Some of the words included matters which many assumed to be virtually common knowledge anyway. However in these times of political correctness, speaking such truths openly would mean trouble. Thus words about the boorish behaviour of a British royal or the lack of empathy at the American White House with a former occupant of Number 10 hardly tell us anything we cannot already guess at. Arguably by spreading those words to the Guardian newspaper those who spoke them have had their expectation of privacy thwarted their trust undermined and the likelihood of Guardian-type interpretations being placed on the conversations which may not be true. Even so my first thoughts were that this was little more than a childish prank that grown up people should be well able to cope with.
On reflection however the issue of leaking these private words into the public domain is far from clear cut. International traditions of respect confidentiality and privacy, such as diplomatic bags passing through customs unchecked and Embassy premises in far away lands still being treated as a tiny part of the ambassadors' homelands, serve mankind reasonably well. The Churchillian saying of: "Jaw jaw not war war", represents as pragmatic a way of trying to resolve major differences today as it was in 1954. Lawyers in the Common Law tradition know how fundamentally important the ability to be able to speak one's mind to the other side can sometimes be in order to try to settle parties' major disputes. Labelling such settlement talks as "without prejudice" means that if the lawyers' attempts to settle their clients' differences by 'jaw jaw' fail, nothing said during those talks can be used in court against the other party. Anyone who even hints at what was said in court will be at risk of getting short shrift from the judge.
In the same way, diplomats ought to be able to trust that their informal conversations with one another should not be published without consent. If our ambassadors cannot speak off the record without being able to trust that the diplomatic traditions of privacy would be honoured then international ability to try to resolve issues by talking about them before they escalate too far will be weakened.
Making private conversations public will also risk escalating some tensions between states. For example although the leak that Saudi Arabia wanted the USA to bomb Iran was truely revelatory, the wikileaks disclosure risks damaging international relations between states in that already volatile part of the world. Despotic regimes tend to be bullying regimes as witness the reaction of Saudi itself in the 1980s to the the ATV film "Death of a Princess" which ironically enough has its mirror image in the threatened stoning of the allegedy adulterous woman, in today's Iran. Jesus's jaw jaw about that c. 2000 years ago needs more leaking today:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they who heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.The Chinese snub to the Nobel Peace Prize judges and its strong arm attempts to bully others into joining its boycott is a further illustration of the C21 bullying malaise affecting relations between states and individuals. Every conceivable route for resolving such issues quietly and with the minimum loss of face (saving pride and losing face are huge motivators for some) should be nurtured and not obstructed. The Wikileaks' route is likely to be an obstructive one.
Having said that and this is where the issue is not black and white, a fundamental problem for mankind is that of some in power bullying to maintain their power, which problem Wikileaks' tactics make even harder to address. Yet using the tit for tat approach of trying to bully wikileaks into submission would be stooping to the same depths that despotic states stoop to, to force their wills onto others.
In the commercial world where economically powerful companies share information or combine tactics to increase their power or market share, national regulators or anti-trust quangos or EU bureaucrats will take action and often levy huge fines on the corporations concerned. Possibly the likes of PayPal Mastercard Visa etc have come to independent decisions to close their facilities to Wikileaks but if so what a coincidence. If not who or what is persuading them to act in such apparent concert and when will the regulators of monopolies and anti trust bodies take note?
We humans tend to love gossip however and I must confess to having enjoyed reading some of the wikileaks. The revelation that the our man in the Vatican expressed concern that the Pope's offer to members of the Church of England to join Rome might lead to violence on British streets and revive the historic anti Catholic sentiment here was almost amusing. If only the Catholic faith held that kind of sway in today's society perhaps we would all be bullied less.