One cable, many stories

On the 3rd of January this year, Guardian contributor, James Richardson wrote an article about how Wikileaks would have committed the same ‘collateral murder’ it accused the US military of (in their edited video of an Iraq drone operation)  if Zimbabwean Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangarai was convicted of treason. One of the cables (published 8 December 2010) indicated that Tsvangarai was privately supporting sanctions by the US against Zimbabwe when he had publicly denounced them. The Zimbabwean Attorney General responded by launching an investigation into the matter, saying that ‘The WikiLeaks appear to show a treasonous collusion between local Zimbabweans and the aggressive international world, particularly the United States.’ Richardson complained that ‘WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life’.

Soon afterwards, in a Twitter response to the article, Wikileaks alerted the Guardian to the fact that the Guardian, not Wikileaks, had actually published the cable in question. Eleven days after the story was published, it was edited to reflect the new facts with following statement: ‘This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks. The photo caption was also amended to reflect this fact.’

On January 13, The Guardian’s Deputy Editor, Ian Katz wrote an explanation of the mistake, saying that technically it was both Wikileaks and the Guardian that published the cables. He explained the process as follows:

‘The Guardian and four other international news organisations had – and has – access to all 250,000 leaked US embassy cables. When the Guardian released a story based on one or more documents, we generally published the relevant cables, edited where we considered it necessary to protect sources. These redacted versions were shared with WikiLeaks which published them (more or less) simultaneously. This system applied to most of the cables released up to the end of last year, though WikiLeaks released a small number “unilaterally”. So it would be fair to describe us as joint publishers of any cables we have selected, with joint responsibility for any consequences of their release.’

He added that it was an honest mistake to make since it had become ‘journalistic shorthand to refer to the material as a “WikiLeaks revelation” even though the Guardian had “done the revealing”, ‘not to mention much of the time-consuming work of finding, editing and redacting the material.’ Katz said that this was partly because ‘we did not want to look as though we were stealing WikiLeaks’s thunder or glory’.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com complained that the Guardian’s actions were unacceptable – especially due to the fact that they took so long to make the correction when WikiLeaks on Twitter noted the falsehood driving the stories a fully week before saying:  “It is not acceptable [for] the Guardian to blame us for a cable the Guardian selected and published on Dec 8.”  Said Greenwald: ‘So this glaring, serious error has been publicly known and amplified for a full week (through WikiLeaks’ Twitter account, followed by 650,000 people, which presumably is followed by anyone writing about WikiLeaks, at least I’d hope so).  Yet these Beacons of Journalistic Responsibility have still failed to acknowledge that the very serious accusation they published about WikiLeaks was based in a wholesale fabrication.’

Greenwald said that this isn’t an isolated instance and that it is part of a propagandist campaign by the media/government to demonize Wikileaks by making people believe that it indiscriminately dumped 250,000 cables, when in fact Wikileaks largely relies on the editorial judgment of the newspapers for what to release.

Aaron Bady, a graduate student at Berkeley, wrote that the problem with the Guardian’s article is that ‘they don’t seem to be anywhere nearly as interested in being right about Zimbabwe as they are in moralizing about Wikileaks.’ The article, said Bady, ‘polemically oversimplify a situation that is actually quite complicated and ambiguous’. He goes on to explain why the assumption that the cable could result in Tsvangirai’s execution is incorrect and points to the fact that the journalists missed the most important part about the cable i.e. that Tsvangirai lied to his own people about the sanctions, choosing instead to focus on gossip (the headline is written as: “US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly ‘old, tired and poorly briefed’”). In the cable itself, the only portion that is highlighted is a paragraph discussing Mugabe’s fatigue and by implication, loosening grip on power.

Clearly material comes into the public domain if those translating it for the public are able to retrofit it according to the narratives that they depend on for their power. From the Zimbabwean cable in question it seems that the Guardian (and those who re-published the story in Politico, The Atlantic and the WSJ) were not so much interested in the content of the cable as opposed to making it fit their story of Wikileaks as dangerous, indiscriminate and inhumane.

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