BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for December 2010

Add to wish list: HMS Invincible

Mark Urban | 17:22 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Many people like to trawl the Ministry of Defence lists of surplus equipment in search of a good bargain. Whether it's a cheap Land Rover or a desert pattern smock for £30, you can find these cheap buys on an MoD site called e-disposals.

Imagine our surprise in the Newsnight office, when colleagues discovered an aircraft carrier for sale - HMS Invincible no less!

Just like the clothing listed above and below, the website gives standard e-commerce options such as 'add to cart' or 'add to wish list'. Some cart!

They do not give a price, since 'the Vince' as she was known for years in the Royal Navy, is to be sold by competitive tender.

Will HMS Invincible end up on that Indian beach being smashed to pieces for scrap? Or will some emerging power like Brazil or India snap it up for a song?

Or perhaps a new offshore haven for Wikileaks? Suggestions below please...

Wikileaks saga is not the David and Goliath tale one thinks

Mark Urban | 18:24 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

The question about which of the US State Department's leaked cables has had the greatest impact or yielded the most surprising secret has become a bit of a parlour game in newsrooms and foreign ministries alike.

It is a subjective issue that can be argued many ways.

However, one area in which the impact can be accurately assessed is in the boost to the business of those media organisations chosen as partners by Wikileaks (in the first instance, The Guardian, New York Times, and Der Spiegel, later including Le Monde and El Pais).

So far Wikileaks itself has basically limited its own website to material already put out in a co-ordinated way by those major media organisations.

I do not imagine this was done to boost the commercial exclusivity of certain businesses, but that is one of its consequences. So far, people wanting to get access to the broad range of leaked material have been unable to.

One week ago, on the first full day of disclosures, the Guardian website had its biggest ever number of users - 4.1m of them. Insiders suggest the hard copy has added 10% to its circulation.

Wikileaks' partners are doing very well out of this. You might argue it is the classic business proposition - that having taken the legal and journalistic risk, they should reap rewards.

Today, is the first time in 10 days that I have actually managed to bring up Wikileaks' own web page, following cyber attacks that have caused it to move to a new host in Switzerland.

Even so, it is still only carrying telegrams that have already been released by those big media players.

My point here is less that Wikileaks is operating in this instance in a way that gives certain businesses a distinct commercial advantage - though I appreciate many people may care about that - but more that the way this saga has unfolded is rather more conventional and less ground breaking than one might suppose.

The revolutionary point about these leaks is the way in which such vast numbers of files were copied from US government servers in the first place.

The New York Times or Guardian have been in receipt of countless leaked documents before, but they have never been presented with anything like this number.

Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence clerk who is alleged to have copied all these files gave Wikileaks such an enormous quantity of information that they were quite unable to assess it, still less redact out sensitive details.

This is where the big media names with their teams of reporters and correspondents came in.

Whoever has attacked Wikileaks website seems to have baulked at bringing down those of The Guardian, Der Spiegel, or the New York Times. These players are simply too powerful.

Had the person who copied the files sent them direct to a couple of major media organisations it is hard to see that the outcome would have been much different.

In other words it can be argued that Wikileaks acted as no more than post boy, or at most a broker.

I have no idea how far Pte Manning disdains "mainstream media" with its corporate and agenda setting power.

I imagine he is not too big a fan, since it has been said that he acted in the way he did in order to expose US government lies or double standards.

His alleged reasoning was easier to follow on the Afghanistan and Iraq leaks, where such issues as the number of civilian casualties or torture by the Iraqi Security Forces, have long been hidden by the Pentagon.

The US State Department cables, on the other hand, seem to have been most problematic for foreign governments that send completely different messages in public and private.

Some in the online security business say that recent cyber attacks on Wikileaks have originated in Russia. The cables have revealed claims of corruption and collusion with organised crime against the Russian government.

So this has not quite played out as the story of a website "David" against the US government "Goliath" that one might think.

The fact that these cables have been globally published has in the end depended upon big corporate players - the established media - and not Wikileaks.

It is important to grasp that before everyone gets too carried away with ideas that the website has shown all the "old media" the way of the future.

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