How pioneering WikiLeaks collaboration ended in distrust and legal threats | Ian Katz

Guardian deputy editor on the hazards of co-ordinating five newspapers and an information insurgent

There are memorable episodes in the gestation of any big story: the breathless reporter arriving in the office with news of his or her catch, the fearsome legal threat landing in your inbox, the thrilling moment a scoop is unleashed into the world. For me though, the enduring, and still stomach-churning, memory from months of work on the WikiLeaks disclosures was the day I accidentally leaked the biggest leak in decades to the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson.

If that sounds like an act of incompetence to rival putting 250,000 diplomatic cables on a database accessible by two million people, let me offer a few facts in mitigation. The Guardian has its own Nick Robinson, a senior production journalist. One day in July I sent him an email detailing the final tweaks to the hush-hush project we had been preparing for weeks: 12 pages of reports based on 90,000 secret military logs of the war in Afghanistan. Only, the whizzy thing that guesses the email recipient picked the wrong Robinson. By the time I noticed, our world exclusive was winging its way to TV Centre.

Happily, the BBC's Robinson is one of journalism's gentlemen (a fact I've had cause to be grateful for more than once) and was editing a film when I caught up with him. He agreed to delete the unopened mail with the slightly strained suggestion that the time had come for me to remove him from my address book.

Like the MoD briefcase left on a train, the incident made a mockery of the already mildly comical measures we had been taking to keep the story out of sight of the governments we imagined might be keen to prevent its publication. For several weeks, editors at the five newspapers which collaborated on publication of the cables communicated largely via internet video chat services, periodically writing the numbers of particularly sensitive cables on pieces of paper and holding them up to the screen. Picture a cross between a Brussels committee on widget harmonisation and The Bourne Ultimatum and you have a rough idea of what it was like co-ordinating the plans of four European papers, the New York Times and a peripatetic information guerrilla.

Communication with Julian Assange himself was an even more cloak and dagger affair. After Swedish prosecutors sought an arrest warrant for him, he was reachable only via encrypted chat – and typically only late at night or in the small hours of the morning. These exchanges took on a Jason Bourne-ish quality: once he upbraided the Guardian for releasing too much data about the cables because he had been acquiring "good intel" as American diplomats went around the world, apologising for every slight they feared might be in the cache. (He was right: it turns out the US warned Downing Street about several infelicitous cables that WikiLeaks never had.)

Another time Assange announced, apropos of nothing in particular, that his lawyers were "being constantly surveilled (human)". When a number of cables popped up on a Lebanese newspaper website, he had several theories involving foreign intelligence agencies, although the newspaper partners thought it more likely that WikiLeaks had sprung a leak.

Despite the slight air of paranoia, Assange came across as ferociously intelligent, with a control freak's mastery of detail and an infectious enthusiasm for his information insurgency. Sometimes he would interrupt a conversation to rhapsodise about a particular cable. At times he had the detached air of a chess grandmaster playing a dozen games at once – later I found out that's because he was usually conducting numerous different chats simultaneously.

As the legal net closed around him, discussion of the cables gave way to his preoccupation with the Swedish sexual assault allegations. One night, shortly before he turned himself in to police, I asked why he didn't just return to Stockholm to answer the accusations. "The Swedish system is fucked," he replied. "The situation in Sweden is like a bad sci-fi movie. Forget everything you know about the common law system – we're dealing with the radical feminist version of Saudi Arabia."

With Assange himself becoming as big a story as his leaks, his relationship with the Guardian, already strained by a dispute over our decision to share the cables with the New York Times, became increasingly testy. When a copy of the police file in the Swedish case found its way to the Guardian's Nick Davies, the paper plainly had to publish a story on it. But the world's most famous champion of transparency didn't see it that way. Although we held the story for several days to give him a chance to respond, he instructed his lawyer to threaten legal action if we published.

From then on it was pretty much downhill. Perceived slight followed perceived slight: a production error that convinced him we were publishing a book about "the fall of WikiLeaks"; a Comment is Free contribution which blamed WikiLeaks (unfairly) for releasing a cable about Zimbabwe which some claimed put Morgan Tsvangirai at risk; and a (perfectly accurate) Guardian report about an unsavoury Holocaust denier's links to WikiLeaks.

By the start of this year, despite countless attempts at reassurance, Assange had decided the Guardian was out to get him. WikiLeaks now viewed the Guardian as akin to the Pentagon, he told me. As I write this, a WikiLeaks tweet rich with irony suggests the relationship may have chilled a few degrees since then: "The Guardian book serialisation contains malicious libels. We will be taking action."

The froideur between Assange and the Guardian is disappointing because, in so many ways, the collaboration over the leaked war logs and embassy cables was a model of what traditional media and the new breed of digital subversive can achieve together. Assange brought a trove of raw data and a considerable degree of savviness about how to work with vast, complex databases – and, not insignificantly, the ability to publish outside the reach of any individual jurisdiction. The Guardian and other media partners brought the old-fashioned journalistic skills and deep expertise required to figure out what mattered – and the resources (some 40 Guardian reporters worked on the cables alone) and commitment to deal with highly sensitive material responsibly.

Much has been written about the culture clash between what many in Wiki-world rather derisively call "mainstream media" and uncompromising information libertarians such as Assange. But if anything, I was struck by how the two cultures converged during the collaboration.

Assange started out as dismissive of the need to protect sources in the documents, and now effectively only publishes cables redacted by conventional media partners. As for the Guardian, we have undergone a crash course in working with massive databases, something which is sure to become a bigger part of what we do, and redoubled our commitment to an open, collaborative style of reporting. I have one more personal debt to WikiLeaks: I have finally taken (the wrong) Nick Robinson out of my address book.

Ian Katz is deputy editor of the Guardian


Ian Katz

The GuardianTramp

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