Evans for Fortune: Right to Publish the Wiki Cables

December 3rd, 2010

Right to publish the Wiki cables

By Harold Evans

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Published: December 3 2010 22:56 |

No editor could resist the appeal of getting his hands on a quarter of a million official messages on the gritty details of how America conducts its foreign policy. And yet any editor with pretensions to responsible journalism must hesitate over publishing the WikiLeaks’ cache of US diplomatic cables raw.

As editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-1981 I not infrequently faced prosecution for publishing information the authorities or businesses preferred to keep secret: the Cabinet diaries of Richard Crossman; the reasons a DC-10 airliner fell out of the sky; an undisclosed scheme to close a third of the UK rail system; the blunders behind the thalidomide tragedy and so on. My colleagues were with me in feeling we had a strong public interest defence for these controversial publications and eventually the courts agreed. But how should we judge these vast WikiLeaks dumpings and more to follow? How far do they pass the routine tests of good journalism?

Credibility must always be the first issue. When Abe Rosenthal executive editor of the New York Times, first waded into the 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers, the collation of Vietnam war policy documents from 1954-1968, his excitement was succeeded by doubt. “My greatest nightmare,” he said later, “was that they were written by a thousand SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] kids in some loft in Harvard. You know – one of them would say – I’ll be [Robert] McNamara and you be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

We can now presume from the official reactions to the WikiLeaks that the quotations are genuine, though it is never ever a good idea to relax one’s scepticism (as Hugh Trevor-Roper learned when the Hitler diaries he’d certified for The Times as “the real McCoy” were soon proven to be bad forgeries). We certainly do not know whether Wiki’s selection of the messages it stole is a fair representation of the whole. Are the drive-by character assassinations of foreign leaders, which have grabbed so much attention, incidental or integral to a judgment of them? Information, to be meaningful, needs context and perspective.

The character of the purveyor Wikipedia’s Julian Assange, hardly enhances confidence. Clearly, it is not the people’s “right to know” that animates him and his colleagues who remain anonymous while professing the virtues of transparency for everyone else. They are not exposing a Watergate conspiracy. Their ambition is simply to damage America any way they can. On earlier releasing 76,000 military documents about Afghanistan, Mr Assange talked of war crimes they would reveal, but Wiki’s own reckless disclosures identified dozens of Afghans credited with providing intelligence to the US and thereby exposed them to a Taliban beheading. The infantile leftism of this Scarlet Pimpernel will be repugnant to many who would like to see him prosecuted for treason.

And yet, and yet, these are not sufficient reasons for an editor to reject the material, or for the US to seek indictments under the Espionage Act. Sources are often unsavoury. The classic words on this were uttered in 1931 by the Chief Justice Hughes about Jay Near, the publisher of a Minnesota scandal sheet. Near had exposed a protection racket to the displeasure of crooked politicians. He was also a shrill bigot, anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-labour, and not above blackmailing petty crooks and politicians who might have been seen in the backseat of a car in a procreative position. Leading a 5-4 verdict for Near, Hughes declared: “The rights of the best of men, are secured only as the rights of the vilest and most abhorrent are protected.” Reckless assaults on public men had a baleful influence and deserved to be condemned, but government had grown so complex, that a vigilant and courageous press was a primary need for public protection.

This is especially true in foreign affairs. The New York Times and Washington Post were able to defeat President Richard Nixon’s extraordinary prosecution and publish extensive extracts from the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg had stolen, partly on the way Near v. Minnesota buttressed the First Amendment, but also because the justices accepted that in areas of national defence and international affairs, the executive possessed great constitutional independence virtually unchecked by the legislative and judicial branch. “In the absence of governmental checks and balances,” wrote Mr Justice Potter Stewart, “the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power may lie [in these two areas] in an informed and a critical public opinion which alone can protect the values a of a democratic government.”

But there’s the rub. An informed and critical public opinion cannot easily be formed when habits of secrecy are ingrained as they were for so long in Britain, or when patriotic emotions overwhelm press vigilance as they did in America in the run-up to the Iraq war.

I believe the newspapers that have published extensive extracts in context and with care to protect confidences – exemplified by the New York Times coverage – were right to do so. The surprisingly vivid characterisations of foreign leaders will make life more difficult for American diplomats and perhaps for the people they describe, but anyone who reads the carefully edited reports cannot fail to be impressed by the efforts of American diplomacy for peace and security. The president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Les Gelb has seen both sides as a former official and columnist. “When you remove the gossip and obvious trivia that mesmerised the press,” he writes in the Daily Beast. “You clearly see what the WikiLeakers never expected: A United States seriously and professionally trying to solve the most dangerous problems in a frighteningly complicated world, yet lacking  the  power  to  dictate  solutions.

The writer is former president of Random House and author of “My Paper Chase”.