Julian Assange and failure of mainstream media

On 18 September, a little over a year since Amal Clooney was appointed as the UK’s special envoy for media freedom, she resigned. Among Clooney’s barrister colleagues are Geoffrey Robertson, Jennifer Robinson, and Gareth Pierce, all of whom, at their Doughty Chambers human rights practice, are advocates for Julian Assange.

You might assume that Clooney resigned in order to make two points: about Assange’s human rights, which three separate UN reports have said are being violated; and about press freedom, which was what was on trial in his extradition hearing at the Old Bailey. You’d be wrong, twice. The mainstream media showed minimal interest in the London proceedings. And Clooney, who had criticised Australia over press freedom last year, protested not about Assange’s rights but because Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill breaches international law.

She stays on as deputy chair of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. Welcoming this, the chair, Lord Neuberger, said without irony, ‘Journalists who are persecuted, imprisoned, and even murdered for their work deserve all the help they can get, including through legal reforms by governments that follow the panel’s advice. It is in the interest of freedom of expression and the rule of law that they get such help’ (Guardian, 18 September 2020).

The UK, US, and Australian governments might benefit from the learned panel’s helpful advice about freedom of expression and rule of law. David Neuberger didn’t mention that Australia, the only OECD country without a bill of rights or similar, is long on rhetoric and short on practice as regards press freedom. The High Court has found freedom of expression to be implied in the Constitution only in respect of communications about government and political matters, such as elections. Federal Police recently raided a journalist’s home and the ABC with impunity, and ASIO can do the same. No First Amendment protects Assange.

The mainstream media in all three Anglophone countries have given governments a free ride throughout their long drawn-out prosecution and imprisonment of Assange. The UK tried for years, and failed, to get Sweden to pursue charges of rape against him, to the dismay of the British prosecutors and their tabloid mouthpieces. The US, under Trump, wants to imprison him for espionage for 175 years, about which American columnists appear unconcerned, perhaps thinking it is better than capital punishment. With few exceptions, mainstream media people in all three capitals claim that press freedom applies to them, but not to Assange as a publisher or journalist.

The Australian mainstream media promote press freedom as ‘Your Right to Know’. In fact they are free to publish ‘news’ that supports their managements’ line, and in return for favoured access to government, they tell the people what the ‘power-friendly’ establishment wants them to think. In turn the establishment lets its media friends know that if they don’t, Assange’s fate could be theirs. That’s the same establishment whose crimes Assange revealed and WikiLeaks publishes.

It’s no surprise that the New York Times and the Washington Post didn’t report from inside the extradition proceedings at all. The Times, the Guardian, and the BBC were little better. Censorship by omission makes a mockery of press freedom. It’s the same as lying, as John Pilger remarked from the press gallery at the Old Bailey. Omitting the core issues, the British and Australian mainstream media focused on human interest stories about Assange’s partner and children.

As print media get thinner, more superficial, and more expensive, advertising flees to the Internet. Readers turn to social media for news, and independent journalism follows. Detailed daily reports by former UK Ambassador Craig Murray on Assange’s hearing appear on Consortium News, together with commentary by Alexander Mercouris. CN’s editor Joe Lauria writes from in Melbourne, as do incisive online commentators on Assange, Caitlyn Johnstone and Binoy Kampmark. Australian journalists Pilger, Mark Davis, Andrew Fowler, and James Laurenceson have commented critically on the proceedings, with support from former tv presenter Mary Kostakidis, former politician Bob Carr, and barrister Greg Barns.

Among independent voices in Britain, David Edwards and David Cromwell have been afflicting the comfortable for some 15 years in Media Lens. They attacked the ‘state-corporate propaganda’ of the mainstream media about Assange’s case with the headline ‘None Of It Reported’: How Corporate Media Buried The Assange Trial’ (7 October 2020). During what they said was ‘arguably the most important political trial in our lifetimes’, Media Lens monitored the main BBC news and found next to nothing about it, and no-one at the BBC would explain to them why not.

Media Watch credited the independent media for covering Assange’s case. A list of them (here) was compiled by an American, Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof.com, who said they reported ‘more on the Julian Assange extradition trial than the NY Times, WaPo, BBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, MSNBC have combined.’ Max Blumenthal exposed the injustice being done by UCGlobal’s invigilation of Assange on behalf of the CIA, in an article for The Grayzone, where Aaron Maté is also a frequent contributor on Assange.

British independents covering the Assange hearing include Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis of Declassified UK, who published seven articles covering legal irregularities and conflicts of interest. For the Independent, Patrick Cockburn documented the Pentagon’s own evidence against the American claim that Assange wilfully endangered the lives of US supporters. Richard Medhurst, an independent journalist reporting the trial, made a powerful short speech outside the Old Bailey on one of the late days. The trial, and the lack of media coverage, were ‘an abomination’, he said. So too was the fact that no mention was made of the real ‘war criminals’ – including Tony Blair, George Bush, Jack Straw, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld, who are not being tried for the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson told the Senate that the UK trial of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, who faces extradition to the US, is politically motivated.

Medhurst summed it up as ‘an absolute mockery of any kind of semblance of justice in this country’. It was more: a mockery of press freedom in all three countries.

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Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Philippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternately as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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