How does this year’s phone hacking scandal at the now-defunct British tabloid News of the World—owned, I hardly need add, by News Corp., the Journal’s parent company—compare with last year’s contretemps over the release of classified information by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and his partners at the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers?
In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction; Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.
Was it in the higher public interest to know, as we learned from WikiLeaks, that Zimbabwe’s prime minister and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was privately urging U.S. diplomats to hold firm on sanctions even as he was saying the opposite in public? No. Did the public want to know about it? No. What did this particular WikiLeak achieve? Nothing, except to put Mr. Tsvangirai at material risk of being charged with treason and hanged.
Seen in this light, the damage caused by WikiLeaks almost certainly exceeded what was done by News of the World, precisely because Mr. Assange and his media enablers were targeting bigger—if often more vulnerable—game. The Obama administration went so far as to insist last year that WikiLeaks “[placed] at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals—from journalists to human rights activists to soldiers.” Shouldn’t there be some accountability, or at least soul-searching, about this, too?