The Cablegate Shock - Does WikiLeaks upset the "Special Relationship" Narrative of Transatlantic Relations?

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2011 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents


2.1 Definition and Description
2.2 What is the Functional Niche of WikiLeaks?


4.1 The Cable to Precede the Media Responses
4.2 Pre-Cablegate Media Response
4.3 Transition
4.4 Post-Cablegate Media Response

5.1 Questions – Answers!
5.2 What will be next in the history of the Special Relationship Narrative?

1 Introduction

When dealing with international relations between the United States and the United Kingdom, the Special Relationship frequently comes in handy as a paradigm, within which observable phenomena click into place. But what is the Special Relationship? Can we even say, it exists? This will be one question to deal with in this work. The other major question is: How does the Special Relationship behave in the media – how is it treated and by whom? And finally: Can the way the media deal with the Special Relationship be changed by a simple idea, that changes the preconditions for access to knowledge and the way journalists use their sources for their work?

First, I will give a brief summary of what WikiLeaks is, how it came into being, and what the core ideas and values are, that it stands for. Within the scope of that, I want to give a quick glance towards the Propaganda Model, which extensively analyzes the way the modern (western) corporate media system works.

Second, I want to discuss different approaches towards the Special Relationship (hence: S.R.) and find out, in which context it may be sensible to use the term and what it actually is, that it denotes in these contexts. I will restrict the scope of this chapter to things perceivable in the media.

Third, I want to demonstrate what the previous considerations of this paper can be used for when dealing with primary sources of two kinds: On the one hand, an actual diplomatic cable about the S.R., which was made public by WikiLeaks, and on the other hand, a selection of (print / online) media items that deal with the S.R., WikiLeaks and that aforementioned cable, respectively.

Finally, I will draw a number of conclusions to evaluate, the intricacies of the sources used and of the methods I made them undergo. If space provides that opportunity, I will dare a prognosis for what will happen to the S.R., considering the findings of this work.

The time period in concern will be the latest period of American politics, as the inauguration of US President Obama seemed to mark a watershed for the S.R., as the primary texts will show. The practice of abbreviating “Special Relationship” by “S.R.” is chiefly due to practical reasons and not intended to represent a comment on the term's validity. Nevertheless, I find the term as such valid enough to capitalize its initials – also in order to denote the relationship between UK and USA and delimit it from just any special relationship that is not implied in the aforementioned meaning.

2 What is WikiLeaks?

2.1 Definition and Description

The WikiPedia article “WikiLeaks” says:

WikiLeaks is an international non-profit organisation that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers. 1

Its name hints to its early days as a user-editable wiki project. Also, the website's architecture relied on the principles of PHP programming and use of markup language very similar to Wikipedia. While Julian Assange is the founder and editor in chief of the project, there have been influential supporters early on, such as US lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald or Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir. It is, by definition and necessity resulting from its mission statement, not only an international, but a transnational project:

WikiLeaks states that its "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behaviour in their governments and corporations." (WikiPedia: "WikiLeaks"; via 2 )

As most IT projects, WikiLeaks has both a back end (i.e., the submission and anonymization process) and a front end (i.e., media of various kind ranging from their own websites to cooperative contracts with renowned, well-established media companies). The functionality of the back end is rather complicated, as the usage of different legal areas, i.e. different countries, is necessary to ensure anonymity of the source, no matter where the original whistleblower is located and if they take other precautions. One minimum requirement for submitted material is, for instance, that it be (physically) routed through both Sweden and Belgium, as their legal systems provide different but equally necessary protections for source anonymity (as provided by the Swedish constitution) and journalist-source communications confidentiality (as provided by Belgian law)3.

The front end works along rather simple lines: Broad accessibility of leaked information by the general public is the top priority, any concern other than that is considered, but in effect secondary. If WikiLeaks were a project coming from the background of journalist circles, where networking and name-dropping are important resources for accomplishing goals, it would not work, as personal and career interests might influence people's decisions over what is to be publish and what is to be kept buried. However, WikiLeaks is a hacker project and the high appreciation anonymity enjoys in this subculture, as contrary to the journalism-sphere, is a key prerequisite for WikiLeaks' effectiveness. On their main page http://wikileaks.org (accessed 09-15-2011) they quote the Time Magazine's judgment, that the project “could become as important as the Freedom of Information Act”. Later in this paper, we can examine what well-established journalists think about that.

2.2 What is the Functional Niche of WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks is not a generically journalistic project. But what is it, then? Journalists' methods to protecting their sources is, to not tell them off. This is a method prone to failure, as soon as the stakes become high enough that other priorities become more urgent, e.g. by means of a police interrogation. What can WikiLeaks do, that journalism up to now could not? WikiLeaks renders it physically impossible to actually know an informant in the first place. Context becomes irrelevant, the information leaked is the journalistic story.

One of WikiLeaks credos is, “We open governments.” Governments belong to the most secretive organizations that exist, the spreading of their secrets is severely punishable in many countries. WikiLeaks is following a radically grassroots-democratic ideal that attempts, what has been technically impossible for most of human history: To empower each and every member of society to be informed about the decisions that are made within a government – a radical approach to transparency, that could serve to make possible a democracy without representatives. Naturally, those are merely ideals propagated by Julian Assange and his colleagues. And it is legitimate to ask: Why should anybody who has a stake in the current society with its representative political structures and asymmetrical power relations (journalist-reader, producer-consumer, representative- voter etc.) be interested in changing any of these approved cultural practices?

We should not rush to an answer. If we analyze the way WikiLeaks works in the field of journalism, we could be able to find approaches for an answer – if we find that WikiLeaks makes an actual difference.

3 What is the S.R.?

According to Fröhlich4, the S.R. exists ever since the 16th century and it was mainly an act of realization of those relations on Winston Churchill's part, to point that relationship out in his Iron Curtain speech. Especially for political scholars and historians,the S.R. is a unique and natural connection between British and American national interest that has been growing since the landing of the first English settlers on the American eastern coast in the 16 th century based upon a comparable legal system and shared language, values and culture. (my translation; also 5 )

Churchill observed, the British commenced to find themselves within a triangular constellation of different spheres of influence: Europe, the Commonwealth and the USA. Fröhlich also acknowledges, that commonly the S.R. is described within the context of personal relations between the countries' leadership personnel: Whenever PM and POTUS got along together well, this was sure to be beneficial for the S.R., publicly and behind the scenes of strategic and economical considerations. For instance, the periods Macmillan-Kennedy and Thatcher-Reagan are judged to be the most productive phases of the S.R. during the S.R., only approximated by Tony Blair's relation to George W. Bush, at least after Nine-Eleven.

Fröhlich does not, in his article, question the assumption, that the S.R. as an academical paradigm is productive for periods before Churchill's Iron Curtain speech. He is concerned with a historical account of four periods roughly from 1945 to 2005, concentrating on paradigms and their shifts in military and strategic affairs, while touching upon economical questions occasionally and almost never going into socio-cultural matters. As a contrast to that, Dobson asks questions about the time before the Iron Curtain speech:

So, did Britain exploit the USA in the twentieth century? Were roles reversed after 1918? Was the USA an imperial economic hegemon after the Second World War? If relationships of an imperial kind existed between the two, where was there room for a special relationship?6

He acknowledges the bonds of common, side-by-side battle when it came to resisting the Axis powers during Word War II and, successively, containing the perceived Communist threat from the USSR. Then he points out the differences between the USA and the UK, e.g. American Federalism versus a British unitary state, the US Constitution versus a British cabinet invested with many powers unregulated by any legal codex and so forth.


1 Anonymous / crowd-sourced. “WikiLeaks”. Wikipedia. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/WikiLeaks (accessed 09-15-2011)

2 WayBackMachine: http://www.wikileaks.org/wiki/Wikileaks:About. http://web.archive.org/web/20080314204422/http://www.wikileaks.org/wiki/Wikileaks:About (accessed 09-15- 2011)

3 Bollier, David. “A New Global Landmark for Free Speech.” Guernica. 16 Jun 2010: http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1836/david_bollier_a_new_global_lan/ (accessed 09-15-2011)

4 Fröhlich, Stefan. “Special Relationship: Großbritannien und die USA.” Länderbericht Großbritannien: Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2006.

5 Allen, Harry C. Great Britain and the United States. London: 1954.

6 Dobson, Alan P. Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century. Of Friendship, Conflict, and the rise and decline of Superpowers. London / New York: Routledge 1995.


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University of Leipzig – Institut für Anglistik / Institute of British Studies
WikiLeaks Cablegate Whistleblowing Julian Assange USA UK America Great Britain NYT New York Times The Daily Telegraph Guernica London Washington Richard LeBaron Barack Obama Bill Keller Tim Shipman The Washington Post Mary Beth Sheridan Karla Adam Andy Bloxham Alan P. Dobson History Twentieth Century David Bollier WaPo Media Journalism Special Relationship Transatlantic Relations Diplomacy Free Speech Russia Ecuador Trump posttruth




Title: The Cablegate Shock - Does WikiLeaks upset the "Special Relationship" Narrative of Transatlantic Relations?