On Julian Assange & the media

20 Apr

It was a little unnerving to find myself in agreement with former Liberal MP Ross Cameron the other day when as a panelist on ABC’s The Drum, he spoke in support of Julian Assange. In a democracy, Cameron opined, it’s necessary to have someone like Assange attempting to force accountability and transparency from governments. I almost fell off my chair.

On the same panel Annabel Crabb declared her disapproval of Assange for choosing to use a Russian television outlet, “Russia Today,” as a platform from which to launch his new career as a talk show host. It was, she claimed, unethical. This is a view shared by many mainstream journalists, and has led to Assange being described as a “traitor” and a “Kremlin patsy.”

According to the New York Times, Russia Today “is an English-language news network created by the Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin in 2005 to promote the Kremlin line abroad…Basically, it’s an improbable platform for a man who poses as a radical left-wing whistleblower and free-speech frondeur battling the superpowers that be.

I can’t resist pointing out here that many of us would consider it unethical for Assange or anyone else to avail themselves of facilities offered by News Corp, but that’s another story and one ought not to attempt such comparisons. Clearly, Assange’s choices were extremely limited, and given the contrary nature of the man, going with Putin doesn’t seem entirely surprising.

Salon.com writer Glen Greenwald, in an interview with Russia Today, declared that “Attacks on Assange…reveal much more about the critics than their targets.” He went on to point out that Assange goes where the main stream media will not or cannot go. This is the privilege of the independent operator: mainstream journos want to stay exactly that, and are necessarily restricted  (to varying degrees depending on which mogul employs them) by their understandable desire to keep their careers.

If we can accept this about them, why must they be so carping about Assange?

Says Greenwald: “The rule is clear: it’s OK for a journalist to work for a weapons manufacturer, the US or British govts, & Rupert Murdoch, but not RT? Assange should be judged by what he does and the journalism he produces – not where it’s broadcast.

It seems timely, then to republish this piece I wrote for On Line Opinion in December 2010.

I’m indebted to Antony Loewenstein for his article of December 2 in The Drum titled “Where’s the media’s backbone over Wikileaks?”

In his article, Loewenstein takes the Australian media to task for its collective inadequacy in the reporting of the 250,000 US cables dumped by Wikileaks.

One aspect he singles out for attention is the series of calls for the assassination of Assange, the demands that he be tried as a terrorist and condemned to death, and the demands for him to be killed without benefit of a trial at all.

These reactions, or more accurately, these incitements to murder, came from senior political and media figures in the USA and Canada, individuals with a wide-ranging public voice, and plenty of influence. Their calls for Assange’s death were reported globally.

Demands have also been made for Assange’s arrest by the US, on as yet unspecified, even nebulous charges. Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland has offered to assist the US in its pursuit of Assange, and together with Prime Minister Gillard is exploring the possibility of bringing criminal charges against him in this country.

Julia Gillard has, with no substantial grounds at all, repeatedly referred to Wikileaks and Assange’s activities as “illegal.” Whether or not the Wikileaks dump is “illegal” is far from certain. Even in the US, who is the primary victim if indeed any crime has been committed by Assange, the legality or otherwise of his actions remains unclear.

Australia has not been sinned against in the dump, but irrespective of that, in their desperation to assuage the USA Gillard and McClelland are casting about to find an offence, any offence, with which to charge Assange.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. Our Attorney General and our Prime Minister have publicly committed to doing everything they can to assist the US in its pursuit of one of our citizens, a citizen who has now been threatened with death several times by several different figures, in that country.

This is really quite remarkable. Our government is supposed to protect its citizens, as it protects US citizens, from threats of death. After all, didn’t we just go to great lengths to ensure that the convicted wife murderer Gabe Watson would not be returned to his homeland unless they first agreed not to kill him? Yet we’ll hunt down one of our citizens who has not been charged with, let alone convicted of anything, and offer him up for assassination apparently without a qualm.

What a very special relationship indeed we have with the USA.

But what is breathtakingly alarming is that nobody in the mainstream media, and in government, seems to find it at all necessary to remark upon the fact that Assange’s activities are considered by influential and senior figures in the USA and Canada to be deserving of death.

If you ring up your ex and leave “if you don’t stop telling everybody I’m a tosser I’ll kill you,” on the message bank, you’re in big trouble. But if you’re a powerful figure in the media and politics in the USA you can volunteer anybody for slaughter for any reason, and nobody will hold you to account for it.

And if you’re the Australian government and it’s one of your citizens being subjected to that threat, you can offer to help find him and nobody in the mainstream media will question your sanity and your ethics.

It seems that in Australia we’ve now sunk to such a level of moral turpitude that we are not at all ruffled by the notion of a whistleblower in a democracy being murdered for his activities.

Silence implies complicity. Silence implies approval. Silence implies that it is fine by us to incite the assassination of someone who has caused bother and embarrassment to important people.

Embarrass important people? Of course you’ll be killed!

Loewenstein appeared on The Drum on ABC TV December 2, to discuss his perspective on the media’s coverage of the Wikileaks dump. The panel consisted of Annabel Crabbe, Leigh Sales (both senior ABC journalists) and Joe Hildebrand of   the Daily Telegraph. It very quickly proved impossible to persuade any of these three panelists to seriously address the media’s coverage of the Wikileaks affair, or indeed the affair itself. They would not address the contents of the cables, or the death threats. Not even the implications for free speech and dissent if the US does declare Wikileaks a terrorist organisation (as has been suggested by the US Administration and others) could tempt them into a more thoughtful state of mind.

In fact, the panel illustrated exactly what Loewenstein is complaining about. Amid much giggling, Crabbe remarked that Assange had thrown a “tantie” about a New York Times article, and asked what did that tell you about the man. Well, not a lot, really. He can spit the dummy. And this matters because?

Sales insisted that Assange is a journalist and not, as Loewenstein suggests, a whistle-blower, on the grounds that he releases his material through the mainstream newspapers. Therefore he ought to be playing by journalists’ rules, which apparently don’t cover dumping 250,000 cables in the manner in which he has dumped them.

Mercifully, I cannot recall Hildebrande’s contribution, other than that it involved a lot of noisy laughter.

These comments from Al Jazeera reporter, Mike Hanna, give an indication of the information that is now available to us, thanks to Wikileaks. Hanna is referring to allegations that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton ordered US diplomatic staff to steal the personal data (credit card, frequent flyer information) of highly placed United Nations officials:

Even the most cursory read (of the leaked cables) makes clear diplomatic staff are being asked to conduct a massive intelligence gathering exercise – involving, to put it bluntly, the theft of personal data. This, on the face of it, is a document asking diplomats to carry out activities that are not only against all accepted protocols, but are illegal in terms of US or international law. To repeat, it is couched as an order, an instruction, not a request.

In other words, there was plenty for The Drum panel to have an opinion about, and intelligently discuss.

The panel’s attitude to the Wikileaks story was, and remains, inexplicable.

Assange has scooped every mainstream journo on the planet. He’s rewritten the rules of investigative journalism with his massive dump, and he’s not even a journalist. Reporters have to go to the secondary source because Assange controls the primary. He’s not one of them. He’s an outsider. He plays by his own rules. And he pays the price.

Loewenstein suggested that envy and jealous rivalry might be a contributing factor in the Australian mainstream media’s apparent determination to give the Wikileaks story as little in-depth attention as possible. This the only explanation I can find, unless they’re in cahoots with the Gillard government to give the matter the minimum amount of credence, as authorised by the PM, and instead to distract us by focusing on Assange’s hair colour, temperament, and how he should list his occupation on his CV.

Lowenstein also suggests that some Australian media are far too cosy with centres of power, and far too impressed by them. They are thus rendered incapable of comprehensively analysing an attack such as Wikileaks has made on that centre. He gives the example of the ABC’s World Today Eleanor Hall, of whom he comments: “It was painful on Monday listening to ABC radio’s The World Today grilling a New York Times journalist about his paper’s decision to publish some of the revelations. Virtually every question asked by host Eleanor Hall could have come from the State Department. The contents and implications of the cables were mostly ignored.”

This is scary stuff. Is it now becoming the media’s role to shoot the messenger and ignore the message? To ask questions on behalf of a government? To put obstacles in the way of the public dissemination of subversive material?

There’s no doubt Assange is a complex figure. He has been roundly criticised for exposing government secrecy while simultaneously running an organisation that is viewed as highly secretive by some observers. It’s ironic that in order to expose secrecy one has to be secretive, however, it’s also difficult to imagine how any organisation can offer protection to whistle blowers without engaging in some form of secrecy that will hopefully protect them.

Be that as it may, complexity in people who stand out on the world’s stage isn’t remarkable: only the other day I heard someone carping about how difficult Nelson Mandela could be. Such people do not inhabit the “imagined sensible middle” that mainstream journos are supposed to achieve. (This link to Mr Denmore’s blog “The Failed Estate” is worth a read, BTW.  It’s a response to the unrelenting carping of many journos about bloggers and social media commenters, which is not entirely different from their griping about Assange).

Even Ross Cameron has his sexual scandals, one of which caused him to lose his seat in 2004. Perhaps the journalists who carp and judge are morally beyond reproach: I do not know. What I do know is that I am grateful for mavericks such as Julian Assange. When Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales, and Joe Hildebrand make a similar contribution to the world I will be grateful for them as well. It took guts to do what Assange did. It doesn’t take much guts to get up on the telly and laugh at him.

30 Responses to “On Julian Assange & the media”

  1. silkworm April 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    It’s not just Assange that our government is persecuting. News this morning is that one of Assange’s lawyer’s, Jennifer Robinson, had been detained at Heathrow Airport because she had been placed on an “inhibited travel list.”



  2. Mindy April 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Jennifer Robinson was on Twitter this morning confirming that it wasn’t the Aus Govt’s doing. Friend of mine said there was no such thing as ‘inhibited travel list’ for Australia. Something weird going on at Heathrow or someone just being an arse to her?


  3. hudsongodfrey April 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    It is about time that they laid of Assange. As long as Amercia and her cohorts pursue him they simply continue to make asses of themselves. Manning, much as his treatment seems regrettable, may have a case to answer. But people are not going to support heavy handed suppression of information, even if it is leaked, coming from a nation whose international brand is freedom and liberty with a strong emphasis on free speech.

    It also remains interesting that while the impact of his activities remains widely disputed, his erstwhile accusers don’t seem to be able to find the evidence they’ seem so desperate to need in order to condemn him. Maybe what he did was to raise some uncomfortable questions including causing a good deal of embarrassment and insecurity among the kinds of people whose authority comes from the use of force against others. Their need now is not to pursue justice so much as to stamp their credibility on the situation by “getting” someone to teach a lesson to.

    Their tactics are no more refined or honourable than those of Mafia enforcers. But then what would you expect from people whose more prominent cultural motifs include lone gunmen with simplistically violent solutions to their problems.


  4. DontSueMeMTR April 20, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    I agree with everything you said about Assange. I don’t know if the MSM’s lack of interest in Wikileak’s dump is rooted in jealousy or laziness. Probably both.

    RT has a clear bias, but I think you can learn more from watching it for an evening than you can from an entire week of watching ABC journalists ask other ABC journalists what lobbiests think about today’s headlines — without going into to much detail because we don’t want to confuse anyone with pointless details of course.

    I’ve said this before, but I think citizen journalism is the future. Sad as that seems.


  5. Doug Quixote April 20, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    I have no time for Assange. We should know in the next few days whether he will be extradited to Sweden. After he has been indicted (or not) for his sexual misbehaviour, the further issues become relevant. As I understand it, Australia has made diplomatic representations to try to ensure that Assange is treated fairly by all concerned.

    I defy anyone to prove to me that he is not only reckless, irresponsible, uncaring and unfeeling and devoid of any reasonable level of empathy, but also successful at alienating almost everyone who has ever worked with him. Expect some more of his lawyers to jump ship shortly.


    • Doug Quixote April 20, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

      Sorry, I left out egotistical and psychopathic. Look it up – it is not an insult but a condition.


      • helvityni April 21, 2012 at 8:03 am #

        DQ, I’m no fan of Assange either, I find him narsissistic and there something very slimy about him…no selfrespecting Swedish girl would sleep with him willingly…I feel sorry for young Bradley Manning and even for Srauss- Kahn…


    • hudsongodfrey April 20, 2012 at 8:50 pm #


      I think more people support Assange because they hope Wikileaks has given the powerful, be they nations or corporations, even a small taste of a comeuppance that was well overdue.

      So the criticisms (dare I say ad hominem) that may be justified in relation to Assange the individual may be secondary to what he has come to symbolise. Certainly as the focus of what can only be described as heavy handed bullying tactics bordering on thuggery are all about the powerful wanting to deliver a credible threat. They are after all bound to be mightily pissed off at being unable to squash yet another upstart pissant compromising their ability hide their dirty laundry from their own people.


      • Doug Quixote April 20, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

        I’m sure you are right, HG. They have fastened on yet another hero with feet of clay.

        Such is Life.



        • Jennifer Wilson April 21, 2012 at 7:11 am #

          I just discovered the stoush over at Ellis’s blog, http://www.ellistabletalk.com/2012/04/17/the-esterhas-fallout-2-mel-anti-semite-employing-like-schindler-jews/ infiltrated it seems by the troll we kicked out of Sheep, now calling itself “P Casey’s Sister.” I left this comment: “I’ve referred your comments to my legal team, P Casey’s Sister, it’s high time someone made you accountable for the slanderous blatherings you leave across the www like the foul droppings of an intestinally challenged dog.


          • helvityni April 21, 2012 at 7:55 am #

            I wondered if you would write something there, Jennifer, I left a similar note to the female monster who’s been harassing me for years…
            I do not understand some people, where’s the pleasure in trying to unhinge others?


            • helvityni April 21, 2012 at 8:21 am #

              …just to be clear, I’m not talking about the same person as you are, Jen.


              • Jennifer Wilson April 21, 2012 at 8:42 am #

                OK, but I don’t know who anybody is anymore! Except the people here.


            • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 10:44 am #

              I don’t know who anyone is ever!

              I’m often surprised when people claim to be able to detect with some certainty the presence of a persona in multiple guises, when I have only my vague suspicions.

              So I try to take people on face value, expecting a reasonable amount of reciprocity.

              In my view the whole point of blogs is the exchange of ideas. Bloggers aren’t oracles, they can be challenged, and if well met then an informative discussion may result. If my ideas have merit then they are as capable of persuading ten or a hundred readers as they are of offending one!


          • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 10:37 am #

            I had a look at a couple of related posts on Bob’s blog and you’re correct there are a couple of identities who are absolute trolls. While they write well enough at times to be entertaining, the threshold of pain is crossed when anyone dedicates that skill to denigration and inflammatory baiting of others rather than a genuine exchange of ideas.

            If they were taking on Bob in a marketplace of ideas then good luck to them, Frankly I’d call that biting off more than most people could chew. Bob makes a formidable opponent, though from what I’ve seen a fair one. The whole point of blogs is the exchange of ideas. Bloggers aren’t oracles, they can be challenged, and if well met then an informative discussion may result.

            Trolling on the other hand is biting the hand that feeds you. In most cases you’re writing on somebody else’s blog where you should treat that person as you might any host. The remedy is simple as with unruly dinner guests or gate crashers. The former you call a taxi for the latter maybe the cops.

            Having to sue anyone is in my view an absolute last resort that, as we all know, shouldn’t be used just to silence the effrontery of anyone whose views no matter how immoderate or inconvenient are nonetheless refutable.


            • Doug Quixote April 21, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

              Why don’t you join the fun, HG?

              We have the multiple ‘United Staters of Tara’ creature “Stagger Lee, JG Cole, P Casey’s Sister, Mary Ellen ” and I am not guessing – it has admitted its identity in several diverse posts too ugly to bother quoting.

              I repeat, this is not a guess it is admitted fact.

              There are probably other identities/aliases, not admitted or unclear in origin. Some posts appear reasonably sane, but then so does Tara in the said series. It argued sensibly on this blog at times, but I suspect mainly to act as a concern troll. It is a vicious beast most times.


            • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

              Hi Doug,

              I might just do so, though time is often pressing. I’m sure Staggers would be thrilled…. he’s cracked the sads big time with me over on the ABC R&E. It must have been something I said, but you know as far as I can tell we just disagreed in a way that caused offence where none was offered.


            • Doug Quixote April 21, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

              It is like most believers, HG – it will pretend to rational debate until it sees that it is getting nowhere, then it will scurry behind invective, ad hominem or “God told me so, so there!”.


            • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

              Well Doug,

              There’s been a certain amount of invective and the occasional ad hominem but rarely “God told me so there, for some reason your more sophisticated poster will generally eschew the frank admission that they’re speaking from a faith based position. So if it does devolve into a game of round and round the mulberry bush then it is usually because they’re trying to reason to support such a position without making those disclosures simply because they seem to believe that their logic is consistent with a kind of rational truth, usually a metaphysical one.

              My sin for what it is worth was to hold metaphysics in low regard. I said I mistrust it because it is either of doubtful utility or it is utilised to argue along religious lines based on dodgy assumptions.

              I’ll tell you what though some of these guys on the ABC R&E are bound to be clergy or theology cum philosophy students at least. The terminology they use gives them away.

              Frankly I prefer an honest proselytiser at least you know where you stand with those guys. You can choose to respect the fact of their conviction of not the contents of what it concludes or would have us do. If the person is willing to be tolerant I can see very little reason to dispute them at all.


            • Doug Quixote April 21, 2012 at 11:01 pm #

              Of course they won’t put it so simply HG. But usually it will amount to :

              “But I have faith in God, and I have great pity for you, miserable sinner; however,you may not burn in Hell if you repent soon enough, and it is my mission to persuade you to see the light, the truth and the way.”.

              Next : “Why are you so stubborn? Do you want to burn in Hell?”

              And finally : “Then to Hell with you; I’m going to a better place.”

              And so it goes. It must be wonderful to have God on one’s side.

              Can I get one too? . . . Hmmm – perhaps we can invent our own. Any suggestions for a Name?


            • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 11:16 pm #


              Do you think Taxmenot would be too obvious?


      • Jennifer Wilson April 21, 2012 at 7:20 am #

        I think that’s right, Hudson. There’s the man and there’s what he symbolises. The man has feet of clay, as do we all. At the same time he’s launched an attack on government secrecy that many find gratifying. He’s shown it can be done. For this he’s paid and continues to pay a high price – imagine being under house arrest for all this time, albeit in a very nice house, with the Swedish justice system in your future and the possibility of life imprisonment in Guantanamo if the US gets hold of you.

        It was the NYT that published the material. Are it’s editors facing such a future?


        • hudsongodfrey April 21, 2012 at 9:45 am #

          I’ve always thought the most telling aspect was how threatened people in powerful positions are by the truth. If they’re going to shoot the messenger then what else do they have to be frightened of?


    • DontSueMeMTR April 20, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

      But this is largely the point, is it not? The fact that there has been a hundred times more press given to Julian Assange than either (a) the material he has published or (b) the threats and implications that have been made against him by senior politicians and media figures — despite the fact that he has not been charged with any crime related to his Wikileaks activity.


      • Doug Quixote April 21, 2012 at 12:30 am #

        It is a point, certainly. Look, if you will at how Sarkozy (most likely) set up Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential rival for President. I am sure there are many other examples, mostly forgotten because the mud stuck and the rival was neutralised.

        The material published was mostly only moderately dangerous, and perhaps very few lives have been lost as a direct result.

        But it points up one difficulty : just how can our embassies in foreign countries report honestly and forthrightly to our government if everything they say may be broadcast through the net? They have to live in those countries, and saying things the local mullahs don’t like, for example, may be a sure way to becoming a drive-by shooting.


        • DontSueMeMTR April 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

          I know what you are saying but let us consider Assange’s role in this.

          I have not heard any allegations that he either hacker into computers or paid sources. When Assange received the material in question, he contacted the US government and asked for assistance in redacting sensitive information. They refused. He then went to a number of media outlets and asked them for assistance in redacting sensitive information. There was a security bungle and the unredacted material ended up on a public file-sharing network. Wikileaks then started publishing the already public material.

          Considering that either the original source or Assange could have bypassed the hassle by dumping everything directly to the web, I do not think that any party has behaved as irresponsibly as they might have.


          • Doug Quixote April 21, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

            “I do not think that any party has behaved as irresponsibly as they might have.”

            The prosecution rests.


  6. Teresa October 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm #


    I just saw this post.
    It’s still very relevant and Julian Assange is in the news again:


    I remember those comments Gillard made (was it 2 years ago?). Her position, straight out, before she even had any real understanding about what had transpired was condemning.

    And I saw her in interview, telling Tony Jones how she admired the “watergate” journos from all those years ago who blew the whistle on Nixon. But she she didn’t “admire” Julian Assange because his “motivations” were to stir trouble.
    Citing his motivations? What a cop-out.

    And, despite her insistence that Assange has been given the same diplomatic assistance that any Australian would get, Assange says this amounts to little more than text messages from diplomatic staff asking if he needs anything.

    Well, yes, he does need something. He needs his Prime Minister to stand up to the US and guarantee his safety!


    • doug quixote October 11, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      Hardly. He is now seeking asylum in Ecuador. If that does not effectively renounce his Australian citizenship, it should. Shed no tears over St Julian.


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