The Great and the Good of the digging fraternity were all there – in the flesh or on-screen – from Harold Evans to Bob Woodward to Donal MacIntyre. Wikileaks hung over it, as it did over two recent ‘off the record’ seminars in Oxford with Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the Guardian, which published much of the Wikileaks documents, and Lord Michael Jay, the former head of the British diplomatic service.
Julian Assange and Wikileaks did bring industrial quantities of previously secret documents into the public domain. The US cables are made up of 3 million words and number 250,000. Raw data in spades thanks to that wiped Lady Gaga disc.
Assange (right), who seems somewhat of a loner and inclined to fall out with people, might well have published that data raw – lock, stock and names out in the open. The professional journalists redacted it; processing it and turning it into stories.
The Guardian alone had 20 journalists working on the project for some time, led by the indefatigable David Leigh (who also spoke at the Coventry conference). Its other media partners – in the US, Germany and Spain – put their best journalistic brains on the project.
The Guardian got four weeks’ worth of good stories and headlines out of Assange’s treasure trove, plus a very good and entertaining instant book (now bought for a feature film) by Leigh and Luke Harding. Assange got the hump (again) and is now publishing in the Daily Telegraph. Just 4,000 cables have so far seen the light of day; 246,000 to go.
But did the world fall in on publication of the cables? Not exactly. There was some fallout: President Mugabe accusing his prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, of treason; Saudi Arabia revealed as no fan of Iran … but much more?
Rusbridger was surprised at how ‘mature’ the US, and especially the State Department, had been about the Wikileaks cables. Lord Jay, ever the cool diplomat, almost welcomed them as showing how accurately and professionally US diplomats reported on their conversations with the powerful. His diplomatic world had not shaken, although he seemed certain that we Brits would not allow ‘a cipher clerk’ access to such secrets.
So, on balance, did Wikileaks tell us things we did not know before? Almost certainly – lots. Do we care? Well, the juries are still out on that, as they are on Assange and his activities.
John Mair produced Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? – a Coventry Conversations/BBC College of Journalism conference at Coventry University – on 9 March. Podcasts and video available on the College of Journalism’s YouTube channel and www.coventry.ac.uk/itunesU
Many Thanks to BBC College of Journalism