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Nick Cohen
Wednesday 28th July 2010
The Trouble with the Net

The leaked Afghan war documents show that the trouble with the Net is that every liberating feature its boosters claim as a virtue is also a vice. In the pre-computer age, a mole could not have got 90,000 documents out of a military base and to a journalist without being arrested. Nor for that matter could a disaffected worker in Parliament copy all the receipts of all the expense claims of 650 MPs and deliver them to the Telegraph. He would need to spend the best part of a morning loading them into a removal van, rather than slipping a couple of computer discs into his pocket, and the odds are the security guards would have realised a crime was going down long before he had heaved in the last box.

Wikileaks can receive millions of words and put them on the World Wide Web because the Net allows you to publish as much as you want at virtually no cost whatsoever. How different from the age of the dead tree press, when space was always limited, and an elite band of gatekeepers such as myself and the editor of this magazine controlled access to the media, cry the boosters. What a liberation! What an advance! How much better that the public can read raw material that no journalist has sifted and make up their own minds without hacks telling them what to think. And in their way these are advances, I accept, but look how quickly they can turn sour.

In the bad old days of the stuffy MSM, we would follow a rigorous procedure before printing a leaked document. Let me use the case of Katharine Gun who leaked the Observer a memo showing how Britain was bugging delegations to the UN Security Council in the run up to the second Iraq war to make the point. The then Observer reporter Martin Bright explained that first we had to check the document was genuine.

The Koza memo presented me and my colleagues at the newspaper with a number of problems. For a start, the Observer supported the war in Iraq. Then there was the problem of verification. The Koza memo consisted of simply the body of the text, with all identifying information from the email header ripped from the top. In theory, anyone could have typed it. Koza's name was written on the back along with other clues to its veracity, but it could easily have been a hoax. We were also hamstrung by the fact that Gun had not come directly to the newspaper, so there was no way of going back to the source of the leak to check the information.

Peter Beaumont, the Observer's defence correspondent at the time, got his sources to confirm that the language used in the memo was consistent with the NSA and GCHQ.

But still there were doubts. One intelligence contact suggested it could be a sophisticated Russian forgery and another raised the possibility that British spy chiefs had written it to flush out anti-war elements at GCHQ. In the end, the paper's then US correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, struck lucky. After a string of "no comment" responses from the NSA, a phone call to the organisation's headquarters in Maryland was by chance put through to the office of Koza himself. This proved that he existed and we now felt confident that the email was genuine. Despite the paper's pro-war stance, the then editor, Roger Alton, would not have rejected a good story and on 2 March 2003 the Observer splashed on the tale of US dirty tricks at the United Nations

Then you have to worry about protecting your source. The most innocent errors can lead to exposure. David Kelly first fell under suspicion after a colleague of mine quoted him anonymously.He had taken all reasonable precautions. Hadn't named him or identified his workplace. But a fellow civil servant had heard David use exactly the same phrase a few days earlier and said so to his superiors.

Finally, you have to decide whether publishing is in the public interest. In the Gun case, reporters and editors spent a week agonizing. In the end, such debates always come down to this question: if the authorities charge the editor with breaking the Official Secrets Act, could he or she persuade the jury that they had acted honourably and morally? If the answer is "yes" you go ahead.

I have a huge amount of time for Wikileaks. There are stories of mine that the wretchedly authoritarian libel laws would have purged from the Net, had Julian Assange not intervened and found a safe home for them far from the reach of Mr Justice Eady. The next time he is London, I will shake his hand. But there is no way that he could have vetted 90,000 documents to ensure that he was not putting sources or others at risk. Nor, significantly, is he claiming to have agonized over the contents of each of them as an old-fashioned editor would have done.

Today there are reports  that Afghan informers are named in the documents and could be targeted by the Taliban. How true they are is another matter. Wikileaks gave news of the Afghan documents to three newspapers - the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. Naturally their rivals wish to spoil their scoop. But still, the story sounds plausible. Inevitably, if you just release information without submitting it to thorough checks the editors of the Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times would insist on if it was their story, you, or more likely an innocent party, is likely to come a cropper.

Just getting the facts out there and sticking anything and everything on the Net is a far more dangerous idea than libertarians imagine. Or to put the same thought another way, if the Net kills the grubby old trade of reporting, you may miss us when we are gone.

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August 13th, 2010
5:08 AM
The American bumper sticker "Guns don't kill people, people do" pretty much applies to the Net. The sense of power from pretending one's uneducated opinion matters is more than some people can get over. That said, as immoral it is to endanger lives for the thrill of expressing oneself, I will be interested to see British politicians react to exposure for the same "war crimes" they salivated over in the Goldstone Report.

D Edmunds
July 28th, 2010
7:07 PM
"The leaked Afghan war documents show that the trouble with the Net is that every liberating feature its boosters claim as a virtue is also a vice." That's not a problem with the net, that's a problem with humankind. If some people can't exercise discretion over what documents they put on the net, we shouldn't all be forced to pay by having that privilege taken away en masse. And your point about journalistic standards is entirely specious - the glut of information on the net isn't driving standards down; lack of journalistic integrity is driving standards down. At most you could claim that the financial peril papers face due to the net is to blame, but it's up to the papers to compete in today's world

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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