Stephen Glover: What Wikileaks is really telling us

Media Studies

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:44

Two important lessons emerge from last week's mostly predictable Wikileaks revelations about Nato's war in Afghanistan. The first is an obvious one we already knew about: no single democratic government can control a transnational website leaking secrets on the internet.

You can't slap a D-notice on Wikileaks. It is no use a general in Whitehall picking up a phone and having a quiet word with an editor he knows from the club, explaining that publication would not be in the national interest. Wikileaks and its weird-looking founder, Julian Assange, do not care about the British or any other national interest. Possibly he cares about the interests of humanity, and I am sure he has a pretty keen eye on his own interests, but that's as far as it goes.

The second lesson is apparently contradictory, and more surprising. For all the nation- dwarfing power of the internet, international whistleblowers such as Mr Assange still need old-fashioned national newspapers – in this case, The Guardian, The New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel. It was these publications which propelled his leaked information into the media stratosphere. He needed them partly to sift and make sense of the 92,000 documents and, more than that, to confer importance on his revelations, to induce the world to take them seriously.

In other words, although this has been portrayed as a story about the power of the new media, it is also about the power of the old. And I can't help wondering whether these three great established publications are as comfortable now as they were a week ago. They shouldn't be. Of course, secrecy is the enemy of journalism and openness is our friend. I don't like D-notice-slapping generals. I don't even think that anything these newspapers published harmed the national interests of their respective countries. They were none-the-less associated with an irresponsible, amoral exercise.

The most obvious example concerns the names, villages, relatives' names and precise GPS locations of Afghans cooperating with Nato troops, which are among the documents released by Wikileaks. Mr Assange says he wants to save lives, though it may be difficult to prove he ever has. It may turn out to be easier to say that he has been responsible for one or more deaths. He says he held thousands of documents back, but he cheerfully published information that could literally be lethal. No decent newspaper would do that.

The problem for The Guardian and the other publications is that they were not in charge of this operation. They were necessary to it, but they did not run it. The new media, which knows no national boundaries, and has no respect for any national interest, needed the old media for credibility. But the old media did not employ its traditional journalistic standards, which must rest upon moral responsibility – or, rather, it did not force its wild new associate to do so. Next time think twice before hunting with Julian Assange.

The other Daily Mail

The latest so-called ABCe figures for June, which measure newspapers' online readership, suggest that Mail Online has established itself in first position. Whether you calculate in terms of "hits" per month, or regular "daily browsers", Mail Online is now comfortably ahead of and It has achieved this with less fanfare and investment than its two rivals.

How? Partly by producing an online version that is strikingly different from the newsprint one. To start with, I was sceptical, wondering whether Mail Online did not risk diluting the "brand". In the event it has to a large extent avoided "cannibalising" the daily paper. Though Mail Online shares much of its content with the Daily Mail, it is dominated by showbiz stories that give it a distinctive identity. For example, its attitude towards "stars" differs. Whereas Mail Online tends to be reverential towards them, the Daily Mail can sometimes be beastly.

So there are two different "products", though drawing on the same material. Most Mail readers are probably not seduced by the online version, two-thirds of whose readers live outside the UK. Mail Online is even beginning to make a little money. Last week, year-on-year digital advertising revenues were reported by the parent company DMGT to have increased by 46 per cent, though they still amount to a tiny fraction of the Mail's profits. But a modestly profitable online paper that does not cannibalise the Daily Mail is no longer inconceivable. Any lessons for other publishers?

Catwalk to courtroom

Naomi Campbell, the supermodel, has had a tough time at the hands of the Press over the years so I suppose one shouldn't blame her for trying to shut it up. According to The Sunday Times, Ms Campbell's lawyer, the absurdly named Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, has requested "draconian measures" to protect her privacy during a war crimes trial at the Hague this week.

You may wonder what a supermodel is doing at such a trial in the first place. The answer is that she is said to have received a gift of a whopping diamond from Charles Taylor, the dodgy former President of Liberia, who is on trial at the Hague. Ms Campbell denies she accepted any jewel, though Mia Farrow, the actress, claims she did. Among various daft requests made to the judges and Dutch authorities is one asking them to ban the public and the media from following or filming La Campbell as she makes her progress to and from the court. What a chump Lord Macdonald of River Glaven must be. Whatever the judges rule, he has guaranteed even greater coverage from Her Majesty's Media this week.

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