Britain and Cable-gate

Well into day five of Cable-gate, the reaction of folks here in London is a collective 'ho-hum.' The Queen's subjects are buzzing, but not about the wayward opinions of their American cousins, nor even about London's rioting students or its knee-high, paralyzing snowfall. 'Treason' is the word on people's lips, yet the target is not WikiLeaks, but the BBC, which stands accused of costing the country its opportunity to host the 2018 World Cup. A BBC news program aired an investigation last week into corruption within global football's governing body just days before the football chiefs were to choose the host country. Not a smart move, especially in a country in which football nearly eclipses Anglicanism as the national religion.

One also suspects, however, that there is a certain been-there-done-that nonchalance regarding the cables. Britain, after all, is America's immediate forebear in this business of running the planet. If our closest ally greets the release of these 250,000 cables with a shrug, it's mainly because it understands these things. Surely the U.K.'s own Victorian-era cables, despatched to London from every corner of her empire, were just as prurient, culturally myopic, even cynical. The purchase of the Suez Canal, for example, was literally transacted over oceanic cables carrying messages no less conniving or salacious then those sent to Secretary Clinton. The realpolitik hasn’t changed that much.

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What has changed, of course, is the technology of communication and the business of journalism. Like their trans-Atlantic peers, Britons are asking questions about this strange new world in which it's no longer clear who is a journalist and who isn't, what counts as news and what doesn’t, what ethics apply and to whom. That folks here are even asking such questions is significant: The press in this country is more overtly partisan, more sceptical of this modern notion of journalistic objectivity. Still, people believe that there is still such a thing as fairness and, in a word, discretion. Illegality and gross misconduct are serious stuff and are surely fair game for investigative journalists, especially when it involves public officials. And no one denies that the public has a right to know what is done in their name. Still, does that right cover everything? Is there not an obvious need for some reasonable expectation of confidentiality between our public officials and their subordinates, even if those matters do not involve national security? Is this not, in fact, necessary in order for our officials to get about the people's business effectively?

The Guardian, the country's leading left-wing newspaper and the British recipient of WikiLeak's presumptuous largesse, seems to think that all of it is fair game. To their credit, they are publishing stuff that is pretty embarrassing all around: U.K. readers have learned, for example, that the U.S. thought of their previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, as a tiresome henpeck and that U.S. officials describe their current Prime Minister, David Cameron, as "a lightweight." The cables also reveal that the so-called 'special relationship' between the U.S. and Britain is pathetically one-sided, the U.K. clearly playing Woodstock to America's Snoopy. When Britons do get around to talking about the embarrassing detail, they say mainly two things: First, that they have learned little that they didn’t already know (thus the 'ho-hum'). Second, none of it is as embarrassing as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee suggesting that the people from WikiLeaks should be 'hunted down' and executed. I have to admit, the Brits are on to something there.

The Guardian, for its part, promises even more front-to-back coverage of Cable-gate in the days to come. Tomorrow promises a whole new set of disclosures bearing directly on (you guessed it) 'the special relationship'. Yet maybe the editors are starting to realize that the public is mainly indifferent. If you've got a really good story, you don't run it in Saturday's paper. Even Queen Victoria knew that: she had the news-sense to die on a weekday, ensuring that the foreign office cable operators would be at their desks, ready to despatch the big news to British embassies around the world.

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