The Guardian appears to have realised the true significance of the document implicating Morgan Tsvangirai only after they published it and subsequently sought to distance themselves from the fallout by shifting the flak onto Wikileaks.
The Guardian has recently been brought to task by Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald for their attack on Wikileaks over the release of a cable potentially implicating Zimbabwe prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in secret support for US sanctions against the country.
It is thought this alleged complicity may find Tsvangirai charged with treason and if found guilty perhaps even sentenced to the death penalty. Responding to news of this criminal investigation, the Guardian published what Greenwald rightly refers to as ‘a scathing Op-Ed by James Richardson‘ claiming that Wikileaks had caused ‘collateral damage in Zimbabwe‘ by releasing the document.
The article went on to claim Wikileaks may have ‘upend[ed] the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and sign[ed] the death warrant of its pro-western premier‘. But it was at its most damning in the closing paragraphs:
“where Mugabe’s strong-arming, torture and assassination attempts have failed to eliminate the leading figure of Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition, WikiLeaks may yet succeed. Twenty years of sacrifice and suffering by Tsvangirai all for naught, as WikiLeaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency.”
Greenwald responded to the vitriolic piece by drawing attention to the fact it was the Guardian that had released the document, not Wikileaks. Wikileaks had indeed published the document on its own website, but only after the Guardian had reported on it and published it on their site, as per the methodology agreed between the partners.
Eight days later on 11 January 2011, after the story had spread around the world and the damage done, the Guardian published a correction and made various haphazardly applied amendments to those articles charging Wikileaks with the release of the offending cable.
Then, following further pressure from Greenwald, Ian Katz, the Guardian’s deputy editor, published a meandering clarification of the correction, attributing the false charge against Wikileaks of ‘collateral murder’ to journalistic shorthand:
“It’s important to remember a bit of context: during the whole period “WikiLeaks” became shorthand used by virtually all journalists the world over for the entire project. This was partly – or even mainly – to give them credit for being the main source (or intermediary) for the material. So, day after day, news organisations such as the BBC and other newspapers reported that “WikiLeaks today revealed that …”
Katz also took the opportunity to close the discussion, in the hope of burying the story in the bog of bureaucracy that is the formal complaints procedure:
“if anyone disagrees they are free to refer the matter to the Guardian’s independent readers’ editor.”
[Its also important to note, as the Media Lens Editors have pointed out, the Guardian was studious in not linking to Greenwalds damning critique of their coverage in their clarification]
However, throughout this correction / clarification saga there seems to have been a significant oversight in the discussion. In Richardson’s initial attack against Wikileaks he concludes:
Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.”
It is on this point that Greenwald appears to have gone a little soft. While he (alone, it seems) challenged the Guardian on their reporting of this, he seems to have backed off at the crucial moment. The Guardian has indeed corrected the falsehood, albeit with easy-to-miss corrections and minor and inconsistently applied word changes (from ‘Wikileaks’ to ‘the Guardian’), they have failed to address the central issue.
In the first instance, with the publishing of the cable, the Guardian simply failed to understand what they were putting into the public domain. They failed to predict the fallout in Zimbabwe and when an article deflecting flak towards Wikileaks came along (or was requested) they happily went with it, until that is, Greenwald called them on it.
Then in a moment of farce Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger attempted to deflect flak of the flak-deflection, suggesting that the Guardian’s editorial oversight is somehow suspended in the ‘Comment is Free’ section:
If Comment is Free was like Open Salon, as Rusbridger claims, then you’d be reading this piece cross-posted there. But you’re not and the Guardian has a set of contributor guidelines explaining why.
But going back to the initial report on the cable. When first commenting on this the Guardian highlighted the following passage, under the headline ‘US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly ‘old, tired and poorly briefed’‘:
“7. (C) On the subject of Mugabe himself, Tsvangirai said that in his recent meetings, though Mugabe seems mentally acute, he appears old and very tired. He comes to many meetings unbriefed and unaware of the content. It appears that he is being managed by hardliners. Tsvangirai said his goal now is to find a way to ‘manage’ Mugabe himself. One way, perhaps, would be to give him something to give his hardliners. Precisely what that something is, he said, is something he is still wrestling with.”
The article that the cable was published in support of, ‘WikiLeaks cables reveal differing views of ‘crazy’, ‘charming’ Robert Mugabe‘, amounted to little more than diplomatic tittle tattle, describing various conflicting impressions of president Mugabe’s physical and mental condition.
These insights were of as much consequence as those cables which revealed Barack Obama referred to David Cameron as a ‘lightweight‘, or a US ambassador blamed Gordon Brown for ‘post-Blair rudderlessness‘ and the ones where Nicolas Sarkozy is depicted as a ‘self-absorbed, thin-skinned, erratic character who tyrannises his ministers and staff‘. Essentially highbrow-tabloid-gossip.
The Guardian and, surprisingly, their East Africa correspondent, Xan Rice, had entirely failed to understand the true significance of the cable:
“4. (C) ZANU-PF seems to have introduced a new tactic in its agenda – reciprocity. What this means, he said, is that Mugabe is asking, “What’s in this for us?” If MDC gets governorships, Mugabe asks, why can’t the sanctions against ZANU-PF be lifted? Tsvangirai said that it seems that Mugabe plans to use the governors as a trade-off against sanctions. He said he has repeatedly told Mugabe that MDC has no control over sanctions. But, he added, lack of any flexibility on the issue of sanctions poses a problem for him and his party. In this he assured us that Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Q In this he assured us that Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara is in full agreement with him. He also acknowledged that his public statements calling for easing of sanctions versus his private conversations saying they must be kept in place have caused problems.”
It is here that both the claim, made countless other times, that Wikileaks can’t do what the professional establishment media can and the blame game and its explanation / justification become untangled.
Greenwald on the other hand seems to tiptoe around this issue (unless that is I’ve confused tact for tempering of criticism). In tweets he sent to Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger he wrote, initially in response to Rusbridger’s promise of further clarification to the correction:
And after the Guardian published its explanation:
But something didn’t simply ‘go wrong’ and the Guardian’s explanation was not candid. This ‘mistake’ served a purpose, a purpose that benefits the Guardian, in that it deflects the flak arising from the leak, while also hiding the journalistic / editorial blunder.
From Katz’s article:
“…Our judgment was that publishing the Zimbabwe cable would not place Tsvangirai, a high-profile elected politician who has been publicly highly critical of Robert Mugabe for years, in danger. If we’re wrong about that we’ll have to accept our share of the blame. But it is not right, as some have implied, to characterise the situation as one in which it was exclusively the Guardian rather than WikiLeaks which is responsible.”
If the Guardian had really understood the importance of the cable’s contents, and given the obvious sensitivities of Zimbabwean politics, it is unlikely they would have published the type of piece they did. In fact, given the reaction, they would likely not have published it at all.
In its damage limitation the Guardian has, consciously or subconsciously, drawn on a dominant discourse within mainstream media criticism of Wikileaks’ own brand of whistleblowing. It echos dishonest US government rhetoric that Wikileaks has ‘blood on its hands‘, and feeds fuel to the fire for those media pundits and political figures calling for the assassination of Assange.
So much for the ‘media partnership’.
This comes of the nub of this issue. Wikileaks is accused of being reckless, dumping masses of sensitive documents into the public domain without a care for the consequences, not understanding the rules of professional journalism, the complex nature of diplomacy etc. This incident shows that even the best of the mainstream media can, and often do, fail to live up to the very rules they apply to others.
True the Guardian’s coverage of the US diplomatic cables has been good, but this episode sends a message to future would be whistleblowers and Wikileaks emulators, by all means do spread the legal exposure and increase the potential impact of leaks by partnering with the mainstream media, but don’t be surprised when they hang you out to dry when the shit hits the fan.