The advent of the WikiLeaks age

Back in 2010, newspaper editors joined forces in a unique collaboration They agreed to break the world’s biggest story, which came to be known as Cablegate

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange addresses an audience.
WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange addresses an audience.Getty Images (Getty Images)

I’ve got in front of me on my desk in London an unusual photograph taken in Madrid, of five important international editors, sitting together on the same stage. The five would previously have been rivals, but now they were friends.

The editors, from Spain, the UK, France, Germany and the US, joined forces back in 2010, in a unique collaboration. They agreed simultaneously to break the world’s biggest story, which came to be known by some as Cablegate.

The media turbulence shows how the internet has disrupted conventional publications

There had been a massive leak to The Guardian in London of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables from US embassies in 180 different countries, and the five editors agreed they would jointly publish their explosive contents.

Five years on, what have been the results?

One of the significant, and surprising, things about that photograph of the editors is that not a single one of the five is still there.

Javier Moreno no longer heads EL PAÍS; Sylvie Kauffman of Le Monde has since had no fewer than three successors in her Parisian editor’s chair; Georg Mascolo was ousted at Der Spiegel; Bill Keller stepped down at The New York Times to an unseemly struggle over the succession; and at The Guardian in London, Alan Rusbridger retired after 20 years of fighting to keep the loss-making paper afloat.

The media turbulence shows how the internet has disrupted conventional publications. The original group of editors came together because they recognized that new kinds of collaboration are needed for the survival of investigative journalism in difficult times. Five years on, the collapse of conventional journalistic business models has continued and is deepening. One consequence is that such international media collaborations have nowadays become almost normal.

But Cablegate also turned out to be the prototype of an entirely new kind of journalism – one that can reveal hitherto unknown facts to millions of people worldwide.

In the internet age, the contents of huge databases can be hacked and leaked, no matter how supposedly secret and secure. And once analyzed, they can be published around the world instantaneously, by media in different jurisdictions, so that even the lawyers and police of the mightiest superpower on Earth cannot stop the tsunami of disclosures.

Cablegate thus marked the coming of age of the phenomenon of the massive data leak.

In the years afterwards, there inexorably followed the even more sensational Snowden leaks of top-secret surveillance data from the US National Security Agency – brokered once more by a group of cross-border journalists. A series of bulk leaks of offshore financial information came next, revealing the worldwide identities of company owners using secrecy jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands.

Cablegate turned out to be the prototype of an entirely new kind of journalism – one that can reveal hitherto unknown facts to millions of people worldwide

By this year, a further leak of gigabytes of data from the HSBC international bank was identifying tax-dodgers and criminals across the planet who held secret Swiss accounts. It is safe to predict that the next set of global data leaks will not merely be on a gigabyte, but on a terabyte scale.

So a flood of new, globalized, relatively unfiltered information is being unstoppably revealed to the general public. That is a dramatic development.

But did the 2010 publication of the contents of the US embassy cables actually in itself revolutionize world politics?

The truthful answer is “Not exactly”. The expression “Cablegate” pays homage to Watergate, the famous 1974 scandal in which US President Nixon was forced to resign after a burglary of his opponents’ Washington offices in the Watergate building.

But the “Gate” word was misleading in 2010. With one exception, publication of the diplomatic cables did not by and large reveal the crimes of the US government. It exposed the misdeeds of others.

The diplomatic traffic from Madrid, for example, put Spanish politicians in a bad light. A Spanish journalist had been killed by US “friendly fire” in Baghdad.

As EL PAÍS editor Moreno wrote at the time “The cables revealed the double speak of government and prosecutors. Our stories showed that they told US diplomats they would try to hinder or even close down the case while telling the family of the dead journalist that they would do everything they could to advance it. This has been difficult for the Socialist government to explain.”

Did the publication of the contents of the US embassy cables actually in itself revolutionize world politics?

Cables from Madrid further contained the most damning official exposures of Vladimir Putin’s Russia ever to be made public. A Spanish prosecutor working on cross-border organized crime described in detail to US officials how Russia had become a “mafia state.” His harsh descriptions of crime and corruption could never normally have come to light, and are crucial for understanding Russia’s current gangster behavior in the world.

The one important exception to this US-friendly picture was the revelation of orders circulated by the US state department to diplomats, to spy on staff at the UN, and try to obtain metrics such as their credit card numbers, email addresses and frequent-flier account numbers. The disclosure caused a scandal in 2010: but its fully sinister quality only emerged later, with the Snowden revelations that the US had developed technology for mass hacking into all sorts of fiber-optic internet traffic as it flowed across the world. That was why they wanted the numbers.

This pattern of events has turned out to be the enduring legacy of “Cablegate.” The cables have become a permanently valuable reference resource. Their unvarnished contents are still frequently cited by researchers and have genuinely revolutionized our understanding of political reality.

Meanwhile, of course, the outcome for the individual whistleblowers behind these leaks has not been happy. Edward Snowden, inspired to act by the 2010 Cablegate saga, is languishing in Russia, forced into asylum there and threatened with prison if he returns to the US. Julian Assange, the Australian hacker behind WikiLeaks who brokered the leaked cables to the five editors, is still in hiding at the embassy of Ecuador in London, unwilling to return to Sweden where he faces potential charges of sexual assault.

And Private Manning, the actual leaker of the cables, a troubled and technically savvy young US soldier who managed to download all the classified files from a military terminal outside Baghdad, is serving out a 35-year sentence in an army prison in Kansas. Now openly changing gender, she has become Chelsea Manning and is having hormone treatment.

Although the more deranged American voices calling at the time for her to be shot for treason have fallen silent, any prospect of parole is still many years away. By her sensational acts of leaking, Manning said she wanted to bring about “worldwide discussion, debates and reforms”. And so she did. But it is difficult to imagine that she is holding very joyful anniversary celebrations in her prison cell.

David Leigh handled the Cables publication as investigations editor of The Guardian in London in 2010.

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