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Sunday 5 June 2011

Confidentiality no longer exists

There was little in the Ireland cables that couldn't have been written by hacks, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Last week, I excitedly fell upon the Ireland cables obligingly provided by WikiLeaks and was disappointed. Maybe readers who are not political anoraks might have been shocked and surprised by some of the quotes from the US diplomats paid to study Ireland, but mostly I was yawning.

So the DUP and Sinn Fein were having discreet talks for three years before they agreed to share power? Of course they were. Ambitious politicians would talk to a rabid alley cat if it was in their interests.

Sinn Fein was spooked by a dissident republican threat to kill Martin McGuinness? Of course it wasn't. It suits Shinners to talk up the risks they've taken in the interests of peace to help people forget all the murders committed while they were at war.

Ambassador Thomas Foley thought "the leaders of the nation dropped the ball" in failing to get Lisbon ratified (the first time)? Wow, what an insight! Mary Harney was "a strong pro-American". Well, yes. That's why she said that Ireland was closer to Boston than Berlin. Mary Coughlan "clearly understands the issues". Er, surely some mistake? Eircom was perceived as Luddite and resistant to competition and advances in technology for its own benefit. And your point is?

The job of US diplomats -- like that of diplomats everywhere -- is to try to understand the country they're serving in, to keep the interests of their own country in mind at all times and to feed useful information back to HQ. Big, rich countries have more diplomats than the small and weak, so even such a tiny cog in the global wheel as Ireland is closely scrutinised by American officials in case it is of importance to the big picture.

Diplomats get their information as journalists do: they read, listen and talk to people in the know. There was almost nothing in the Ireland cables that couldn't have been written by well-connected hacks. Like hacks, diplomats vary in quality and judgement, so cables to the State Department contain their fair share of errors as well as insights.

All of which is why there has been too much fuss about the leaking of US diplomatic correspondence. True, it has made the job of diplomats more difficult and in some cases has put sources at risk, but in today's world there is no such thing as confidentiality and it's time governments recognised this.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, seems to hate the US in a lefty kind of way and revelled in being for a time its Public Enemy Number One, but in truth the State Department cables from posts all over the world mostly showed decent people telling the truth to an administration whose instincts were benign.

Assange has just won the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism, awarded annually to a journalist "whose work has ... told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or 'official drivel', as Martha Gellhorn called it".

Actually, in the case of the US cables, all he's done is incontinently dump on the media truck-loads of material allegedly stolen through technological means by an emotionally fragile young soldier now in prison. Assange, said the judges (who included the journalist John Pilger, whose loathing of the West has dominated his professional life), is "brave, determined, independent: a true agent of people not of power".

Assange has impressive qualities, but being an agent of people is not his thing. He has the manner of an egotist and the instincts of a megalomaniac. He doesn't do empathy. WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, records him telling a group of international reporters who were concerned about endangered sources: "Well, they're informants. So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it."

Assange gags and frightens his own staff and his organisation is neither transparent nor accountable. He objects to investigations into his own private life and deeply resents criticism.

Having fallen out with Guardian journalists with whom he was working, he assailed Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye -- who had written about Assange's links with a notoriously anti-semitic Russian journalist -- for joining the "international conspiracy to smear WikiLeaks" which he alleged was led by Jewish Guardian journalists. When Hislop wrote of their conversation, with breathtaking hypocrisy Assange complained that it had been off the record. The guy is weird.

There is good and bad to be said of WikiLeaks. There would be more good than bad if Assange showed the same enthusiasm about embarrassing, nasty totalitarian states as he does in exposing America's secrets. Russian, Chinese or Iranian cables about Ireland? Now they might be really interesting.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards