For a man who earns his living by publishing other people’s email, Julian Assange has a high opinion of himself. You can hear that in his rhetoric, which combines the paranoia of the early Bolsheviks with the arrogance of a teenage computer hacker. When a subordinate dared threaten him a few months ago, Assange slapped him down by declaring himself ‘the heart and soul of this organisation, its founder, philosopher, spokesperson, original coder, organiser, financier, and all the rest’. When others threatened to leave, he declared, in the manner of the young Lenin, that the organisation was in ‘a Unity or Death situation’.
His goals are as vast as his self-esteem: chief among them is the destruction of the American government as we know it. On his website, he describes the leaked US diplomatic cables in dramatic and sinister terms. He declares that he plans to release them in stages, because ‘The subject matter of these cables is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice.’ Alas, the cables do not live up to Assange’s fantasies: these are records of private conversations, not human rights abuse. Some are fascinating — but so far none are shocking.
Almost universally, they show American diplomats pursuing the same goals in private as they do in public — more so than most. So embarrassing are the cables for some of America’s opponents, in fact, that the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, claims they were leaked by Washington.
To read the British press, you would not know any of this, however. In fact, in recent days I’ve started to wonder whether the Guardian’s journalists — perhaps because they’ve had to keep the cables secret? — have been infected by Assange’s conspiratorial sensationalism. On the day the leaks began, its writers declared that ‘the United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis’, which makes it sound as if world war Three were about to break out. The New York Times, by contrast, declared that ‘a cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables… provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world’. Adjectives like ‘candid’, ‘frank’ and ‘unprecedented’ manage to make the cables seem interesting, which they are — without making the end of the world seem nigh, which it isn’t.
The Guardian also seems to have acquired the Assange self-importance: if he says this stuff is earth-shattering, it must be. In an article modestly entitled ‘How WikiLeaks altered the way we see the world in just one week’, two more journalists excitedly claim that this ‘torrent of information’ reveals that world leaders are ‘all too human’. I never thought that world leaders were anything but human. I also never doubted that they have ‘deep concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’, or that many think Russia is a ‘mafia state’. Some of this self-impressed tone has seeped into the rest of the British press, which is why anyone reading WikiLeaks stories in the coming weeks, or years (is Assange really going to release 250,000 cables at the rate of 100 a day?) should be very careful about what is being described here as ‘news’.
Just this week, the Guardian declared that the cables ‘reveal secret Nato plans to defend the Baltics’. But the existence of these routine contingency plans has been public for some time. President Obama made a speech about them last year, and they’ve been discussed openly ever since. Nevertheless, the BBC reported them as news, the Times spoke of ‘cold War-style plans’ and the Telegraph wrote excitedly about a ‘secret plan’ to defend Europe from Russia, as if there were only one. The New York Times headline? ‘Nato balanced Baltic and Russian anxieties’.
In fact, had any British newspaper wanted to write about Nato contingency planning and the Baltic states (as the Economist has), a dozen officials would have happily discussed it at any time over the past year.
To treat this as a sensational leak, now, reflects either ignorance or cynicism. Why should information placed in a confidential cable be inherently more exciting than information which could be obtained through a confidential interview? I don’t know, but to some here in Britain, it seems that it is.