2011-05-31 WikiLeaks: The Ireland Cables | Daily Roundup of Coverage in the Irish Independent | Day One


After months during which the Irish media appeared to display little interest in the content of the State Department cables held by Wikileaks, The Irish Independent has finally initiated publication as part of a Wikileaks partnership. This is the first and hitherto only Wikileaks partnership in the Irish media. Today was Day One, and the coverage is projected to run for at least a week, although the Independent may choose to use its access to the cables for longer than this. Tomorrow's cables are to be on "What the US really thinks of [Irish] politicians." Investigative correspondent for the Independent, Shane Phelan, announced tonight on Vincent Browne Tonight that Thursday's reports will be on what the cables reveal about Ireland's banking crisis and recent economic troubles.

According to one of the introductory articles online, The Independent, along with the Belfast Telegraph, sought and obtained access to the Irish cables in March of this year. The cables from the Dublin embassy and the Belfast consulate were given to the newspapers, along with cables from other US sources in the collection which were of direct relevance to Ireland or Irish affairs. This brings the total of cables given to the Irish newspaper to 1903. This includes 16 Belfast cables, and some 897 cables from the Dublin embassy. Curiously, the original total for the Dublin embassy cables, as revealed by the Guardian's spreadsheet in November, was 910. (see all previously released cables listed against this spreadsheet here) It remains to be seen whether the Independent has chosen to subtract the cables that had already been published when it received the cables, or if their total for the Dublin cables is different to the Guardian's.

Criticism of the Independent's Approach

Although there has been a diversity of approaches to the publication of Wikileaks cables by the various media partners, The Independent has not chosen to follow best practice in their reportage. Papers like the Guardian and the Telegraph, El País (and even Aftenposten, which wasn't an official media partner) chose to publish both reports on the cables and the original text of the cables themselves. They also chose to use the reference ID of each cable, so as to enable speedy citation and referencing for readers and researchers. The Independent has chosen not to do this: reports in the Independent do not refer to cables directly, and prefer to report on what reporters have decided is the interesting part of the cable. The result is that readers are completely at the mercy of the journalists at the Independent, and will remain so until Wikileaks publishes the original cables on its website, which it has not yet done. For the leading edge of Wikileaks' global transparency drive in Ireland, this is not a transparent approach to journalism.

Furthermore, while other newspapers have chosen to flagship their Wikileaks releases with an expansive online feature, which is open not only to the citizens of their own countries, but to the wider community of journalists and readers following the Wikileaks stories, the Independent has chosen to publish only a teaser of its coverage on its website. The rest, we are assured, will be available if we purchase each day's copy of the paper. This has already been a source of criticism for the Independent's coverage, and somebody has taken the trouble to upload scans of today's reports. The problem is also alleviated somewhat by the fact that the Belfast Telegraph has published some of the articles from the Independent. But while it might make more sense in terms of the Irish paper's business model, the decision not to publish all reports online is suboptimal for a number of reasons.

The publication of the collection of Wikileaks cables must be approached by different media organizations working together, but it is no less integral a collection of documents for this reason. Some of the best reportage on the cables - reportage which gives an insight into the full significance of this collection of documents and to the wider Wikileaks phenomenon - has partaken of a cross-border interest, observing patterns in U.S. diplomatic efforts in different countries, or following a certain theme in various jurisdictions. This is rendered far more difficult if the ethos of one of the national publishing partners is to hoard its coverage jealously in order to ensure wider print circulation. A consciousness of the transnational implications of this story is very important, and has general application in today's world, and it would have been greatly aided by a greater openness to the internet than we have seen thus far from the Independent.

It is also of importance that good reportage on these documents survives the years. Reports published on the internet survive and are archived for many years, and are available indefinitely for new discovery and reference. To keep most of the reports on the Irish cables off the internet invites the risk of public forgetfulness, and mutes the public impact of journalism on issues that may require the breach of a threshhold of public attention before valuable changes are seen.

Quality of Reportage

The coverage, which is mostly under three by-lines, is of a generally high level of professionalism. While standard citation guidelines have not been followed, as noted, a good awareness of the background to Cablegate is in evidence, as is an understanding of the technicalities of the cable relay system and the metadata in each cable. In various cases, this has been used to provide illuminating angles on the content of the cables, and it is to be commended.

The depth of the journalism involved is thus far about equal to that of the first wave of Cablegate coverage in other forums. Today, the focus was on introductory articles to help orient an average Irish reader (who has, to be fair, not been exposed to much news of Wikileaks in the national press), and on various not-so-scandalous pieces of gossip from the Dublin embassy cables. There have been some interesting, but not earth-shattering, revelations about the Northern Ireland peace process, which by and large confirm already widespread suspicions. As with most commercial media outlets, the journalists here have gone for the most obvious stories represented by the cables. This superficiality has been exacerbated by the fact that the original texts are not available - it is thus far not possible to discover a story of more significance that has been overlooked by the journalists, as was done earlier in the year with the Guardian's coverage of Morgan Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe. Hitherto, there has been no further information on the military stopover at Shannon airport and extraordinary rendition, as written about on WL Central here.

Some of the best work that has been done with Cablegate has descried systemic patterns rather than searching for scandalous events. It is possible with careful and expansive reading to discern the unofficial policies and apportionments of power, allowing one to paint a broader and truer picture and identify systemic problems with the state of international relations. There is some promise that this work has been done in the Independent's coverage, most notably in articles on the Irish diplomats meeting with the U.S. embassy staff and on the patterns of information-sharing between the Dublin embassy and American intelligence agencies (outlined below). The lack, again, of source material for these stories leaves the reader with a slight feeling of myopia, especially for a reader who has become accustomed to the level of source material-access that Wikileaks has normalized in its leaks in the past.

The Articles

There are a few scene-setting articles on the general trends of information. The front page story, continued on page 23, details at a very general level findings within the cables of "How the US taps our secrets." The article is one of the few articles from today which was hosted online. It generalizes well on the bulk of the cables surveyed, and gives summaries of general trends of information sharing with the diplomatic post in Dublin, but fails to furnish the sorts of specifics which cash out the observations, and therefore fails to be very informative.

Pages 22-23 contain the main introduction to the Wikileaks coverage for the Independent. A double page article outlines the background behind the Wikileaks story, the narrative behind the Independent's media partnership, and some of the editorial commitments the Independent has adopted in its coverage. This article is available online, in an edited form, here.

A comment piece on page 32 attempts some analysis of the nature of Irish-American relations revealed in the cables, but is rather too brief to do more than make promises. The same goes for the remarks here about transparency and internet freedoms in an Irish context. The article is reproduced online, here.

There are two feature pieces offering perspective and analysis. The first, on page 29, is a context-piece on diplomacy by an Irish ex-diplomat, Eamon Delaney. We learn, at a safe level of generality, of his experiences of Irish diplomacy, and of the likely import of globalization on the profession, as reflected in the cables. The second piece, by James Downey on page 33, is a reflection on the possibility revealed by the cables - which ought to have been obvious enough - that various world superpowers are employing both diplomatic and other means to scrutinize Irish politics for its effects on their own interests. The premise is that one assumes that Ireland is so unimportant as to merit no attention in diplomatic circles. One would have been ill-advised to assume that.

Two articles, one on Bradley Manning, page 30, the other on Julian Assange, page 31, (published here with the Belfast Telegraph) will offer very little new to followers of Wikileaks news at the international level. Both run over the basic developments in the story since this time last year. This information, however, has seen very little coverage in the mainstream press in Ireland, and will be the first point of contact with these stories for certain sectors of the Irish public. The articles are refreshingly articulate about the political dimensions of Wikileaks and whistleblowing, and constitute positive Irish exposure for the aims and goals of Wikileaks. The full interview, from which the Assange piece is drawn, is available online here.

The headlines the Independent touted the most today were mostly light rumour pieces. A headline, on page 22, declaiming "Greens are only interested in hares, stags and badgers, Hanafin told US envoy," confirms what everyone in Ireland probably imagined a senior Fianna Fail party government member thought about their new Green party coalition partners in 2007. The report is reproduced on the Belfast Telegraph's site. The cable is of marginal interest in that it demosntrates the sort of confidences into which American diplomats are allowed. But one is inclined to think it was an easy headline. The same can be said for the page 25 story (again, online on the Belfast Telegraph, but not on the Irish Independent's) on Maire Geoghegan-Quinn's appointment as Ireland's EU commissioner. We are here given insight into the criteria which influenced her selection, but apart from the news that then Taoiseach Brian Cowen took seriously instructions from Commission President Barroso to employ a rationale of positive gender discrimination, the news is unexceptional.

Pages 26-27 contain an array of stories on the Northern Ireland peace process, but succeed for the most part in adding colour to news that is already well-trodden. These stories are all published on the Belfast Telegraph's website. Perhaps the most interesting news is the level of detail to American interest in the peace process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have demanded intimate details of policing and counter-terrorism practices of the various police forces operative on the island. Other stories cover the conferral of the Arms Commission with US diplomats, and talks between Irish President McAleese's husband Martin and Ulster loyalists. We learn about the PR strategy the IRA used when announcing its renunciation of violence. Another story details how Sinn Fein and the DUP were in talks years before they officially were in talks, and still years before they will admit to having so been.

A story on page 28 amusingly displays the biases of the Independent journalists. The one significant scenario in the cables in which Ireland chose prostration to European pressures over prostration to US pressures is portrayed as a triumph of valiant resolve on behalf of the diplomats of the smaller state. It details how the US was unable to induce the Irish government to veto a European trend towards the relaxation of arms sanctions on China in 2005.

One of the more interesting articles on pages 24-25 is a survey of the various Irish diplomats who have dealt with the diplomatic mission in Dublin. The article offers plenty of asides that would encourage further reading of the cables in question, if they had been available. However, perhaps the most interesting part of the article is a small passage:

An Irish ambassador who provided briefings to US officials from an international troublespot throughout 2008. This diplomat's name is being withheld as exposing their activities could put them at risk of harm.

While the concern for harm minimization is to be commended here, one has to wonder if too much was censored. Given the history of the use of terms like "destablizing influence" and "troublemaker" in American foreign policy parlance, there should exist questions over how trustworthy are the political sympathies at work here. If it should turn out that Irish diplomats were acting as proxy spies for the United States in a questionable way, it would be unfortunate if this fact were covered up by a newspaper.

Further articles detail other aspects of American diplomacy where the lines blur with more clandestine intelligence-gathering activities. A page 28 article entitled "Americans got their hands on key EU Iraq file" outlines how leaky are the diplomatic circles through which European diplomatic agreements are reached, that news cannot be kept from falling into American hands. The suggestion is that American diplomatic influence is so ubiquitous that multilaterial talks can have multiple points of leakback to Washington. If one country doesn't leak, the others will.

Finally, an article on page 28 details how the information flow into which deposits are made from Ireland and Europe's leaky diplomatic and political spheres eventually winds up with various American intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and the DIA. The article has some interesting observations about the types of information copied to different agencies, which provides some insights into the information priorities instituted by the State Department and other bodies. This is a sort of analysis that hasn't been done before, and while it could be more extensive here, it would be interesting to see this form of analysis applied by other media organizations with access to the cables.

It has been an interesting, albeit slightly equivocal first day for Ireland's Week of Wikileaks. It remains to be seen how the Independent's coverage continues during the week and beyond. If, as promised, tomorrow's leaks really do focus on "What the US really thinks of [Irish] politicians," we may be in for yet more gossip. WL Central will continue coverage as it happens.

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