I collected a number of articles from different German daily broadsheets of the first few days of reporting about the content of the US diplomatic cables made accessible via Wikileaks in November 2010. One of the ‘media partners’ that was granted access to this material was the German weekly news magazine “Der Spiegel”.
Normally, what goes on in the arcane spheres of international diplomacy is rather hidden from public scrutiny, so I expected to find delight about the exposure in the media reporting. To some degree, this was the case. One lead article in the left-liberal Frankfurter Rundschau (29.11.2010) suggests not only that the occasional intrusion into arcane political spheres can have a sanitizing function for democracies, but also that it might help identifying weak spots in keeping secrecy and helping governments to make amendments for better protection (Frankfurter Rundschau, 29.11.2010). The partly flippant characterisations of political leaders around the world – including German political figures – by US diplomats were quoted again and again, based on quotations from the cables published by the Spiegel magazine – so certainly this glimpse onto normally confidential or secret information was attractive to the news media.
However, some articles emphasised that this was neither scandalous nor surprising, only a bit embarrassing for both sides, implying that there was not a great use of such publication for ‘the public interest’; the leaking of the documents resulted in gossip and did not constitute a great favour for democratic transparency. But, as tageszeitung stated: “The public is interested in virulent revelations as much as in embarrassing gossip” (01.12.2010) (all translations by me, MS).
I was slightly surprised that there was a lot of scepticism about the Wikileaks approach to make this material accessible and/or to encourage publications on the basis this material. A lot of the articles suppose that even when, as in the German-US relations, no real damage was done, for a period of time people would be more careful in their dealings with US diplomats. This would make political assessments for the US more difficult as a result of Wikileaks’ tampering with protected spheres of communication. Here we encounter the notion of confidentiality or secrecy as protection.
When we agree with other parties that we won’t say anything about what we say after we’ve said it, this secrecy enables communication that would otherwise not have been likely or possible. This, the notion of silence as a trigger and facilitator of communication, is something that I did not consider much before looking into the Wikileaks articles. A number of articles point out the damage done by stolen data in destroying “the tissue that constitutes the usual kind of communication between states: confidentiality. Without confidentiality no information, no giving or taking, no access. Without information also no knowledge, no judgment, no right decisions.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 30.11.2010)
There is another notion of secrecy as protection in that “the publication of the confidential and partly secret documents endanger regime critics around the world and opposition leaders who were in contact with US diplomats” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 30.11.2010). A similar concern surrounded Arab state leaders quoted in the diplomats’ reports on the necessity for the US to intervene in the Iranian nuclear programme, the spread of which through Wikileaks was regarded to pose a threat of more tension in regions and on matters marked by conflict; “the world will not be a safer place when everyone knows everything about everyone”. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 30.11.2010). This notion is taken further in a very critical article in a left liberal paper (Frankfurter Rundschau, 29.11.2010) which suggests Wikileaks need to be understood as a phenomenon of the age of Big Brother – that its mission is not to inform the public about crucial and formerly hidden political issues, but to expose for exposure’s sake.
I expected that the newspapers would more or less celebrate Wikileaks for shedding light on rather concealed and not very accessible policy areas, framing this as a genuine chance to give to the public what the media posit they are entrusted to provide the public with: crucial information about issues of public interest. Certainly, the interest in the story was considerable and triggered continuous reporting for a while.
However, there was a great deal of scepticism suggesting that the leak was neither useful nor helpful, that it was not due to honourable motives (e.g. genuine whistleblowing); that it penetrated necessary protection of diplomatic exchanges with negative consequences for trust and collaboration; and that it could even have dangerous consequences for the political stability in some regions and for the lives of individuals.
Some of the most sceptical articles that I looked at were printed in the left liberal broadsheets. On the matter of Wikileaks it did not seme to me that there was a dividing line between conservative (in favour of secrecy at the expense of transparency) and left-liberal (in favour of transparency at the expense of secrecy) as suggested by Black (1988).