Claiming it to be the most comprehensive account of the war in Afghanistan to date, Julian Assange, the director of whistleblower intermediary website, WikiLeaks, released his site’s Afghan War Diary yesterday. And he did it in a very traditional way: at a press conference crowded with eager print and television journalists. But then WikiLeaks has become expert at marrying the skills of old and new media.
The site, launched in 2006, has been responsible for exposing everything from the contents of Sarah Palin’s personal Yahoo account, to a video from 2007 showing two Reuters journalists and 13 others being shot dead by a US Apache helicopter. That video, known as “Collateral Murder”, eventually went viral and with over 7.1m views on YouTube has helped give the site impressive international clout and status.
But, it’s Assange’s most recent release, that has become immediate front page news around the world: 76,911 reports from US military communications in Afghanistan describing the circumstances and death tolls – of both friend and foe – in incidents occurring between 2004 and 2010. It’s available in an easy-to-use online format – there were over 23,000 concurrent downloads at the time of the scoop’s launch.
The content of the reports is far from surprising, damning though they may be: one expects the immediate self-reporting in wartime to be a little suspect and patchy. And in a world where adding “Wiki” to anything makes many seriously question its authenticity (especially when Wikipedia entries are changed to suit one person’s view of the world), it is an undoubted coup that the site has generated such old school media fervour and backing.
It’s what’s been happening in London over the past several weeks that has served to polish that shaky prefix. Journalists from three of the world’s leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian, were enlisted to sift, scrutinise and then independently report – all with a mutually agreed embargo date.
“Times journalists have spent weeks conducting additional research into disclosures and patterns, verifying and cross-checking the information with other key sources,” says spokesperson for the New York Times, Diane McNulty. WikiLeaks, which is run on private donations, gave the Times and its other two partners access to the material free of charge.
The formula seems a good one. Wanting to make a splash, and surely spread its workload, this new media platform turned to the powerhouses of print, with reputations built over decades of accurate reporting – plus a habit of digesting major reports for public consumption.
As an epic catalogue of raw data, the War Diary needed storytellers. “The task of good journalism is to emotionally connect with people,” says Assange, “we want this information to be taken seriously.”
And keeping his media partners to just three helped limit he risk of early leaks. “The more information, the longer it takes to go through, and the greater chance you are to be scooped.”
And never mind the number of Tweets, Diggs or “Likes”, Assange calculates his success by other means: “Fourteen pages in the Guardian, that’s not a bad outcome,” he says, proudly holding up Monday’s paper.