The collaboration between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the Web’s notorious information anarchist, and some of the world’s most respected news organizations began at The Guardian, a nearly 200-year-old British paper. What followed was a clash of civilizations—and ambitions—as Guardian editors and their colleagues at The New York Times and other media outlets struggled to corral a whistle-blowing stampede amid growing distrust and anger. With Assange detained in the U.K., the author reveals the story behind the headlines.
BY SARAH ELLISON•PHOTOGRAPH BY KI PRICE
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, at a news conference in London last October. The partnership forged with The Guardian leveraged Assange and his Web site into a global story. But the relationship was never an easy one.
On the afternoon of November 1, 2010, Julian Assange, the Australian-born founder of WikiLeaks.org, marched with his lawyer into the London office of Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Assange was pallid and sweaty, his thin frame racked by a cough that had been plaguing him for weeks. He was also angry, and his message was simple: he would sue the newspaper if it went ahead and published stories based on the quarter of a million documents that he had handed over to The Guardian just three months earlier. The encounter was one among many twists and turns in the collaboration between WikiLeaks—a four-year-old nonprofit that accepts anonymous submissions of previously secret material and publishes them on its Web site—and some of the world’s most respected newspapers. The collaboration was unprecedented, and brought global attention to a cache of confidential documents—embarrassing when not disturbing—about American military and diplomatic activity around the world. But the partnership was also troubled from the start.
In Rusbridger’s office, Assange’s position was rife with ironies. An unwavering advocate of full, unfettered disclosure of primary-source material, Assange was now seeking to keep highly sensitive information from reaching a broader audience. He had become the victim of his own methods: someone at WikiLeaks, where there was no shortage of disgruntled volunteers, had leaked the last big segment of the documents, and they ended up at The Guardian in such a way that the paper was released from its previous agreement with Assange—that The Guardian would publish its stories only when Assange gave his permission. Enraged that he had lost control, Assange unleashed his threat, arguing that he owned the information and had a financial interest in how and when it was released.
The Guardian partnership was the first of its kind between a mainstream media organization and WikiLeaks. The future of such collaborations remains very much in doubt. WikiLeaks, torn by staff defections, technical problems, and a crippling shortage of money, has been both battered and rejuvenated by the events of the past several months. A number of companies—PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard—stopped acting as conduits for donations, even as international publicity has attracted high-profile supporters and many new donors. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a close associate of Assange’s and a WikiLeaks spokesman, promises that WikiLeaks will pursue legal action against the companies. Although it is not known where the instigation came from, hackers launched a wave of sympathy attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard operations, and temporarily shut them down. Assange himself, arrested in December on behalf of Swedish authorities for questioning in a sexual-assault investigation, spent time in a British prison before being granted release on bail. At press time, he awaits a decision on extradition and, in the meantime, must wear an electronic anklet, must check in with authorities daily, and must abide by a curfew. Some are pressing the U.S. government to take action against him under the Espionage Act or some other statute. Whatever the fate of WikiLeaks itself, the nature of the Internet guarantees that others will continue to step into its shoes. “The WikiLeaks concept will bring about other organizations and I wish them well,” Hrafnsson says, even as he insists that WikiLeaks is “functioning fully” without Assange.
The Guardian wasn’t the only newspaper to work with WikiLeaks. To assist in publishing the first two batches of documents—on the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq—WikiLeaks brought in two other parties, The New York Times and the German newsweekly Der Spiegel. Eventually the group was expanded to include television: CNN, Al Jazeera, and Britain’s Channel 4. For the third batch of documents—the diplomatic cables—WikiLeaks worked with five print publications in a collaboration that was marked by serial delays and considerable mistrust on all sides. (“Everyone’s a cheat,” laments one editor involved in the project, looking back.) But The Guardian was the lead organization from the outset: it came up with the idea of a collaboration with WikiLeaks, and it made the arrangement work. That central role may seem odd to some. The Guardian is relatively small—it’s merely the 10th-largest national newspaper in Britain (behind The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph, and ahead of only The Independent). But it is aggressive and relentless, and performs on a global stage in a way that most bigger British newspapers simply do not.
The paper has come a long way from the old Manchester Guardian, which, as a former editor, Peter Preston, remembers, was read by “a bluff, Presbyterian, gum-boot-wearing do-gooder.” There are still many of those, but they’re reading alongside a younger, internationally minded audience attracted by The Guardian’s left-leaning politics and its influential Web site, which vies for the largest audience of any news site in Britain. And it’s not just Britain: two-thirds of the guardian.co.uk’s readers live elsewhere. Even before WikiLeaks, the paper was running attention-getting stories on subjects ranging from the Pentagon to Rupert Murdoch to British Aerospace.
The partnership between The Guardian and WikiLeaks brought together two desperately ambitious organizations that happen to be diametric opposites in their approach to reporting the news. One of the oldest newspapers in the world, with strict and established journalistic standards, joined up with one of the newest in a breed of online muckrakers, with no standards at all except fealty to an ideal of “transparency”—that is, dumping raw material into the public square for people to pick over as they will. It is very likely that neither Alan Rusbridger nor Julian Assange fully understood the nature of the other’s organization when they joined forces. The Guardian, like other media outlets, would come to see Assange as someone to be handled with kid gloves, or perhaps latex ones—too alluring to ignore, too tainted to unequivocally embrace. Assange would come to see the mainstream media as a tool to be used and discarded, and at all times treated with suspicion. Whatever the differences, the results have been extraordinary. Given the range, depth, and accuracy of the leaks, the collaboration has produced by any standard one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years. While the leaks haven’t produced a single standout headline that rises above the rest—perhaps because the avalanche of headlines has simply been overwhelming—the texture, context, and detail of the WikiLeaks stories have changed the way people think about how the world is run. Many comparisons have been made between the leak of these documents and Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. By today’s standards, Ellsberg’s actions look quaint: one man handed files to one news organization. The WikiLeaks documents are as revealing as the Pentagon Papers, but their quantity and range are incomparably greater. And they speak even more powerfully to the issue of secrecy itself. The collaboration of newspaper and Web site was never a marriage—more an arrangement driven by expedience, and a rocky one at that—but it will forever change the relationship between whistle-blowers and the media on which they rely.
Alan Rusbridger, 57, is quiet, rumpled, and understated. His sphinx-like demeanor belies the grab-your-lapel impact of the stories he publishes. An accomplished pianist, Rusbridger is writing a book about learning to play Chopin’s First Ballade. (He has also written several children’s books and a history of the evolution of sex manuals.) Sitting in the glass-walled conference room in The Guardian’s new headquarters, near King’s Cross station, in North London, Rusbridger gathers the staff each morning at 10 to go over the previous day’s edition and discuss what lies ahead. Unlike at almost any other paper, the news “conference” is open to anyone on staff, a democratic gesture that occasionally makes for heated conversation, though mostly the underlings stay quiet. When I attended such a conference, the week of the release of the Iraq War Logs, in late October, Rusbridger spoke so softly that I could barely hear him. One by one he called on his editors to report. “Sport,” he intoned, barely audible. The sports editor said his piece. “Comment,” Rusbridger said, again barely audible. The opinion editor gave a report. The meeting continued along these lines for 15 minutes. Then it was over, and everyone got back to work.
The Guardian came to life in the aftermath of the so-called Peterloo Massacre, in 1819. At least 11 people were killed and hundreds more injured when the local Manchester cavalry attempted to quell an unarmed crowd of demonstrators. John Edward Taylor, a young businessman, saw the violence firsthand and wrote an account that he sent to London by the night train. It was published two days later in the Manchester Gazette. His report, which contradicted the official version, made a big splash. Taylor started the Manchester Guardian two years later.
Rusbridger told the story of Taylor and the Peterloo Massacre at a gathering last fall as he introduced a panel of three of his reporters to a group of readers in a public hall on the ground floor of The Guardian’s offices. He drew a comparison between Taylor’s coverage and the work of a 29-year-old Guardian reporter, Paul Lewis, who had investigated the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newsstand operator killed in 2009 during a demonstration in London. Lewis’s reporting, which showed that Tomlinson had been struck by a police officer and knocked to the ground, contradicted claims by the authorities that he had died of a heart attack. Every Guardian editor—there have been only 11 in 190 years—has been keenly aware of the newspaper’s heritage. The power of that legacy is acknowledged in the one official bit of instruction given to each new editor, which is simply to continue on “as heretofore.”
Taylor gave The Guardian its start, but his nephew, Charles Prestwich Scott, would become the newspaper’s best-known and most influential editor. Scott took over in 1872—he was in his mid-20s—and eventually bought the paper outright. He remained at the helm for 57 years. Scott outlined the paper’s principles in a centenary editorial on May 5, 1921, in which he put forth what has become the paper’s motto: “Comment is free, but the facts are sacred.” A bust of Scott surveys the lobby of the Guardian offices.
In 1936 the Scott family created the Scott Trust and folded the newspaper into it. The arrangement was unusual—and one that some newspapers today are looking to as a model. In essence, the trust owns profitmaking businesses that generate money to subsidize the paper, should it need the support. In 1959 the Manchester Guardian dropped the birthplace from its name, and five years later The Guardian moved to London.
Because the paper was initially published in the Midlands, the early editions in London were often filled with typos. The satirical magazine Private Eye referred to the paper as “The Grauniad,” and the nickname has stuck. But to this day it remains the only British daily newspaper that runs a regular corrections column. Twelve years ago, Rusbridger appointed an ombudsman—common in the United States, but the first ever in Britain.
There is a whiff of self-importance about The Guardian that critics don’t fail to notice. But it’s also true that the newspaper has broken more big stories in recent years than any of its rivals. The Guardian has been sued for libel so many times that Rusbridger can’t immediately recall them all. Soon after Rusbridger became editor, in 1995, Jonathan Aitken, a prominent Tory M.P. who had been the subject of a Guardian investigation into his dealings with Saudi arms brokers, brought suit against the paper. In the course of a vicious legal battle he committed perjury and was sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence. (Aitken wrote a book about the episode, called Pride and Perjury. David Leigh, who was deeply involved in the paper’s coverage of Aitken and is now the Guardian’s investigations editor, wrote a book of his own, called The Liar.) Other high-profile libel actions came from the Police Federation; Matthias Rath, who encouraged aids patients in South Africa to replace their regular drugs with his unproven vitamin treatment; and Keith Schellenberg, who objected to being depicted as a multi-millionaire playboy who had turned a Scottish island into a sybaritic playground. One of the few suits the newspaper has settled is the action brought by the supermarket chain Tesco. A Guardian story, two years ago, about the company’s complex tax dealings was in fact incorrect, and the newspaper published two apologies and paid an undisclosed sum to a charity of Tesco’s choice. In the aftermath, rather than shy away from the subject of tax avoidance by big corporations, the newspaper redoubled its efforts, publishing an investigative series on the subject, “The Tax Gap,” that ran every day for two weeks.
In March of 2008, The Guardian’s Nick Davies got a tip that the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid, was being sued by Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, for using a private investigator to hack into his voice mail. Davies followed up, and after more than a year of collecting data, two explosive articles appeared on The Guardian’s front page. One of them, “How News of the World Journalists Broke the Law,” maintained that some of Murdoch’s reporters had been “involved with private investigators who engaged in illegal phone-hacking.” (Among the hundreds whose voice mails were hacked: Prince William and Prince Harry.) The other article alleged that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. had paid out more than a million pounds “to settle legal cases that threatened to reveal evidence of his journalists’ repeated involvement in the use of criminal methods to get stories.” The two articles, and many more that followed, spurred a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing, multiple lawsuits by alleged victims of phone hacking, and a battle of sorts between The Guardian and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
As The Guardian’s coverage unfolded, Rusbridger ran into Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who runs the Murdoch newspapers in Britain. “Your reporting on our company has been very hostile for a long time,” Murdoch said coolly. Rusbridger smiles almost imperceptibly as he recalls the incident.
But nothing in The Guardian’s recent record has had quite the ambition or impact of the WikiLeaks effort. The origins of the collaboration between WikiLeaks and its “media partners” date back to June 2010, when Nick Davies read a four-paragraph story in his own paper about the arrest of Private First Class Bradley Manning, an American soldier who had allegedly passed along hundreds of thousands of classified military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks. Davies resolved to find Assange.
Julian Assange is a 39-year-old native of Melbourne who started out his professional life as a computer hacker. He affects a smilingly helpless air and until his arrest was notoriously elusive, sleeping on the floors and couches of sympathizers and never staying long in any one place. He kept odd hours, often working through the night and then sleeping until late into the day. His only faithful companion had been a laptop. Iain Overton, editor of the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Reporting, who worked with Assange on the Iraq War Logs, says he has only seen him in one of two outfits, a dark suit for press conferences or, when he’s not onstage, a gray pullover and leather jacket. “He is not a man who looks like he’s greedy,” Overton says.
The WikiLeaks site itself was partly hosted on a server in Sweden that is lodged in a former nuclear bunker drilled deep inside the White Mountains. A few months before the Manning story broke, Assange had released through WikiLeaks the video of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 repeatedly firing on a group of men who included a Reuters photographer and his driver, and then firing on a van that stopped to rescue one of the wounded. (Twelve people were killed in the incident.) The video, which Assange titled “Collateral Murder,” became a viral sensation. In January, before the release of “Collateral Murder,” WikiLeaks had shut down temporarily due to a reported lack of funds. Assange made a plea for new donations from the public, saying he had received hundreds of thousands of pages of documents relating to “corrupt banks, the U.S. detainee system, the Iraq war, China, the U.N,” and many other topics, but lacked the resources to release them. “Even $10 will pay to put one of these reports into another 10,000 hands and $1000, a million,” Assange wrote. As a result of the funding drive, says Kristinn Hrafnsson, by early 2010 WikiLeaks had accumulated roughly $1 million in its accounts, collected mainly by a German foundation. (The foundation, Wau Holland, is expected to release a report shortly on salaries and spending at WikiLeaks.) At the time of his meeting with Davies, Assange had repeatedly voiced frustration that his leaks hadn’t received the attention they deserved. The Guardian’s Rusbridger recently looked back through old e-mails from Assange, from a period when Assange was trying to get more notice. “In many ways, he was right,” Rusbridger says. “People weren’t paying attention.”
With “Collateral Murder,” Assange wanted to change that. He presented it first at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C., then followed with an appearance on The Colbert Report, wearing a crisp white shirt and with his thin blond hair slicked back. The audience seemed to love him.
Davies started contacting anyone he thought might be able to put him in touch with Assange. “Eventually I got a phone call from one of the people who was close to Julian saying, ‘Don’t tell Julian I’m telling you this, but he’s about to fly into Brussels to give a press conference to the European Parliament.’ ” Ian Traynor, The Guardian’s European editor in Brussels, buttonholed Assange at the Parliament building and learned that WikiLeaks was looking to release two million pages of confidential documents. Davies rushed to Brussels. The next day, he and Traynor went to the Hotel Leopold, woke up Assange, and began a conversation that lasted for the next six hours.
“All I know really is what’s in the public domain,” Davies says he told Assange, “which suggests that you’ve got a very exciting bag of secrets.” Assange replied, in his slow baritone, “I have a record of every single episode involving the U.S. military in Afghanistan for the last seven years.” Davies said, “Holy moly!” Indeed, Assange went on, he had more than that: “I have a record of every single episode involving the U.S. military in Iraq since March 2003.” Assange also made reference to a third cache of documents—diplomatic cables—and to a fourth cache, containing the personal files of all prisoners who had been held at Guantánamo.
Davies made the case to Assange that the documents would effectively evaporate if they were put up as raw data on the Web—no one could make sense of so much material. Both he and Assange agreed that the Times would be a good, and protective, addition to the project. It is unlikely that U.K. courts could block publication, but it’s even more unlikely that the U.S. government would go after The New York Times, given the strong First Amendment protections and the precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case.
The two laid plans to set up a research bunker in The Guardian’s offices. They agreed that they wouldn’t talk about the project on cell phones. They agreed that, in two days, Assange would send Davies an e-mail with the address of a Web site that hadn’t previously existed, and that would exist for only an hour or two. Assange took a paper napkin with the hotel’s name and logo and circled various words. At the top he wrote, “no spaces.” By linking the words together, Davies had his password.
Davies headed back to London the next morning to consult with Rusbridger. They had two worries. First, would the material be any good? “When I had looked at little bits on his laptop, it struck me as being deeply insignificant, fragments of nothing,” Davies remembers. The other worry was that there could be material in the files that the newspaper wouldn’t want to publish, because it might hurt people on the ground.
They would know soon enough: the password released the entire WikiLeaks database on Afghanistan into their hands. Rusbridger called Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, who sent Eric Schmitt, one of his most seasoned military correspondents, to London to see what was on offer. “He reported back that the material was clearly genuine, that it was quite interesting, and that it came with no strings attached,” Keller recalls, “except an embargo: the news organizations would not publish until WikiLeaks was ready to post the documents.”
Soon after, Assange brought Der Spiegel into the partnership, without consulting anyone at The Guardian or the Times. By this point, Rusbridger remembers, Assange was envisioning working with outlets in multiple countries in order to protect the material from being shut down by a single government. Der Spiegel sent its own correspondent to London, and the three reporting teams worked side by side, though not really in collaboration. There was, Keller says, “the natural watercooler swapping of interesting information—‘Hey, did you see the one about … ?’ ” But each news organization prepared its own stories and coordinated only on the release date of certain topic areas.
The biggest gulf between WikiLeaks and the traditional news outlets lay in their approaches to editing. Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one. “Neither us nor Der Spiegel nor The New York Times was ever going to print names of people who were going to get reprisals, anymore than we would do on any other occasion,” says David Leigh. “We were starting from: ‘Here’s a document. How much of it shall we print?’ Whereas Julian’s ideology was: ‘I shall dump everything out and then you have to try and persuade me to cross a few things out.’ We were coming at it from opposite poles.” The redaction of the Afghanistan files was a point of contention within WikiLeaks as well. Associates say that Assange dismissed the need for editorial care, even as they urged him to take the task more seriously. Smári McCarthy, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, told The Independent in October that there were “serious disagreements over the decision not to redact the names of Afghan civilians.”
The editors agreed they would begin to publish on Sunday, July 25. After about three weeks of working on the Afghanistan files, Assange agreed to hand over his second batch of documents, the Iraq files, and each news organization set up fresh teams to pore over them. Assange himself went to London and stayed with David Leigh. He worked at The Guardian, sharing meals with the reporting teams. Within WikiLeaks, meanwhile, there were serious concerns about the amount of time Assange was spending on the Afghan and Iraq files, given the trove of other material the organization had in its hands. Colleagues also saw him becoming increasingly autocratic and dismissive.
Several days before publication, The New York Times went to the White House and the Pentagon for comment. “We agreed to share any on-the-record comments with The Guardian and Der Spiegel,” Keller says. “At the White House request, we also passed along an appeal to WikiLeaks not to publish names of confidential informants or other information that might put lives at risk.”
On Saturday, July 24, the day before release, Davies received a call from someone he knew at the television network Channel 4. “You’ll never guess who I’m with,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “I’m with Julian Assange. He’s just given me the entire Afghan database.” Davies was livid. Assange got on the phone and explained, falsely, according to Davies, that “it was always part of the agreement that I would introduce television at this stage.” Davies and Assange have not spoken since that afternoon.
The Afghanistan War Logs appeared in the three print publications and on Channel 4. Among other things, the documents detailed hundreds of civilian deaths at the hands of Western troops and the existence of a secret “black” unit of Special Forces to hunt down Taliban leaders. It also became clear that American officials were persuaded that Pakistan’s spy service had been helping the Taliban. WikiLeaks made a clumsy effort to redact the raw material, and in fact held back some 15,000 of the 90,000 files. Still, the redaction was not comprehensive, and the documents it posted on its site revealed some individual identities. Assange’s minimal attention to redaction—potentially putting informers or people on the American payroll in danger—drew criticism from some unlikely quarters, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.
The Iraq stories were initially scheduled to run two weeks later, but in early August, a week after the Afghan documents had been published, Assange summoned David Leigh to the Frontline Club, in London. Assange said he wanted the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit group, to work with Channel 4 and Al Jazeera as well on this second batch of material, and asked that Leigh delay publication to give the other outlets time to prepare programs.
Leigh said he could arrange for a six-week delay—but only if Assange gave him the third batch of documents, the so-called “package three,” potentially the most tantalizing of them all. According to Leigh, Assange said, “You can have package three tonight, but you have to give me a letter signed by the Guardian editor saying you won’t publish package three until I say so.” Assange got his letter.
As the date approached for release of the Iraq documents, Assange still had not redacted them. The outlets agreed on a further delay to allow the group Iraq Body Count, which maintains and updates the world’s largest public database of violent civilian deaths during and since the 2003 Iraq invasion, to go through the material and suggest deletions. Leigh began to lose faith that Assange would allow The Guardian to publish package three at all. Assange had begun to talk to CBS and PBS about getting involved in the project, and seemed increasingly erratic. In August, Assange had traveled to Stockholm, and while there he slept with two different women, according to reports of their testimony to the police. In both cases, what started as consensual sex developed into encounters in which, Swedish authorities came to believe, Assange manipulated the women into having unprotected sex. An investigation was eventually opened. Sweden sought Assange for questioning, Interpol put him on its Wanted list, and he went into hiding in the British countryside. He has denied the allegations against him and maintains that the prosecution is politically motivated.
The nearly 400,000 pages of Iraq War Logs were published on October 23, amid a growing sense of unease among the media outlets, both with one another and with Assange. The Guardian’s coverage focused on civilian deaths at the hands of Allied forces and on the U.S. military’s complicit role in the torture of detainees. The Times’s coverage looked more closely at the complicating roles of countries such as Pakistan and Iran in the ongoing conflicts.
In conjunction with its stories on Iraq, the Times published a critical profile of Assange. The story, “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety,” quoted anonymous former colleagues of Assange’s citing his “erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.” The article referred to Assange’s legal troubles, stemming from the sexual-assault investigation. The reaction from Assange was vitriolic. “It’s a smear piece, and more tabloid behavior by the Times,” he said of the article. “Is it that only journalists with bad character work for the Times?”
As The Guardian was pushing ahead with the WikiLeaks stories, it also had to contend with a troubling financial picture. At a time when newspapers around the world are struggling to devise new ways to sustain their businesses, The Guardian has been held up as a possible model—one that might work for only a handful of institutions, but a model nonetheless.
While it faces serious commercial challenges, as any newspaper does, The Guardian has long been somewhat shielded by the ownership structure established some years ago, whose sole purpose is “to secure the financial and editorial independence” of the newspaper in perpetuity. For a long time, The Guardian itself turned a profit, staking out lucrative niches in classified advertising for jobs in media, education, and the public sector. But as ad revenues fell, drained away by the Internet, the trust’s financial lifeline became all the more critical. Today, the Guardian Media Group consists of The Guardian and the weekly Observer newspaper, as well as stakes in Emap, a U.K. trade-magazine publisher, and Trader Media Group, which publishes the classified-car-advertising magazine and Web site Auto Trader. Those investments, too, have faltered. Last year the company wrote down big portions of the value of its radio division and its stake in Emap. It is currently considering selling its stake in Trader Media and possibly using the proceeds to fund The Guardian and The Observer. In 2009, The Guardian and The Observer lost £37.9 million (roughly the same as the year before) and cut 203 jobs. “They are commercially fucked,” says Marc Sands, former marketing director, who despite his prognostication says he is a loyal supporter of both papers.
Even after the job cuts, the two papers employ 630 journalists. Rusbridger is quick to point out that for 10 of the 15 years he has been editor the newspaper has turned a profit. And, he adds, hardly a paper exists today that isn’t subsidized by some other business, as The Washington Post is by its Kaplan education unit, or as some of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. newspapers are by its Fox news-and-entertainment division. “The newspaper market is only sustained on subsidy,” Rusbridger says. “The Scott Trust enables us to get on the playing field. Does it give us a bit more latitude to think widely journalistically? I think so.”
In addition to ambitious investigative projects, Rusbridger has endeavored to use The Guardian’s Web site to create the largest possible audience online, with little concern for the immediate commercial return such an audience might provide. It is through its Web site that The Guardian has established much of its international reputation, and the paper seems more comfortable than many of its rivals wading into the world of “crowd sourcing” and so-called citizen journalism. While other newspapers are putting up pay walls around their content, Rusbridger is committed to keeping the Guardian site open.
To expand its audience to the 50 million visitors that would give it more clout with advertisers, Rusbridger and his team have been looking to the U.S. After the September 11 attacks, in 2001, The Guardian’s online readership surged. One reason the site found a growing American audience is that the newspaper was one of the few voices consistently critical of the war in Iraq, which most American newspapers and news outlets supported. In 2007, Rusbridger hired former American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky to launch Guardian America, a designated Guardian home page geared to American readers. Unfortunately, they never showed up on the site. Guardian America was shut down in 2009.
When the C.E.O. of the Guardian Media Group, Carolyn McCall, announced her resignation last March to take over the C.E.O. role at the discount airline company easyJet, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun tabloid, offered some unsolicited advice for her successor. “As a fiscally responsible chief executive, my first move would be to shut down The Guardian and The Observer tomorrow, thereby saving about £50 million a year,” he told a local paper. “It would also have the pleasing effect of chucking a lot of untalented left-wing turds onto [Gordon] Brown’s bonfire. It’s a total nightmare of a job and nobody with an ounce of business acumen would touch it.”
Julian Assange’s business model appears to be no better. Although his overhead was once modest—Hrafnsson estimates that before “Collateral Murder” the organization could function on a budget of $200,000 to $300,000 a year—financial needs have ballooned as the work of WikiLeaks has become more high-profile and labor-intensive. “I don’t have the exact number of people on our payroll,” Hrafnsson says, but he estimates that there are now “a few dozen people who are committed full-time” on either short-term or long-term contracts, with hundreds of volunteers contributing their work. WikiLeaks operates almost entirely on donations, and they have fallen woefully short. Finances aside, Assange’s editorial model gives pause to anyone who gets close enough to see it firsthand. And it’s not clear that an organization like his, run the way he runs it, could ever achieve anything like longevity. Committed to a form of transparency that verges on anarchy, and operating on the sly and on the fly, it is inherently unstable.
In October, while The Guardian was preparing to publish the Iraq War Logs and working on package three, Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist who had written a book on freedom of information, had a copy of the package-three database leaked to her by a former WikiLeaks volunteer. Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish. Leigh got the documents from Brooke, and the paper distributed them to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. The three news organizations were poised to publish the material on November 8.
That was when Assange stormed into Rusbridger’s office, threatening to sue. Rusbridger, Leigh, and the editors from Der Spiegel spent a marathon session with Assange, his lawyer, and Hrafnsson, eventually restoring an uneasy calm. Some in the Guardian camp had wanted to break off relations with Assange entirely. Rusbridger somehow kept all parties at the table—a process involving a great deal of coffee followed by a great deal of wine. Ultimately he agreed to a further delay, allowing Assange time to bring in other media partners, this time France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El País.
Assange’s romantic appeal as a roving truth-teller was gravely damaged by the sexual-assault accusations in August, but he is still a darling of the programming and hacking community. Indeed, his pursuit by Swedish and European authorities—and the threat of a criminal investigation by the U.S. government—has made him into something of a folk hero. On the day of his arrest, supporters cried, “We love you!,” and banged on the side of the armored wagon that carried Assange away to Wandsworth prison, in southwest London. His bail was eventually posted by a group of prominent individuals. In a statement after his release, Assange protested his innocence, then made his way to the English countryside, where he will live under close supervision.
The U.S. Department of Justice is actively studying ways to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks, and seeking to find a way that doesn’t entail prosecuting their partners in the media. “I don’t want to get into specifics here, but people would have a misimpression if the only statute you think that we are looking at is the Espionage Act,” U.S. attorney general Eric Holder has said. Investigators are looking for any evidence that Assange might have encouraged the leaker—widely assumed to be Bradley Manning—or given him guidance. That could amount to “conspiracy.” But any legal case would be a minefield. One congressional staffer told me that Justice Department lawyers were likely crossing their fingers that Assange would be extradited to Sweden and convicted, so they won’t have to attempt a tricky prosecution.
On the day of Assange’s arrest, WikiLeaks released a U.S. cable from early 2009 listing sites around the world—from oil pipelines to vaccine factories—that are considered crucial to American national security. The locations of nearly all of the facilities could be identified by an Internet search, but the disclosure prompted new denunciations of WikiLeaks. For all the brave talk, the site is on the ropes. Through December, WikiLeaks still wasn’t collecting new documents from potential whistle-blowers. The site is crowded with pleas for donations. “He is short of money and short of secrets,” someone who has worked extensively with Assange told me. “The whole thing has collapsed.”
Key volunteers who were helping run the loosely organized WikiLeaks confederation have left. Smári McCarthy, who worked for WikiLeaks, maintained that “key people have become very concerned about the direction of WikiLeaks with regard to its strong focus on U.S. military files at the expense of ignoring everything else.” One associate of Assange’s says that, because of these departures, access to important elements of the site’s infrastructure has deteriorated, although Assange himself remains the key architect of the complex set of programs that underlie WikiLeaks and its content. WikiLeaks has no headquarters. Like its creator, the site has had to move from country to country to find a safe host. After its server in Sweden was attacked, WikiLeaks moved briefly to Amazon’s cloud-computing service before being kicked off and returning to Sweden. Then it shifted to Switzerland. Meanwhile, hundreds of mirror sites popped up around the world, to ensure that the Web site’s contents would survive. In late August, Assange fell out with one of his key employees, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who had been known outside the organization as the WikiLeaks spokesman “Daniel Schmitt.” Like others at WikiLeaks, Domscheit-Berg resisted Assange’s single-minded focus on military and diplomatic issues—and feared that Assange was becoming a lightning rod. At press time Domscheit-Berg was working on setting up a rival organization, OpenLeaks.org. He is also writing an unflattering book, scheduled to be published early this year, that will detail the strife within WikiLeaks. It accuses Assange of “high-handedness, dishonesty, and grave mistakes,” and quotes him as dismissing criticism from colleagues with the words “I’m busy, there are two wars I have to end.”
David Leigh says, “Julian is staking everything on this terrific throw of the dice—that he can become the man who single-handedly rocks the U.S. administration back on its heels, and this will catapult him into making it all work again.”
The release of package three, the American diplomatic cables, on November 29, drove more than four million unique visitors to The Guardian’s Web site, its largest single day of traffic ever. The cables revealed embarrassing backroom bargains among chanceries around the world and brimmed with unflattering assessments of foreign leaders by U.S. diplomats. The cables also showed a wide array of Arab leaders urging the United States to attack Iran. Although the WikiLeaks partnership has in some ways been a triumph for The Guardian, it has also been a profound test of institutional patience. One night, after I tried unsuccessfully to reach Rusbridger by phone, he e-mailed at 12:30 A.M. his time to apologize for his silence. “Sorry about today,” he wrote. “Managing a relationship between a French afternoon paper, a Spanish daily, a German weekly, a paper on NY time, and a bunch of anarchists in hiding is trying!” No one knows whether Assange will attempt another partnership with so many media outlets, but he has promised that one of his next major revelations, rumored to involve the hard drive of a top bank executive, will occur in early 2011, and he has boasted that publication “could take down a bank or two.”
When I asked Rusbridger if he had any regrets about the way his paper handled the cables or the way it worked with WikiLeaks, he said, “No,” but his response was so tentative that it seemed to reveal how fragile the project was in his mind. “I think given the complexity of it all, touch wood, as I speak at the moment, it is remarkable it has gone so well. Given all the tensions that were built into it, it would have been surprising to get out of it without some friction, but we negotiated it all quite well.”
The Guardian and WikiLeaks can be seen as the matter and anti-matter of modern journalism—each represents a pole at the farthest extreme, with the journalistic enterprise as a whole being torn between them. The Guardian sees itself as a mediating institution, one that applies knowledge and judgment to the gathering of facts. It believes mediation is necessary for understanding, and it knows that institutions must be built and tended with care. The high-minded creation of the Scott Trust, long ago, epitomizes this sensibility. In contrast, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks disdain the notion that anything should come between the public and the vast universe of ostensible information you can evaluate for yourself, if only someone will let you. The ideal role of a journalistic outlet, in Assange’s view, is to be a passive conduit for reality, or at least for slivers of reality, with as little intervention as possible—no editing, no contextualizing, no explanations, no thinking, no weighing of one person’s claims against another’s, no regard for consequences. The technology that Assange has worked on for most of his career possesses immense capabilities, and cannot be controlled by a single institution or voice. It is perhaps for this reason that WikiLeaks—ultimately replaceable by the next technologically savvy anarchist—is so disturbing to so many.
There can be convergence, up to a point. Under Rusbridger, The Guardian has embraced outside sources of information in what the editor likes to call “mutualization”—that is, using the best of what The Guardian’s staff can produce but also embracing the wide-open online world for what it casts into public view. This is why Rusbridger was willing to work with “a bunch of anarchists in hiding” in the first place. Assange, too, has perhaps undergone modest evolution. Originally insisting that none of his documents be redacted, he backed away from that stance somewhat when it came to the Iraq War Logs, and then backed away even further when it came to the diplomatic cables. (WikiLeaks has not yet released its own large cache of raw diplomatic cables; what has been made public is largely limited to what the traditional news outlets decided to make public in their stories. It may be that Assange is simply holding material out, to make other deals.) One of Assange’s former associates, disillusioned, likens Assange’s situation to the last scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs are shown to have become indistinguishable from the human beings they had rebelled against. Indeed, compared with others in his world of Internet provocateurs, Assange is almost a traditionalist—one of the few of his kind willing to work with the mainstream press and conform, at least fleetingly, to some of their standards.
But convergence goes only so far—there’s no reason to think that either party has shed its basic outlook, or ever will, or could. The conflict is as old as civilization itself—between those who cherish what institutions provide and those who distrust everything that institutions stand for. At the moment, in journalism, neither seems to have the upper hand—and neither can do without the other.