So you thought the WikiLeaks saga couldn’t get any stranger, more convoluted or more ridiculous in juxtaposing stories of world import with petty absurdity? Think again. In what must surely be the last part of the final act of The Guardian’s tortured relationship with the organisation, chief reporter David Leigh has been mounting a desperate rearguard action against charges that he bears major responsibility for the availability of 250,000 unredacted diplomatic cables — and, it would seem, losing. There was also a sideshow featuring investigative journalist Nick Davies, your correspondent and an errant glass of wine.
As always, these aren’t the major stories — they’re the ones coming out of the total cable dump, which is now providing a seventh wave of major news stories (credited and otherwise), since the Afghan logs were released last year. But WikiLeaks becomes the story, not only because of legitimate questions about the ethics of whistleblowing, but because it’s an easier story to tell — a simple narrative, limited number of characters, and it fits into an easier story (idealism gone awry) than messy stuff about states, wars, secrets, etc.
M’colleague Keane covered the first part of this latest twist in the tale, but a quick recap — nearly two weeks ago WikiLeaks released all 250,000 cables in an unredacted form from the “Cablegate” archive, claiming that an interview given by former WikiLeaks member Daniel Domscheit-Berg had alerted people to the presence on the net of complete copies of the file, WikiLeaks also noted that the files could be opened by a password published in February this year, by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding in their insider book on Cablegate. WikiLeaks said that it had known of this security breach for months, but had kept silent about it — now that it was revealed, access to the cables needed to be as widespread as possible.
WikiLeaks’s five former mainstream media partners condemned the move, and David Leigh jumped in on Twitter, noting:
Leigh’s defence was useful because it put the different approaches of WikiLeaks and the left-liberal mainstream media in sharp relief. After all, the whole WikiLeaks argument has always been that conspiracies exist via an imbalance of levels of knowledge and connection between the inside and outside of the conspiracy. With Domscheit-Berg’s revelations, and the extant password, attentive insider networks — journos, activists, and of course, security services — could access the files.
Far better, their argument ran, to let everyone have access, and equalise information levels. Leigh’s tweet appears to suggest that the worst thing that could happen would be that “the public” would get hold of them. No! Not … the public!
That’s not completely fair — Leigh and others allege that WikiLeaks’s release is unnecessary, designed to embarrass Domscheit-Berg, and that Assange had always intended to release the unredacted cables in any case. They maintain that the fault lies with Assange for leaving the files online, using the same password, and not informing them of the release.
But last week, that argument came under attack, when The Economist broke ranks, and made the simple point against Leigh:
“Mr Assange’s file management looks sloppy, but Mr Leigh’s blunder seems bigger. Since digital data is easily copied, safeguarding passwords is more important than secreting files.”
Leigh responded to this, and a couple of early commenters, on the comments string almost immediately:
It’s easy to be anonymous, act knowing, and defame me. But your facts are wrong. The only person who published the raw US cables was Assange. No other website did. He did so because of a spat with rival Daniel Domscheit-Berg, not because of the Guardian book. He was even trying to persuade the Guardian editor to work again with him a couple of weeks ago, far from complaining of any imaginary password “blunder”. We have a tape of that meeting. Nothing in our book enabled the cables to be published and five news organisations, ours included, have condemned Assange’s reckless move. Whoever you are, you might check with me next time you want to throw around such uninformed remarks.
Following this, numerous commentators sought to correct Leigh, especially regarding his claim that the book did not allow the cables to be “published”. Since they were only “published” when decrypted using Leigh’s password, this was clearly in error — and one commenter even provided a log of users searching for, finding and decrypting the cable.
Yes, I understand the archive with z.gpg somewhere in it was posted by Assange or his friends in an obscure location around 7 December 2010…
… Obviously, I wish now I hadn’t published the full password in the book. It would have been easy to alter, and that would have avoided all these false allegations. But I was too trusting of what Assange told me.
Strange days indeed, but they got stranger for this correspondent that Wednesday, when attending the launch of Heather Brooke’s new book The Revolution Will Be Digitised. I was there by chance, having run into Heather — well-known as the journo who instigated the UK parliamentary expenses scandal — in the street on her way to the launch, a block from my flat.
Personally, I will attend the opening of a jar, but this one may not have been a good idea …
Brooke was closely associated with the Guardian team, and my relations with their star reporter Nick Davies was not good. In mid-December 2010, Davies had written a report of the s-x crime allegations against Assange, based on a translation of the leaked Swedish police file. When I obtained a copy of the same report, I came to the conclusion that Davies’ article — which had become the English version of record — had not conveyed the full contradiction and ambiguity of the police report. After I wrote a passing mention in Crikey of this matter, Nick raised a hue and cry, and we had met at a pub to talk through our differing views of the matter. Later, when I informed him by email that I continued to disagree with his version of events, he was not pleased — and when I published a long critical account in The Monthly, he was, to say the least, extremely upset (and I suspect he is yet to see the fuller version in the April print edition of Counterpunch).
So, having grabbed a wine and spotted Nick’s white halo in the crowd, I was prepared for a bit of froideur — but when I turned around from saying hi to a Spiked/royal correspondent pal, Nick was already barrelling up to me.
“Oh, hi Ni — ”.
“You c — t, Rundle. Why don’t you f — k off. No one wants you here.”
“Well I’m invite — .”
“Oh you just bailed up Heather in the street. F-ck off, you c-nt. You’re the worst journalist I’ve ever met.”
We stood at an impasse, for an interminable minute, with Nick saying “go on, f-ck off, c-nt” every 10 seconds or so.
After a little more of this, he ambled back to the Guardianista corner. Heather gave her speech, the book was launched, and I made to leave. As I said a brief goodbye to Private Eye’s Francis Wheen, Davies spotted me again and approached Wheen.
“Look, this is the c-nt I’ve been telling you about,” he said to Wheen.
“Calm down, Nick,” said Francis.
“But he’s an absolute c-nt — OK step aside, you c-nt,” he said, turning to me.
“Well I will — to leave,” I said.
“OK then, take that,” he said, launching half a glass of dry white straight at me.
The next day’s Evening Standard would say that it was a good shot. It was indeed, and the booze slid straight into my eye. I made a remark about going to change my contact lenses, and went home.
It also contained the inaccurate accusation that The Monthly had published a “retraction” of my article (the online version was taken down, without prejudice).
OK, that’s when it got meta-weird. The last thing I had done was to give Nick my exact address in Frith Street — so that he could sue me for libel as he had expressed a wish to do, and The Guardian’s copy of the police report, and interpretation, could be compared with mine in open court (oh, that’s right — you didn’t retain a copy of the report, did you guys?).
Three quarters of an hour later, a familiar voice came drifting up from the street to our first-floor window. Outside my flat, Davies was pacing back and forth, barking into a mobile phone.
Back and forth he went on the pavement for 10 minutes, before joining his companion in the Thai restaurant directly opposite. What was this? Coincidence? He knew I lived here, and Soho has 9000 restaurants. A stake-out, perhaps, with chicken green curry? Who knew? Radio Girl and I watched, fascinated for a while, as he talked non-stop at his friend, all the way up to Newsnight. Then they wandered up Frith Street.
Fun times, though I couldn’t read or write for two days.
But what on earth drives the Guardianistas so crazy about matters Assange? Even Heather, a journalist I have a great respect for, argued in her speech that the digital revolution had been “destroyed by one man — Julian Assange”. Really? He’s that powerful? Or the people around him that weak? That’s not really an analysis, it’s a Dilbert cartoon — “Assange broke the internet”.
Ditto Davies, Leigh — who has spent months baiting Assange on Twitter — and others who can’t think straight, even when they have legitimate criticisms of Assange. Those who found him impossible to work with simply moved on. Those who became entranced by him, and infused with his radical vision find him a little hard to get over. When you can’t deal with that, you become lost for words, and before you know it, you’re on the pavement striking out with whatever’s to hand.