LAURIE PATTON. The Assange dilemma. What is journalism in the online age?

Jun 17, 2019

Julian Assange released bulk material, unfiltered and uncorroborated, via the Internet. If he had leaked it directly to the media outlets that subsequently, but selectively, published reports based on his WikiLeaks’ dumps he probably would not be in gaol facing extradition to the United States. His identity as a ‘source’ would have been protected. Ironically, any American journalists who used his material would quite possibly now be in prison for failing to reveal their source.

While I understand those who sympathise with Assange’s perilous personal position and accept that he is not in good health, let’s not applaud what was a dangerous practice and a dubious precedent – publicly exposing sensitive and unverified data that could potentially risk people’s lives and create unforeseen collateral damage.

There are calls for the Australian Government to help Assange, but it’s hard to see what can done for the guy given that he created the mess he’s in right now.

Australia’s most well-known contemporary international journalist Peter Greste – who spent more than 400 days in an Egyptian gaol after being arrested on terrorism charges he denied – has challenged the view that Assange is a journalist and maintains WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. “There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom”, Greste has written.

On the other hand, back in 2011 the MEAA – the journalists’ union – gave WikiLeaks a Walkley Award, which is its highest acclamation.

After much thought, I tend to agree with Greste. Perhaps Assange is worthy of recognition as a whistle-blower, but in my mind responsible journalism involves taking important steps that he and WikiLeaks ignored. At its heart it requires efforts to ensure the veracity of anything published. It also involves protecting innocent people who could be indirectly hurt.

As Greste states, rather than “sorting through the hundreds of thousands of files to seek out the most important or relevant and protect the innocent, he dumped them all onto his website, free for anybody to go through, regardless of their contents or the impact they might have had”.

As with any whistle-blower, we must also consider Assange’s motives. In this regard it pays to reflect on American socialist writer John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, where in covering the Russian Revolution he exposes the dilemma facing journalists reporting on events about which they have strong personal or political views.

Assange’s supporters argue that he is being ill-treated in prison. They also point to the effects from seven years stuck inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, ignoring that fact that seeking asylum was initially a bold tactic designed to avoid extradition to Sweden where he had been accused on sexual assault offences.

There are cogent arguments about the need for proper treatment of prisoners – especially political prisoners, if that’s how you perceive Assange – but that’s surely something completely unrelated to guilt or innocence? US authorities claim Assange is guilty of serious espionage offences. His actions would similarly be criminal if committed here in Australia.

To me a take-out from the WikiLeaks saga is that we need effective 21st Century whistle-blower protections. Laws that govern the circumstances in which it is reasonable for someone to reveal information that exposes official wrongdoing, and provisions within those laws governing the means by which investigations into suspected leaking of sensitive material can be made.

The other side of the whistle-blower equation is the right of media organisations to report what they learn, irrespective of the source. This is a fundamental right and responsibility underpinning a modern democracy.

It’s not just ‘bleeding heart lefties’ who are worried about incursions into press freedom. For example, Innes Willox from the Australian Industry Group believes the raids by the Federal Police on journalists last week have “set back” our reputation in the global business community, risking companies avoiding future investments in Australia or at least becoming cautious in their dealings with our governments and their agencies.

In recent years we’ve seen a raft of new laws enacted in the name of national security. Right now the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is undertaking a review of the controversial Data Retention Act, introduced with the support of both major political parties in the belief it was essential for our protection against terrorism. Public submissions are due by 1 July 2019.

As the then CEO of Internet Australia – the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users – I appeared before the PJCIS back in 2015, telling its members the drafting of the Bill was “fundamentally flawed”. Subsequent deliberations saw numerous amendments made to the legislation, but it is still considered by civil society groups open to abuse and misuse. The MEAA, for example, continues to question the ability of security agencies to use metadata to track down journalists’ sources.

The problematic history of the Data Retention Act, and in particular what was seen as Labor’s overly acquiescent involvement in its passing, provides a clue as to how we should proceed with what looks likely to be a very public consideration of the creation of press freedom provisions.

Above all, we need to agree on what and who we want to protect. We need to determine the degree to which official actions should be subject to external scrutiny and the extent of the public’s right to know.

As for Mr Assange, he will no doubt continue to split public opinion as to whether he’s a journalist or a whistle-blower.

Laurie Patton is former journalist and media executive, and from 2014-2017 was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is a member of the MEAA. This article first appeared in The Lucky General.


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