The year is on the way out so it's time for us to bring back out The Big 6. It's our interactive year-end feature where you help us choose the biggest stories of 2011 in 6 big categories.
They are: Newsmaker, Feel Good story, Winning, Heartbreaker, Overhyped and as my guest David Leigh of The Guardian thinks in the case of Wikileaks - Flameout. You can vote for each category as we unfold them and we'll announce the results in our year-end show. And there's a desirable prize package too, stuffed with DVDs and CBC merch. Could it be a nice way to spend the post-holidays? You bet!
Go here get in on The Big 6 fun and spend some time thinking about the stories of the year.
Beleaguered, pursued, threatened, extradited and excoriated, it's been a tough year for Julian Assange. Next week the founder of Wikileaks heads back to the High Court in London to appeal a British ruling that extradites him to Sweden to face sex charges.
The stakes are high. If he loses, he'll likely be on a plane to Sweden within 10 days. Assange maintains his innocence in the Swedish allegations, but he's also wary that leaving the UK, where he is now under house arrest, could make him more vulnerable to an American extradition. Mainstream American political figures have called for his execution.
So everyone was surprised when on Thursday, Wikileaks did something they haven't been doing very much in 2011: they released documents.
They had spectacular year in 2010, scoring major coups and making unprecedented releases of documents- specifically pertaining to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq- effectively challenging notions of public secrecy, security and journalism.
But by 2011 Wikileaks was too often itself becoming the story.
In the last 12 months Wikileaks stumbled badly when Visa, Mastercard and PayPal enacted a payment barricade, strangling the organization's cash flow. Internal squabbles picked away at Assange's character, already embattled by the sex allegations. A vaunted expose of American banks failed to appear. And crucially, a cache of unredacted Wikileaks documents went public, potentially endangering lives.
Assange's collaborator David Leigh is The Guardian's investigations executive editor and the author of the book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy. This week on Day 6 he told me Wikileaks is finished.
"Julian isnt just the public face of Wikileaks, he is Wikileaks, " Leigh told me this week on Day 6. "Wikileaks is Julian and a few other people and many of those people have since fallen out with Julian and won't deal with him anymore. Wikileaks is him. It's him and a few volunteers and a sort of fan base across the globe."
"I think Wikileaks has pretty much ended all ready to tell you the truth."
A Strange Collaboration
David Leigh was one of the international editors who helped prepare a massive trove of U.S. military logs about the Afghanistan war for publication in the summer of 2010. It was a complex process of verifying, redacting, cross referencing and excerpting. Leigh spent months trying to make sense of the estimated 300 million words in the vast collection of classified documents. It was an unprecedented volume of leaked information, perhaps 10 times the size of the Pentagon papers.
He recalls his first meeting with Assange.
"When I first met him I thought he was very charismatic but strange. I remember he arrived in London and he had nowhere to stay and he had nothing to eat. So I took him to a restaurant and I said 'What do you want?', and he said 'I want 12 oysters and a piece of cheese. ' And I thought this is a strange person, he's not like us Earthlings."
Eric Schmitt from the New York Times met Assange while the group was preparing the logs for release.
"He's tall -- probably 6-foot-2 or 6-3 -- and lanky, with pale skin, gray eyes and a shock of white hair that seizes your attention," Schmitt wrote. "He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy, light-coloured sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn't bathed in days."
David Leigh was wary of Assange's attitude toward the documents and says it was the cause of much conflict during the process. "Well we had big rows with Julian from the off really", he says, "Because there was an abyss from our view of journalism to his view. And we think he's pretty irresponsible as a character and the fact that he ended up dumping everything out completely unpredacted putting people in the way of potential reprisals, that's just irresponsible, not something we would ever do."
Bill Keller, then executive editor of the New York Times says "We felt an enormous moral and ethical obligation to use the material responsibly. From the beginning, we agreed that in our articles and in any documents we published from the secret archive, we would excise material that could put lives at risk."
Notwithstanding the careful process the leaked documents were subjected to, perhaps the worst disaster for Wikileaks unfolded in September when it became clear the unredacted diplomatic cables were circulating online. Wikileaks blamed the leak on a password published in David Leigh's book, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy.
Leigh rejected the charge and five major news organizations who'd partnered with Wikileaks closed ranks with The Guardian. "We deplore the decision of WikiLeaks to publish the unredacted state department cables, which may put sources at risk," The Guardian, New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde said in a joint statement.
On Day 6, David Leigh goes further, painting Assange's picture as a spent force.
"Wikileaks has done nothing for the past year except be a vehicle for Julian's campaigns to try to avoid getting extradicted to Sweden. It's nothing to do with free speech. He's tried to recast his legal troubles with these women as a free speech issue. He's become an increasingly beleaguered and erratic figure."
When Bill Keller and David Leigh write about their involvement with the war logs, the diplomatic cables and Wikileaks, their prose is full of adrenaline. Being on the receiving end of the biggest leak in modern journalism, working collaboratively with the world's most powerful news organizations- it's the stuff of dreams for anyone who's ever broken a story. But Leigh doesn't think it changed the face of journalism or elevates Julian Assange and his ideals of accountability and transparency.
"A lot of what Julian said about the way journalism is being transformed was just a fantasy. Journalism is about the application of intelligence to information. It's not about mass leaking of things and then suddenly it's a Pandora's Box and you open it and everybody knows the truth. The world isn't like that.
"I think his whole theory was nuts from the outset.
"What has been amazing is that for one moment Julian turned out to be the middleman for the most astonishing leak of documents that has ever been seen before in history. The reason for that is technological. It's because huge databases come into existence, they are circulated. Once they exist Julian has demonstrated it is possible for them to be leaked instantaneously. We've demonstrated in the mainstream press it's possible to process this material and publish it."
Lots of other great stuff on this week's episode of Day 6. Listen in, or grab the podcast and keep thinking about the stories that moved you, rocked you or made you laugh in 2011. The check out our Big 6 page and place your vote.
And have a great weekend.
Brent Bambury @CBCDay6