Why we were right to publish the WikiLeaks material

If the Guardian’s diplomatic correspondent walked into the office three months ago to inform the news editor that a very good US embassy contact had told him that the Chinese leadership was reconciled to the unification of the two Koreas under the leadership of the south, it would have been the basis for a rather good story.

The news editor would have asked him to check it out with other sources and seek a further layer of verification. If the reporter said he had been shown an official communique circulated among US diplomats and that furthermore he had checked it with a friendly senior Chinese official who had confirmed this was true, we would have run it, very probably as the front-page lead.

The simple journalistic truth that underpins probably the largest and most complex reporting exercise ever undertaken by the Guardian is that all the stories emerging from the WikiLeaks material would have been important public-interest stories in any circumstances.

The story about China and Korea was just one of the many we have published that have emerged from the 250,000 US diplomatic cables held by WikiLeaks. This theme of the public interest in publishing the stories has been explored in a series of pieces that have sat alongside the coverage in print and on the web. They have included articles by Simon Jenkins, Timothy Garton Ash, Max Frankel – a former New York Times editor who dealt with the Pentagon papers – and a note by the editor that aimed to tackle the issues of justification.

Among those who emailed and posted comments on the WikiLeaks stories online – I have read through about 1,000 of the emails and posts on these articles – most agree that publication was and is the right thing to do. But a substantial minority hold a different view. Their arguments are that the Guardian has endangered lives, made the business of governments impossible, relayed insignificant diplomatic tittle-tattle to sell newspapers and encouraged treason and theft. And would we be sending money to Bradley Manning’s defence team? He is the soldier accused of downloading and leaking the material (No, the Guardian covered the story after the material was downloaded. We did not encourage anybody to do so. But we will follow the trial closely and publicise Manning’s defence).

One view – posted at the end of a Simon Jenkins article that argued “The job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment” – said: “As much as I love the Guardian and use it as a primary source of news … this stinks … I ask who on staff at the Guardian is qualified to determine whether there is harm done by the selective release of this information? Who actually made these decisions? … You want to know where the harm will come? The whole point of making these cables available to so many of its [US government’s] employees was to make it easier for the likes of Anne Patterson [a US envoy in Pakistan] to have the ability to see the forest for the trees … to connect the dots … To make it easier for somebody, somewhere, to put it all together and prevent another 9/11 (or 7/7 for that matter).” Alan Rusbridger, the editor in chief, makes the final decisions about what is published and what is not. He takes the ultimate responsibility. He has worked with a team, that has numbered up to 30 at some points, of senior print and web editors, investigative journalists and foreign correspondents, subeditors, lawyers, systems editors and technologists – the interactive map on the site has been the Guardian’s most used graphic online, ever. The team combed every document and story published to ensure, as far as they were able, that no names of those who may be vulnerable to harm or retaliation have slipped through.

There were 4.1 million unique users on the first day the material went online, a record, and 3.3 million on the second day.

A reader who posted in favour of publication at the end of Jenkins’s article said: “The importance of these documents may not be in their content as sensational revelation, but merely in the fact that there is now proof of what was known … There is the revelation in minutiae of a shadow world, inhabited by the powerful who take it upon themselves to play the game of life for us … Private Manning, who may have leaked these docs, may in fact be a greater defender of democracy than Clinton, Rice, Bush, Obama etc.”

This column was originally published in the Guardian on Dec. 6, 2010.

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