Assange’s Release: Exposing the Craven Media Stable

Julian Assange, image courtesy of Democracy Now!

The WikiLeaks project was always going to put various noses out of joint in the journalistic profession. Soaked and blighted by sloth, easily bought, perennially envious, a good number of the Fourth Estate have always preferred to remain uncritical of power and sympathetic to its brutal exercise. For those reasons, the views of Thomas Carlyle, quoting the opinion of Edward Burke in his May 1840 lecture that “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” seem quaintly misplaced, certainly in a modern context.

The media response to the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from his scandalous captivity after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information under the US Espionage Act of 1917 provides a fascinating insight into a ghastly, craven and sycophantic tendency all too common among the plodding hacks.

Take, for instance, any number of journalists working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, official national broadcaster and devotee of the safe middle line. One, a breakfast news anchor for the network’s meandering twenty-four-hour service, has a rather blotted record of glee regarding the mistreatment of Assange over the years.

Michael Rowland, torturously insipid and ponderously humourless, had expressed his inexpressible joy when the Ecuadorian government cut off Assange’s access to the Internet while confined to the country’s London embassy. “A big gold star to Ecuador,” he chirped on March 28, 2018. Andrew Fowler, another journalist and far more seasoned on the rise of WikiLeaks, reproached Rowland on Twitter, as the X platform was then called. “Why would silencing a fellow journalist be supported?” For Rowland, the matter was as clear as day. “That remains a disputed opinion, Andrew. Publisher and activist yes. But you put yourself in a small camp calling him a journalist.”

These points matter, because they go to the central libelling strategy of the US government’s prosecution so casually embraced by mainstream outlets. In such a generated smokescreen, crimes can be concealed, and the revealers shown to be those of bad faith. Labels can be used to partition truth, if not obscure it altogether: a publisher-activist is to be regarded more dimly than the establishment approved journalist.

The point was rather well made by Antony Loewenstein, himself an independent journalist keen to ferret out the grainier details of abusive power. When interviewed by none other than Rowland himself, he explained, with unflagging patience, the reasons why Assange and Wikileaks are so reviled by the orthodox scribblers of the Fourth Estate. WikiLeaks, he stated with salience, had confronted power, not succumbed to it.

Rowland could only reiterate the standard line that Assange had admitted guilt for a “very serious offence”, refusing to examine the reasons for doing so, or the implications of it. Again, the vulgar line that Assange had “put US lives at risk” with the WikiLeaks disclosures was trotted out like an ill-fed nag. Again, Loewenstein had to remind Rowland that there was no evidence that any lives had been exposed to harm, a point made in several studies on the subject from the Pentagon to the Australian Defence Department.

The tendency is pestilential. While more guarded in his current iteration as a professor of journalism, Peter Greste, formerly a journalist for Al Jazeera, was previously dismissive in the Sydney Morning Herald of Assange’s contributions as he was brutally evicted from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. “To be clear, Julian Assange is no journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation.” An organisation boasting “the libertarian idea of radical transparency” was “a separate issue altogether from press freedom.”

While approving the publishing activities centred on the release of the Collateral Murder video showing the killing of civilians including two Reuters journalists by Apache helicopters, and the release of the Afghanistan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs and “Cablegate”, Greste fell for the canard that the publisher did not redact names in documents to “protect the innocent” by dumping “them all onto his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or their impact they might have had.”

There is no mention of the decrypting key carelessly included in WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by its bumbling authors David Leigh and Luke Harding, or the fact that the website Cryptome was the first to publish the unredacted files ahead of WikiLeaks. There is certainly no discussion of the extensive redacting efforts Assange had made, as many of his collaborators testify to, prior to the release in November 2010.

Writing on June 25 in The Conversation, Greste displays the emetic plumage of someone who has done an about face. “It is worth pausing for a moment to consider all Assange has been through, and to pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate his release,” he writes distastefully, also reflecting on his own carceral experiences in an Egyptian prison cell. He also claims that the role of WikiLeaks, in checking “the awesome power that governments wield”, should be celebrated, while stating, weakly, that he never believed that Assange should “have been charged with espionage.”

In such shifting views, we see wounded egos, cravenness, and the concerns about an estate whose walls had been breached by a usurping, industrious publisher. By all means use the spoils from Assange and his leakers, even while snorting about how they were obtained. Publish and write about them in the hope of getting a press award. Never, however, admit that Assange is himself a journalist with more journalism awards than many have had hot dinners. In this grotesque reality, we are now saddled with a terrifying precedent: the global application of a US espionage statute endangering journalists and publishers who would dare discuss and run material on Washington’s national security.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com