“Publish and be damned,” the Duke of Wellington told the courtesan Harriette Wilson, who threatened to publish her memoirs and the general’s love letters in 1825.
In challenging Wilson, Wellington gave publishers and journalists a rallying cry that has echoed down through the years.
The irony here is that “The Iron Duke” despised anything that suggested opening up to the people: Indeed, he may have been history’s greatest elitist. He is not likely to have endorsed the dumping of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic dispatches by WikiLeaks. As for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Wellington would have had him shot or maybe hanged for better effect.
Yet Wellington gave us the famous phrase and, by and large, it has been a serviceable rule for journalism.
Publications that have sought to censor themselves—sometimes out of fear and sometimes for political reasons–have paid a high price. In 1963, the Profumo affair nearly brought down the Conservative government in Britain. But The Sunday Mirror, which had learned that war minister John Profumo was sharing the favors of party girl Christine Keeler with the Soviet naval attaché and a few others to boot, did not publish for fear of libel.
In the end the scandal leaked out in the United States, and the newspaper was left looking very foolish. I know because I was working at The Sunday Mirror.
A few decades later, Newsweek sat on the Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton scandal and inadvertently boosted the fortunes of Matt Drudge.
It is easier to say “publish and be damned” about a sex scandal involving public figures than it is about national and international security, which is orders of magnitude more difficult.
Is WikiLeaks doing a public service in posting hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic dispatches on the Web and hand-feeding them to five major news outlets, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, El Pais and Der Spiegel? Or is Assange indulging in a grand act of anti-Americanism; or an equally grand act of anarchy, using technology in furtherance of the petulance of one man and his small band of accomplices?
The measurable good is slight. It may be confined to improved computer security, itself lamentable.
The evil is ongoing and will take years to assess. The first casualty will be in the quality of information sent back from the field to Washington: It will be sanitized, bowdlerized and neutered. The free exchange of ideas and information is compromised. The integrity of diplomatic communications cannot be taken for granted in future.
Then there are those, uncountable, whose careers have been ended because they were friends of the United States; not spies, just friends.
During the first tranche of leaks, I was the guest of the U.S. ambassador in a small country. Although there was nothing incriminating released, our diplomats suffered acute embarrassment and wondered how difficult their jobs would be in the future.
The gravest category is where vicious regimes are exploiting the WikiLeaks information to punish their political enemies: Step forward Robert Mugabe, the savage and ruthless dictator in Zimbabwe who has trashed what was once the jewel of Africa. He has seized on meetings his political rival Morgan Tsvangira held with Western diplomats, seeking to save the people of Zimbabwe from the predations of Mugabe and his band of thugs.
“Treason”cries Mugabe, who is as promiscuous in accusing his enemies of treason as was Henry VIII.
Relying on a law from the colonial days, Mugabe has appointed a commission to rule on whether Tsvangirai should face trial for treason. He has also picked out negative comments about Tsvangirai from various American dispatches to vilify his political rival.
Assange knew exactly what he was doing because he provided early access to his data dump to the five most reputable news organizations he knew. Clearly he hoped they would treat the material gingerly, as they have.
In so doing Assange must have hoped to mitigate the really serious damage–including executions–that might result from his mischief. He was hoping they would save him from the damnation of his own publishing.