WikiLeaks and diplomats, Derby and the Daily Mail

Are ambassadors worth it? Should I become a consultant? And what use is the <em>Mail</em>?

Well, is that it? When I first heard WikiLeaks had a lorry load of US diplomatic cables, I looked forward to something remarkable. Like this from London (circa 2002): "Don't forget to post those cheques to Tony, Jack and Geoff. They'll do exactly as we tell them and, at that price, it's a bargain. Even with the diamonds for Cherie." Or from Islamabad: "Just back from The Cave. Osama says it's cold and he's fed up with being the fall guy." Or from Nairobi: "Found the birth certificate and put it in a maximum-security box in the vaults of a Swiss bank."

Instead, we learn Prince Andrew is a bit of a plonker, the Arabs hate the Persians, Kim Jong-il of North Korea needs to work out, the Afghan government is corrupt, and everybody worries about terrorists getting their hands on Pakistan's nuclear stuff.

Sensational stuff, I suppose, if you've been away on a trip to Mars for the past dozen years. Only the news that China favours a reunified Korea took me by surprise. I didn't know Colonel Gaddafi went around with "a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse", but I can't say I care much, though if I were a patriotic Libyan I might ask why our pure and beautiful Libyan sisters aren't good enough for Brother Leader.

I do know at least a dozen male Labour former ministers who could be described as "hound dogs" where women are concerned. It would take a pretty dozy diplomat not to spot at least one of them.

I write this after just the first two days of "revelations", so perhaps, by the time you read this, more exciting news will have emerged. But the vast majority of routine diplomatic cables - WikiLeaks doesn't have the higher-grade ones - comprise nothing more than what embassy staff read in local newspapers or hear on the party and lunching circuit. Diplomats, like journalists, try to find out what's going on and then make sense of it.
If most of the WikiLeaks cables read like snippets from the gossip colums or, in the more thoughtful examples, pieces from an upmarket newspaper's comment pages, that's probably because they've been lifted from the papers or because journalists get much of their material from off-the-record diplomatic briefings.

Surely the big story that WikiLeaks unearthed is that most diplomats are a colossal waste of money.

Millions like us

I'd be more impressed by the US authorities' claims that the WikiLeaks disclosures risk irreparable damage to international relations and even endanger informants' lives if the cables were not already available to 2.5 million people on SIPRNet, the US department of defence network. They didn't seriously believe that the contents of all these documents could remain completely secure, did they? They just didn't bargain for anyone snaffling the lot. Governments instinctively hoard information and restrict its circulation, even when it's relatively routine and banal. Keeping material away from the unwashed masses denies opportunities to set an alternative agenda, and debate issues that politicians would rather ignore.

Oh Mandy

Peter Mandelson, it is reported, is setting up an "international consultancy". Clearly, consultancy expects no diminution in demand for its services even in these hard times. About half the people I meet these days claim to be consultants, though they are often vague about who consults them on what.

I've never understood what consultants are supposed to do, but a City man of my acquaintance has given me a clue. Though well aware that I have spent my adult life in newspapers, he invariably asks how my "consultancy work" is coming along. I tell him that, since I left the New Statesman editorship, I've become a freelance hack, not a consultant. He looks at me as though I have claimed to be the Duke of Edinburgh and asks sympathetically: "Is your consultancy not going well?"

Asian fixation

You may have read about the nine Derby men recently jailed for "grooming" schoolgirls for sex. If you followed the case, as I did (I happen to know Derby well), you probably understood, without thinking much of it, that eight of the nine were Asian and 22 out of 27 victims were white. But the Daily Mail devoted a double-page spread to what it called "a sinister taboo". BBC Radio Derby, it lamented, had reported the case but "barely" mentioned the racial origins of those involved. The local paper printed the gang members' names, "but failed to use the word Asian once".

Leave aside exactly how often a radio station should mention the accused's race in a criminal case. Leave aside, too, whether the good folk
of Derby might not have spotted a clue in the names of the gang members, who included Mohammed Liaqat, Faisal Mehmood and Abid Saddique. Can anyone explain - the Mail certainly didn't - why it is so important that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white? And can anyone tell me why we should not keep reminding ourselves that, in the 1930s, the Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley's Fascists?

No, no, no

Some of you may wonder why, given its unpleasant opinions, hatred of lefties and unreliable information, I bother reading the Daily Mail. The reason is that it provides a quick but always infallible guide to two or three troubling issues each day.

The rule I follow is that the answer to any leading question posed in a Mail headline is always "no". So, from one recent day: "Will Camilla have to curtsey to Kate?", "Will it [the coalition] last five years?" and "Is wifi frying our brains?" No, no and no. Sorted.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle