Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, gave a marvellously mandarin performance on Radio Four's Today programme yesterday morning. Far from presenting himself as a radical hell-bent on revealing Wikileaks' latest batch of secrets, he sounded almost apologetic.
Boiled down, his defence of his newspaper's role in publishing confidential diplomatic cables was that if it had to be done it was best that a responsible publication like The Guardian should do it. He seemed to be saying that his newspaper acted as a kind of filter to ensure that potentially damaging information could be "redacted" – ie censored.
No one could dispute that The Guardian did a very professional job. There must be a question, though, as to whether Wikileaks was acting in accordance with its principles of full disclosure in giving it primary exclusivity in this country, and four other international newspapers similar rights elsewhere. I hope I am not moved by competitive jealousy in saying this. I repeat: The Guardian did splendidly. But it was, in the end, that newspaper's particular take on these cables which dominated debate in this country.
A brief perusal of yesterday's New York Times illustrates the point. The American paper highlighted cables about North Korea, which scarcely interested The Guardian, while underplaying the revelation that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urged the US government to attack Iran. If there can be so much discrepancy between the accounts of two liberal-minded newspapers in different countries, we may be certain that newspapers presented with the same raw material in this country would respond in a wide variety of ways.
Why doesn't Wikileaks make its material available to all media outlets at the same time? It is almost as though a kind of censorship is going on. For while it is true that other newspapers can gain access to the same information once it has been presented by The Guardian, the caravan moves on, so that the newspaper will today again be publishing revelations on evidence which in this country it alone has seen, and the same tomorrow, and so on for many days. Moreover, The Guardian has had many days to assess and edit the mountains of information which Wikileaks then dumps on the internet for others to make sense of.
Presumably Wikileaks believes that The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France and Der Spiegel in Germany share its liberal values, and so it can rely on a sympathetic presentation of its revelations. No doubt it can. Wikileaks is in effect trying to shape the reaction to its disclosures when it should – if it truly believes in freedom – be putting them in the public domain for all to see, allowing responsible but widely differing publications to make of them what they will.
There is a practical as well as a moral argument in favour of greater openness. One consequence of giving a particular newspaper preferential treatment is that it is liable to irritate its rivals, and possibly induce hostile thoughts in them. Following Wikileaks' "war logs" about allied violations in Afghanistan and torture in Iraq published in recent months, The Times turned on the organisation and its founder, Julian Assange. The paper is admittedly a supporter of both conflicts, but the extent of its vitriol may also have indicated its pique.
Mr Rusbridger may be confident that The Guardian is a responsible and trustworthy filter, but his paper does not have a monopoly on truth and wisdom. There are other ways of looking at the world, which is the glory of a free press. If Wikileaks really does believe in openness and transparency, it should try a bit harder to live up to these high ideals.