. Journalist Elizabeth Palmer asked if Wikileaks thought diplomats were entitled to private conversations, and who were Wikileaks to be the arbiters – why were they better than democratically elected governments? Ball answered that he was a journalist, one of over 100 journalists at six major media organisations working on the project. The role of the media as arbitrating information in the public interest was long-established (including in the case of the Pentagon papers), even enshrined in some constitutions. Why were these questions not being asked of The Guardian and Der Spiegel? In response to Palmer’s first question, Ball said secrecy did have a role but returned to the domestic analogy, with US domestic politics being more open. And the US government sees its citizens naked on exit and entry.

14. A Sunday Times journalist suggested his mother’s lasagne recipe was secret, but that didn’t make it interesting. Ball replied the cables were not office emails – they were official documents covered by protocols. If diplomats thought them significant, why shouldn’t journalists? Ball didn’t think all 250,000+ cables were interesting himself.

15. Graffy cited the 1961 Vienna Convention which privileged embassy communications. Who were Wikileaks (or any group) to say this was how something should be done, against the international community? She couldn’t see what could be done. At the State Department, she had been at the forefront of public diplomacy and been the first senior State Department official on twitter (to much abuse), as well as encouraging Facebook and blogging.

16. Dalton stressed that discussion should not be conducted along ‘the government is trying to keep information from its citizens’ grounds. As someone who had worked in the field, a lot of intelligence had to be protected.

17. An AFP journalist asked if, given the negative publicity and reports of internal disputes, Wikileaks might drop Julian Assange. Hrafnsson replied that they would have to see how the Swedish legal issue was resolved. The internal disputes had been ‘greatly overplayed’.

18. Asked if Wikileaks had given much thought to Bradley Manning, whom some American politicians had wanted to face the death penalty, Hrafnsson replied that he didn’t even know if Manning was the source of the embassy cables. Ball answered that the Wikileaks twitter feed had been used to support, and raise money for, Manning.

19. One questioner was concerned that the ‘unmediated’ release had led to the serious news being drowned by silly news. Ball replied that would be the fault of the press, not Wikileaks, and Hrafnsson thought it ‘interesting’ that it was again Wikileaks, and not the other media organisations, facing this criticism.

20. Did the diplomats on the panel think anything positive might come out of the leaks? Graffy thought there would be specific stories, but was still concerned about her ‘bottom line’ – that meetings and communications would be difficult if Chatham House rules were broken. Dalton hoped that the positive outcome would be improved scrutiny of foreign policy from MPs, who might be inspired to demand better answers to parliamentary questions.

21. Hrafnsson said decisions about releasing information were coordinated with partner news organisations. There were quite a few more releases to come, though it was hard to say more. The calls on these would be made by Wikileaks, and not other news organisations.

22. Tom Fenton asked how Wikileaks could justify ‘sitting on news’ – aren’t the press supposed to be competitive? Ball replied that everyone had agreed to it, and other news organisations were free to follow up or ignore. The phased release was because you couldn’t do justice to the ‘vast trove’ of information by releasing it in one go (as well as the need to immunise the documents against harming individuals).

23. Hrafnsson said the New York Times had not been cut out of the process – ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the press’.

24. In response to a question from the MST about whether Wikileaks was filling a void left by a decline in international reporting, and that many of the stories had been reported already, Ball said there was a difference between suspicion and corroboration. Hrafnsson said he had thought a lot about the breakdown in trust between the public and the media, and (as a result) the increased tendency towards secrecy in government. He knew the media had received valuable information and not published it in the years since the Pentagon papers. Dalton reiterated the point about ‘confirmed knowledge’ and ‘suspected knowledge’, but in contrast to Hrafnsson, thought there had been a tendency towards less secrecy in government. All thought ‘the void’ was a legitimate issue.

25. Wikileaks is funded by individual donations via a blind trust. The largest donation was $2000. The operational cost at the start of the year was €200,000, though this might be around three times higher given the workload. None of this information would be secret. There was always some increase in donations when attention was focused on Wikileaks – its most successful fundraising had come when it had temporarily shut down due to lack of funds.

26. Asked if there were any circumstances where Wikileaks wouldn’t publish, and against what criteria, Hrafnsson said it would be difficult to answer without talking about specific examples – he was a journalist and would follow the journalistic principles which were the criteria of every other journalist.

27. Hrafnsson denied there was an anti-US bias within Wikileaks – the focus on the US was only recent. He hoped people from other countries would submit documents. Graffy did feel there was a US-focus, which seemed unfair given the US’s Freedom of Information legislation.

28. Graffy felt the public were not getting the perspective that each cable was just one diplomat in the field; readers might be interpreting it as government policy. Ball didn’t think any news organisation would be naive enough to make this confusion (Graffy retorted that news organisations wanted to sell papers). Ball said that over 6000 articles on Google News suggested context had been provided.

29. Fenton closed by saying how the ‘Iran today, Russia the next’ approach to releasing the information reminded him of Pravda.