The Media Today

A murky diplomatic leak roils Anglo-American relations

July 9, 2019

Two days ago, the Sunday edition of The Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid in the UK, splashed leaked diplomatic correspondence in which Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to the US, shared scathing assessments of President Trump with his bosses in London. In one cable, Darroch called Trump’s administration “dysfunctional” and “diplomatically clumsy and inept”; the president, Darroch wrote elsewhere, could suffer “disgrace and downfall,” or he might “emerge from the flames, battered but intact, like Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of The Terminator.”

The leak has reverberated on both sides of the Atlantic. Yesterday, Trump tweeted that Darroch “is not liked or well thought of within the US. We will no longer deal with him.” A spokesperson for Theresa May, Britain’s lame-duck prime minister, responded that Darroch retains May’s full support; the “selective extracts” published by the Mail “do not reflect the closeness of, and the esteem in which we hold” UK-US relations, the statement said. May directed her trade minister to apologize to the president’s daughter, but the damage might be done: as The New York Times notes, Trump’s tweets about Darroch represent “an extraordinary breach between the United States and one of its closest allies.” This morning, the cracks in the “special relationship” mark front pages in the US and in the UK. The Times of London juxtaposed its story with a photo of a yellow-plumed, dancing cockatoo. You can judge its resemblance to Trump for yourself.

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Intrigue surrounding the cache’s source and its path to publication has captivated the British press, in particular. The imminent change of leadership in Britain—where Boris Johnson, a right-wing advocate of Brexit, looks set to replace the more moderate May as prime minister—looms large; when Britain finally leaves the European Union, its relations with America will likely assume added importance. The leak, officials and journalists surmise, was intended to undermine Darroch, who is seen as an arch liberal; or Darroch’s possible successor Mark Sedwill, also a liberal; or both men. Some saw in it an opening for Nigel Farage, a flamethrowing right-wing politician Trump previously pushed as a potential ambassador, but sources close to Johnson told Sky News that Farage would not be appointed. Yesterday, The Sun even reported that officials are probing whether a foreign power—Russia, say—hacked the cables. (Britain’s foreign minister stressed that he has seen “no evidence” for that conclusion.)

The specter of Russia hovers over the Mail’s story in other ways. Its author is Isabel Oakeshott, a pro-Brexit journalist and commentator who was accused, in 2018, of sitting on emails tying Arron Banks, a Farage ally and controversial pro-Brexit donor, to Russian officials and businesspeople. Per The Guardian’s Jim Waterson, Banks gave Oakeshott access to his emails when he hired her to ghostwrite his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit; Oakeshott said last year that it was “always my intention” to publish them, but by that point, Carole Cadwalladr, a relentless Banks antagonist, had obtained them, too. As Waterson notes, Oakeshott drew on interviews with Russian officials for her previous biography—co-written with a powerful Conservative Party donor—of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. (The book drew attention for its claim that Cameron, as a student, put his genitals inside a dead pig.) After the Darroch story dropped, journalists, including Cadwalladr, questioned Oakeshott’s credibility. On Twitter, Oakeshott said she was “enjoying the conspiracy theories,” but asked, “Isn’t it much simpler?” She then dropped a possible hint: “In the absence of government, the civil service becomes politicised.”

When it comes to leaks, do a journalist’s motives matter? Some say we should judge such work solely on public-interest grounds. Even on this score, however, the Darroch leak is complicated. His views are clearly newsworthy, but officials argue that the act of making them public limits his ability to do his job. The press should be leery of politicians’ anti-transparency views. But isn’t the public interest harmed when diplomats feel they can’t be candid in private missives? It’s not an easy question to answer. Nor is it new: a similar debate surrounded many of the US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in the early 2010s.

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For now, at least, it’s notable that it’s not just politicians casting doubt on the merit of the Mail story. Yesterday, Josh Rogin, a columnist for The Washington Post, argued that the leak is no “bombshell”: Darroch’s claims about Trump, Rogin says, are “conventional wisdom… boilerplate analysis anyone could see on cable news.” If Britain “chooses to get rid of Darroch for telling the truth about the Trump administration, that’s its business,” Rogin writes. “But everyone here in Washington will know that the leaks were just a pretense and the British media was all too willing to become a tool of the leakers.”

Below, more from the UK:

  • The leak hunt: At the highest levels of the British government, a hunt is on to identify the leaker. (Per The Guardian, the culprit could even be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.) The search echoes an extraordinary episode, earlier this year, which saw Gavin Williamson, Britain’s then-defense minister, fired for allegedly leaking sensitive discussions about tech infrastructure. Williamson—who, as chief whip, kept a pet tarantula in his office—is now a key adviser to Johnson, so looks in line for a comeback.
  • Not just the Conservatives: Britain’s opposition Labour Party is reportedly in turmoil, too. Tomorrow, a BBC documentary is expected to make damning accusations about anti-Semitism in the party’s ranks. Rachel Sylvester claims, in The Times of London, that eight former officials have ignored non-disclosure agreements to talk to the BBC. Over the weekend, Labour drew allegations of hypocrisy after its lawyers sent warning letters to the ex-staffers; the party recently promised to outlaw NDAs that curb whistleblowing.
  • In other news: Yesterday, Heather Mills, the former wife of Paul McCartney, settled a lawsuit against The News of the World, the Murdoch-owned newspaper that closed in 2011 following revelations that it hacked celebrities’ phones. Outside court, Mills told reporters that she’d won “the highest media libel settlement in British legal history.”
  • Incoming: ICYMI last month, I charted the checkered journalistic career of Johnson, Britain’s likely incoming prime minister, in a profile for CJR.

Other notable stories:

  • As expected, federal prosecutors in New York revealed yesterday that they have charged Jeffrey Epstein, the super-rich financier, with counts of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. Appearing in court, Epstein pleaded not guilty; prosecutors argued that he should be held without bail until he can be tried. Geoffrey Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said his team was aided by “some excellent investigative journalism”—a reference to Julie K. Brown’s dogged reporting for the Miami Herald. Read more about Brown’s work in yesterday’s newsletter.
  • The New York Times’s Elizabeth Williamson details two new scandals at the US Agency for Global Media, a state-funded broadcasting network. Late last month, Haroon Ullah, a former top official, pleaded guilty to stealing from the government; shortly afterward, a reporter and cameraman with TV Martí, the agency’s Cuba network, were suspended following allegations that they faked a mortar attack in Nicaragua. The scandals add to recent controversies related to Martí’s claims about George Soros, a bribery scandal at Voice of America, and questions over the neutrality of coverage. In April, Katherine Khashimova Long wrote, for CJR, that the agency’s output in Tajikistan may have been corrupted.
  • Also for the Times, Marc Tracy looks at newsrooms’ efforts to beef up coverage of climate change. “It’s outdated to say that covering the effects of climate change is advocacy,” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, tells Tracy. “The effects of this are completely nonpartisan.” Yesterday, Trump gave a boastful speech on his environmental record. Many outlets expressed skepticism: the speech contradicted Trump policies and did not mention climate change. That fits a pattern: Scott Waldman reports, for E&E News, that government agencies have frequently scrubbed references to climate change from scientific press releases.
  • Ten days ago, management at The Vindicator, a daily newspaper serving Youngstown, Ohio, announced that it will shutter the paper in August. As the Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote Sunday, the future of news—and of democracy—in Youngstown looks bleak. But Youngstown’s Business Journal and a paper in nearby Warren may pick up some of the slack, Sullivan reports. And ProPublica announced yesterday that it will pay an investigative reporter to cover Youngstown through its Local Reporting Network.
  • CJR’s Camille Bromley charts the role of Asian-American magazines in molding that community’s identity. “Asian-American magazines were actively involved in the creation of Asian-American identity since the very first usage of the term,” Bromley writes. “Before Asian-American magazines, there was no Asian America.”
  • Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen and Kurt Wagner reveal that Facebook uses secret tools called Stormchaser and Night’s Watch to combat hoaxes about the company and monitor how news coverage of Facebook spreads on the platform, respectively. “According to a former staffer who worked with Stormchaser, the initiative showed how the company prioritized projects refuting fake news about Facebook over other forms of misinformation spreading on the social network,” Bergen and Wagner report.
  • The Post’s Susan Svrluga reports that relatives of the children killed at Sandy Hook are increasingly willing to fight back publicly against conspiracy theories related to the shooting. Among other cases, one parent won a lawsuit against a book that called the shooting a hoax; similar litigation targeting Alex Jones, of InfoWars, is ongoing. Relatives “have started seeing real gains in a fight most were reluctant to wage,” Svrluga writes.
  • And for CJR, Lisa Snowden-McCray profiles a push for better pay by members of the Chesapeake News Guild—a nascent union at Tribune-owned newspapers in Maryland including the Capital Gazette, where a gunman killed five staffers last year. A reporter at the Carroll County Times says his inadequate salary has driven him to use food banks he has occasionally covered for his paper.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.