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  1. How Wikileaks changed the world

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    Wikileaks: the website that changed the world
    15 March 2011, 12.30
    4.5 / 5

    Carne Ross, who resigned as a diplomat in 2004 after giving secret evidence about how the UK government had put forward an exaggerated case for war, dominated the session organised by the Guardian about the impact of the Wikileaks site. 

    • Describing the cables as of “unique political and diplomatic significance”, Ross said the newspapers were not the ideal manager of this information and went on to push that point many times. “The cables have reinforced the government argument against transparency because several of them should not have been released - one detailed the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack on an embassy in Yemen, and one nuclear sites in Spain. I can’t see any public interest, just value to potential attackers.” 

    • Rather than methodically analysing the cables, Ross argued, the papers picked out stories by searching for keywords, indicating that plenty of less obvious stories will not have been covered, while the NYT missed a significant and explosive story about the US government conducting secret aerial surveillance of Hezbollah on behalf of the Lebanese government, while a British paper misinterpreted a story about the US offering british nuclear secrets to the Russians during disarmament talks. Given the falling resources of newspapers, they are not equipped to properly manage this type of release said Ross: “There needs to be an intelligent network of experts to look at the cables, ensure damaging ones are not released and that the full set are analysed. They should work with people in Western Sahara and Sudan - the New York Times and Guardian should not be the arbiter. And given the amateurishness of Wikileaks as an organisation and how arbitrary it has been in its decision making… we need new forms of transparency and to think imaginatively about credibility.” But he also said that if Wikileaks has shown governments that they can and will be breached, we can hope that they will begin to realise their obligation “to do in private what they say in public”. 

    • Ross tapped an upswell of feeling among the mostly American audience who felt the NYT had broken its trust with readers by, according to one, holding back stories on the US decision to go to war because it was two weeks before the US election.  That just proved Ross’s point further; that established institutions, from the press to Congress to NGOs, have failed to hold power to account. “There has been an abject failure  there - the old ways don’t work. We cannot rely on traditional freedoms and there should be a collectively richer discussion that is promoted in an intelligent way.” The cables, he said, ultimately show self interest on behalf of Assange and the newspapers who need to sell copies. 

    • Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz, who has the honour of being the “last person at the Guardian on speaking terms” with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, opened by explaining the steep learning curve of dealing with the vast amount of data involved in the 250,000  diplomatic cables made available through Wikileaks. A team from the Guardian’s technology department were brought in to make an accessible database out of the raw data, though attempts to use ‘burner’ style mobile phones to communicate securely (as inspired by The Wire) were farcical, not least because no-one could remember the changing numbers. 

    • Over the course of a year, the working relationship with the New York Times grew from guarded to close. The relationship with Assange, now famously severed, could not have been handled any differently though, Katz concluded. “That’s partly because of the personality he is, but also when your source becomes the story there’s an inbuilt tension there.” Katz did say that in retrospect the paper “wished it had covered more extensively and energetically” the case of Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked the cables to Wikileaks.

    • With only a slight interruption from a peculiar drumming through the audio system that could have been the supernatural presence of Assange, Katz described Assange as “an impresario… giving out data to create maximum impact” but also found himself of positioning the white-haired Australian hacker. “People have been tough on Julian - he’s damned if he does and if he doesn’t. He started saying he wanted to dump all the documents and people rightly criticised him for confidential sources. So he needed to find a mechanism to make documents safe, which was working with us. 

    • Issandr El Amrani of the Arabist reminded the room that the kind of freedoms provided by both Wikileaks and the Western press are very far removed from the reality of many Middle East regimes: “In egypt the public archives of documents has not been open to the public since 1952… these papers don’t have a lot of Middle East experts going through these documents to put them into context but are privileged in Britain and the US to be able to act like this… The media ecosystem in the Middle East is just far less complicated.”

    • ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg predicted than Wikileaks will one day surface a fabricated document unless its material can be subjected to scrutiny and contextualised. Engelberg showed he was prepared to accept a very basic definition of a journalist by saying that ‘obtaining and publishing documents’ was enough to classify Assange as a journalist, though “dumping data isn’t journalism”. As for the responsibility of the papers in choosing what to publish, he doesn’t doubt that they would take the blame if a seemingly related terrorist attack came six months after publishing Wikileaks-sourced information.

    • Audio of this session is available on the SXSW site

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Jemima Kiss is a media reporter for the Guardian and Robbie Clutton is a software developer for the Guardian. Find our full coverage of SXSW 2011 at guardian.co.uk/sxsw

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