GREG BARNS AND TONY NAGY: The Troubling Irony: The UK Government Conference on Media Freedom and Julian Assange

Jul 11, 2019


On Wednesday and Thursday this week The UK and Canadian Governments are hosting a conference called Defend Media Freedom. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne is participating. Yet only a few miles away from the London conference venue Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks and journalist, languishes in Belmarsh Prison as he awaits a request by the United States to extradite him for revealing the war crimes of the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is a disturbing irony of course in all this. The defence of the conference organisers and participants in not putting the Assange case on the agenda is no doubt, he is not a journalist. He is, but that is beside the point in our view.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week the UK and Canadian governments are hosting a jamboree in London on defending media freedom. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne is attending. The irony is of course that in the same city behind bars languishes Julian Assange, the journalist and publisher of WikiLeaks. His ‘crime’ is reporting on murders and other atrocities committed by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt the media freedom conference speakers and participants will studiously ignore the Assange case for fear that if they do dwell on it they will not be able to live with their double standards. A pity, because the Assange case demonstrates that media freedom can only be protected if it moves away from artificial and ultimately irrelevant definitional quibbling and focuses on the importance of disclosure.

Reporting war crimes is a duty for every citizen. For journalists it can often be the pinnacle of their career: from Ed Murrow reporting on the Holocaust, to Australian Wilfred Burchett reporting on Hiroshima, from My Lai to Abu Graib, journalists have been front and centre holding the powerful to account. To this list we can add Julian Assange and WikiLeaks which revealed to the world in 2010 the war crimes, including the killing of journalists, of the United States and its allies in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That Assange finds himself fighting an attempt by the United States to jail him for 175 years because of the fact that he did his duty represents an attack on that duty. That Assange is, or is not a journalist is irrelevant.

In fact, given that reporting the crimes of imperial states like the United States is a core feature of journalism, what’s the difference between Julian Assange and a journalist? Does it even matter? And why have we been so ready as Australians to abandon him? Its clear why the US wants to deny Assange any status as a journalist, as this robs him of a vital defence under their First Amendment. But we need to be careful not to be complicit in this sleight of hand. For whether Assange is a journalist, whistleblower or in fact a publisher, we and the world owe him our thanks for exposing war crimes in Iraq.

Journalism is a unique profession, central to our democratic freedoms. As we mark the 75th anniversary of Orwell’s 1984, it’s wise to remember his unerringly accurate and always relevant observation: “Journalism is printing what someone doesn’t want published, everything else is just public relations.” Whilst some journalists from time to time may take a somewhat grandiose view of their role, they of all people know their job cannot exist in isolation: that behind every great journalist and story lies a great publisher- and often a critical whistleblower or source.

Take the Pentagon Papers: leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, published in June 1971 by the New York Times and written by Neil Sheehan. They revealed for the first time the criminal conspiracy behind America’s long war in Vietnam, demonstrating the manipulation of public debate by the deep state. It took a great act of courage for the proprietors of the NYT and its publisher the Sulzberger family, to break with elite interests to print the news not just “fit to print”, but required to inform the polity. Ironically the leak of the papers precipitated Nixon and especially Kissinger’s obsession with security, in turn resulting in the “plumbers” who not only sought to destroy Ellsberg by stealing records from his psychiatrist, but led to the infamous break-in of the Watergate hotel.

Welcome Woodward and Bernstein, or “Woodstein” as their editor Ben Bradlee dubbed them. Their source, of course was the infamous “Deep Throat”, named at the time after an X-rated movie (hard to imagine today) and later identified as FBI investigator Mark Felt. As Woodstein and Bradlee sought to “follow the money” the pushback from the Nixon administration was immense, with the then Attorney-General, John Mitchell, furiously declaiming: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer..”.Katherine Graham was, of course, the redoubtable and fearless publisher of The Washington Post, the platform for Woodward and Bernstein.

Similarly in 1975 ex-CIA agent Phillip Agee produced the CIA Diaries – forced to be published in the UK, not the US, by Penguin – leading the Church inquiry and to much greater Congressional oversight of the agency. For revealing its criminal activities, Agee, – rather like Julian Assange today – was condemned for endangering human assets – not that the CIA itself has much compunction about state sponsored killings. Like Assange today, the US hounded Agee and sought his extradition – but back then the British political system was not so supine. In many respects, Agee – like Ellsberg – was the prototype for Assange.

Or take something more recent and closer to home.

Rupert Murdoch is often strongly questioned about his potential involvement in Australian politics, but credit where credit is due.

When the charismatic owner and CEO of a medical startup, Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes – who had managed to get $125m out of Murdoch for her $9bn medical devices Unicorn – sought his help to block a forthcoming critical piece on the company by his Wall Street Journal, Murdoch demurred. The piece ran in October 2015, and of course Theranos is now a cause celebre.

Since the rise of the Digital Age, disruption has been the order of the day across all markets – but no more so than in the media which, given the centrality of media freedom to democracy, poses as singular threat.

On one obvious level the smartphone makes us all quasi-reporters, photojournalists and publisher More critically, from the business model of newspapers and media to the financing of public interest journalism, from the abuses of Facebook (even when truth is at its most critical, ie elections), to the rise of clickbait and the potential for AI to replace journalists in toto (can an algorithm be a journalist? If not, why not, discuss….) the challenges for a crucial limb of our democracy remain dire.

Recent cases from Witness K, through to AFP raids on News Ltd to the ABC, through to the abuse of Assange…all are part of a pattern of behaviour: States under threat of exposure will stop at nothing to keep their secrets – often at grave cost of the community.

All involved in “journalism”, most importantly consumers, now need to confront that a critical feature of their free society is under clear and present danger. By the same token, journalists need all the friends they can get, and need all the sources, whistleblowers and strong publishers they can find.

So let it be said again – quibbling about whether Julian Assange or Edward Snowden et al are journalists, whistleblowers or indeed perhaps publishers misses the point.

And don’t just take our word for it. Here is the ABC’s Head of Investigations John Lyons speaking only weeks ago at a little reported Walkley event.

They are words that should ring loudly in the ear of all involved in journalism and doing their job of revealing the acts of the powerful:

“I do sort of despair a bit at … people on social media and Twitter, and even journalists, debating whether (Assange) is a journalist or not. I don’t think at the moment that really matters … I don’t think we should turn our back on him at the moment. He is an Australian citizen in a lot of trouble.

“He is also someone who, if you look at what they’re trying to charge him on, it’s essentially what we’re talking about (whistleblowing). He helped expose some war atrocities.

“I don’t agree with all of the WikiLeaks style of journalism … but I think at the moment it’s about the American government and others trying to essentially nail him because he revealed information which didn’t jeopardise their security or lives, but in fact embarrassed them for what they were doing.”

Even more critically, it’s a debate we do not have the luxury or time to have.

Only the other day three media players gathered in Canberra to declaim their support for a free press. And not one word on Assange, it seems…Thumbs up for talking their self-interest, but shame on them for failing to defend a fellow citizen. The great French journalist and author – who exposed the Dreyfus affair – Emile Zola may well have chosen to remark “J’Accuse”…

Surely all of us stand united in support of publishing information the powerful want hidden. This common interest far outweighs any job description rapidly being eclipsed by technology and finance. This is what those who participate in the UK and Canadian conference on media freedom next week in London ought to focus upon. And in doing so they must demand an end to the pursuit by the US security state of Julian Assange.

Greg Barns is a barrister and long time adviser to the Assange campaign and Tony Nagy a former journalist and policy consultant

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