Like it or not, Wikileaks has probably managed to invade your consciousness this week – and probably get under your skin, too. Over the last few days the story has taken numerous unexpected twists and turns – the arrest of founder Julian Assange, the unprecedented dumping of Wikileaks by its internet host – and has taken the meaning of “Publish and be damned” beyond what the First Duke of Wellington could have imagined.
From a PR perspective, Wikileaks is also turning into a slow motion car crash. Its reputation has changed, thanks to a few badly-judged disclosures, going from being a whistleblowing thorn in the side trying to keep Governments around the world honest, or at least pretending to be, to Public Enemy Number One, at least for the US Government. .
Just as you think it couldn’t get any worse – for example the rape allegations against Assange, destroying his personal reputation , then Wikileaks spews out another heap of classified information. The disclosures have been coming thick and fast, keeping the media eager for the next. It’s bar-room conversation around the world.
From a timing perspective, Wikileaks has been on the money: the media is not afforded the change to get out of “reportage” mode and swing into potentially-negative analysis and comment before the next disclosures are out there … even more meaty than before. The media is distracted from looking beyond the latest screaming headlines … for now.
However, the disclosures are more inward-looking every time, and arguably less in the public interest than before … I know this time of year is popular for publishing top 100 lists etc but do we really need a list of global locations most vulnerable to terrorist attack? And was this information actually new to anyone who really could act on it?
It’s part of the territory for journalists to hold back on many a sensational story: simply because actually publishing the information would usually cause a backlash – or a lawsuit, or both: a case in point being the tunnel car crash photos of Princess Diana: they’ve been in every picture editor’s draw since that horrific night in 1997, but have yet to appear in print.
Yet the media cannot and will not hold back on Wikileaks – because the information is being sprayed out there with a fire hose. The website is at the center of the world’s attention, and this underlines exactly the fundamental problem with Wikileaks: Once you open Pandora’s chest, it’s simply impossible to close.
As a Wikileaks “editor”, how and where do you draw the line and decide what’s fit to disclose and what’s not? How do you start making editorial judgments when the stakes are so high? The answer is, you can’t … because you’re between a rock, and a hard place. The stories have continued to flow, even though I think it’s fair to say that the world would have been a better place without some of the disclosures. And this is how backlashes start.