2011-01-12 The Guardian Fails to Adequately Retract Wikileaks-Tsvangirai Falsehood

Last week, The Guardian published an article by James Richardson, a political and communications consultant who has worked in electoral campaigns for the Republican Party in the United States, in which Richardson aggressively criticized Wikileaks for the release of 09HARARE1004, a cable that, he argued, gave Robert Mugabe's faction within the Zimbabwe government a pretext for bringing a high treason trial against Morgan Tsvangirai.

I outlined here on WL Central how The Guardian was in breach of its journalistic duty in the publication of the piece.

[I]t will be important to find which media partner first published 09HARARE1004. A glance at the datestamp for 09HARARE1004 reveals it was published on the 8th of December, 2010. The only publication making reference to 09HARARE1004 as early as this, is a publication of the full cable in The Guardian. The Guardian's title for the cable is "US embassy cables: Tsvangirai tells US Mugabe is increasingly 'old, tired and poorly briefed'". It identifies gossip about Mugabe at the salient content of the cable, and entirely fails to identify the importance of the material on international sanctions against Zimbabwe, which is the material which allegedly incriminates Tsvangirai.

7. (C) On the subject of Mugabe himself, Tsvangirai said that in his recent meetings, though Mugabe seems mentally acute, he appears old and very tired. He comes to many meetings unbriefed and unaware of the content. It appears that he is being managed by hardliners. Tsvangirai said his goal now is to find a way to 'manage' Mugabe himself. One way, perhaps, would be to give him something to give his hardliners. Precisely what that something is, he said, is something he is still wrestling with.

If the above outline of the procedure for publication is accurate, and the dates seem to suggest it is, the cable was published in full on the Guardian website before it was ever published by Wikileaks. It was released as part of a group of cables in support of an article in the Guardian by Xan Rice, which treats the Harare cables merely as a quote mine for salacious opinions voiced in diplomatic confidence about Mugabe. The article is called "WikiLeaks cables reveal differing views of 'crazy', 'charming' Robert Mugabe". This batch of cables, and the Guardian's choice of emphasis in their release, actually helped contribute to the pernicious article of common wisdom that "the cables disclose only gossip about world leaders."


The possibility that these cables might be used to eliminate Tsvangirai, who was a firm favourite in the running for Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, is very grave. But if a lapse in journalistic due diligence bears part of the responsibility, it will be important not to apportion that responsibility in a partisan fashion. A lot of commentators hostile to Wikileaks are willing to attribute to its media partners every triumph, and to Wikileaks itself every pitfall. But as often happens, with the present case this story does not agree with the apparent facts. It was very probably the Guardian which greenlighted the Harare cables, and it was very probably the Guardian's harm minimization efforts which have failed. But the whole episode is to Richardson an indictment of Wikileaks and of Wikileaks only.

Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.

As a final note, it is worrying that the Guardian was willing to publish Richardson's article without reminding the public of the facts above. The publication practices employed during Cablegate ought to be well known to the Guardian editors. It ought to be a matter of record that the Harare cables were published in The Guardian first.

The result of Richardson's article is that Wikileaks will shoulder the entire blame for whatever eventually happens in Zimbabwe, a journalistic failure in the Guardian will likely fail to be adequately identified and addressed, and the Guardian will meanwhile generate more internet traffic off the back of it all.

A journalistic error of this magnitude, the issue of which could be of great and unjust harm to the reputation of an organization like Wikileaks when reputational capital is of grave importance to it, demands a full and visible retraction. This has not been forthcoming.

Today, eight full days late, The Guardian performed a token action designed to alleviate its culpability in this regard. The original Richardson article was amended slightly, and a small note placed at the bottom of it.

• This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks. The photo caption was also amended to reflect this fact

The article is still plentifully available in its old form, because it was informally 'syndicated' by the parasite blog mill. It is therefore possible to work out which amendments were made. Where formerly the article read:

With little regard for the nuances and subtlety of soft international diplomacy, WikiLeaks released last week a classified US state department cable relating a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors, whose countries imposed travel sanctions and asset freezes on Mugabe and his top political lieutenants on the eve of Zimbabwe's 2002 presidential election.

it now reads:

The Guardian last week published a classified US state department cable relating a 2009 meeting between Tsvangirai and American and European ambassadors, whose countries imposed travel sanctions and asset freezes on Mugabe and his top political lieutenants on the eve of Zimbabwe's 2002 presidential election.

Additionally, the caption to the photograph formerly read:

Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai faces a treason inquiry after WikiLeaks revealed his talks with US embassy officials about possible sanctions. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Whereas now it reads:

Zimbabwe's PM Morgan Tsvangirai faces a treason inquiry after the Guardian's publication of a US embassy cable via WikiLeaks revealed his talks with US embassy officials about possible sanctions. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

These changes are superficial. The mere update of the article, without a published and prominent notice, fails to address the fact that damage has been done, and that these minor efforts will avoid the notice of many who will have read the original article. For a mistake of this magnitude, one might expect that a dedicated retraction would be published. But failing this, it is proper that at least a post might be made in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications section. No such post has to date been made.

Worse, the thrust of the article, which has not been addressed in the Guardian, nor, to my knowledge, in any print newspaper, remains the same, and the impression any sensible reader would draw from it is that culpability for whatever happens in Zimbabwe remains with Wikileaks. This is certainly unfair, because it is not a moot point who first published the cable. As I argued in my post on this, Wikileaks relies for decisions as to which cables to publish, and for its harm minization and redaction procedures, on its media partners. The Guardian published this cable as part of flippant and sensational coverage of gossip about Mugabe. Its editors failed to identify the salience of the information on sanctions in 09HARARE1004, and failed therefore, to redact that information.

This superficial effort to set the record straight on responsibility for the oversight in 09HARARE1004 is insufficient by any standards of conscientious journalism. The negative publicity generated by James Richardson's article continues to circulate, and The Guardian, which will have benefited from significant internet traffic from the publication of his story, appears happy to engage in token correctional efforts. In a media climate where the mainstream press is proven to voraciously propagate straightforward falsehoods about Wikileaks, The Guardian's lapse is disappointing.

(2011-01-13, 20:25) Update 1: There was some confusion last night over the reliability of the timestamps on Wikileaks cables - a matter of some importance to this story. I covered the issue here.

(2011-01-13, 20:33) Update 2: The Guardian this afternoon published an article by Ian Katz which acknowledges the worries I outlined in this post, and proceeds to outline a balanced appraisal of the situation. The piece represents a public notice of the mistake in the Richardson article, and an attempt by The Guardian to address its own unfair practices. It puts to bed the notion that Wikileaks bears the sole responsibility for the publication of 09HARARE1004. There can remain difference of opinion about who bears more blame, whether that blame is justifiably apportioned, but The Guardian's move here ensures that those debates will occur with reference to the facts about how the cables are published. This can only be described as commendable.