My following article appears on ABC Unleashed today:
The rolling revelations of the WikiLeaks US embassy cables will continue for months but equally interesting is the reaction of the global media.
Many in the British media establishment, not given advance look at the documents, fumed against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and repeated government spin that the release would endanger lives. This is from media groups who claim to believe in press freedom and there is no evidence that any WikiLeaks releases have harmed a soul, something even acknowledged by the US government.
It is expected that governments affected by the leaks would be upset but this week has seen a very clear fault-line expanding between those who endorse an authoritarian mindset towards leakers and others who understand the importance of airing America’s dirty tricks to the world.
“US officials have for 50 years trotted out this line when they are afraid the public is going to see how they really behave”, Assange said.
Ironically, many of the public figures today allegedly worried about US lives being lost are the same people who wholly backed the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan.
It’s unsurprising that Fox News-funded Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin both condemn the release (with the latter comparing Assange to Al Qaeda). Bill O’Reilly said the “traitor” who leaked the information to WikiLeaks should be “executed”.
The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, a Jewish neo-conservative who backs endless war in the Middle East, wants Assange silenced and the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer argues for the prosecution of journalistic “collaborators” with WikiLeaks. A senior adviser to Canadian leader Stephen Harper states Assange should be murdered by drone attack.
Predictably, many in the mainstream media have mimicked the Obama administration’s concerns over the leaks.
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.
The ABC reporter in Washington also heavily featured official perspectives at the expense of real analysis of the release. It’s been left to astute bloggers to articulate the importance of establishment embarrassment at a time when US foreign policy under Obama has mostly continued the pattern set by the Bush administration.
One example is the litany of documents that prove Israel and the US looking to spy on Palestinian officials and gather information such as frequent flyer and credit card numbers. Many in the Israeli press are pleased that the documents prove that US-backed autocrats support the hardline Israeli stance on attacking Iran. Why a supposedly democratic nation like Israel would want to be in bed with one of the most brutal regimes in the world, Saudi Arabia, has gone largely unremarked.
But little of this has surfaced in the corporate press as they’ve been too busy repeating the talking points of outraged officials in Canberra, London and Washington. The reaction of Arab bloggers has also been mostly ignored.
The details of the WikiLeaks story are arguably the most interesting. For example, the New York Times supposedly had to rely on the Guardian for the documents because Assange had been displeased with a recent profile of him in the Times. Editor Bill Keller was keen to negotiate with the White House which documents would not offend American goals.
The Washington Post reports that the Wall Street Journal and CNN, offered the cables but refused, were told by WikiLeaks that they would be liable for $US100,000 if any embargo was broken.
But where is the bravery in the media assessing the fallout of the leaks? Slate’s Jack Shafer calls for the resignation of Hillary Clinton because of the hard evidence that she demanded her foreign-service officials to spy on friend and foe. Here was – in black and white – documentation that shows Washington engaged in a global network of espionage. When Tehran or Beijing acts similarly, it’s called terrorism.
And where are the legal and civil rights lobbies in Australia as growing threats against Assange and his website increase by the day? A handful are speaking out, including Sydney University’s Ben Saul, claiming that Australia’s priority should be asking America about its crimes revealed in the WikiLeaks dump. Few journalists are arguing similarly.
Rupert Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt defends the spying as a necessary price to pay to maintain American hegemony in the world seemingly oblivious to the fact that Washington’s ability to influence the world has irreversibly declined since September 11, 2001, helped by a lessening of fear towards American power.
Indeed, there seems to be a major degree of jealousy within the mainstream media. Why haven’t more of them been leaked key documents? Why did sources rely on WikiLeaks instead of a major news organisation? As Assange told Forbes this week, in lieu of another major leak related to a major US bank in early 2011:
“We’re totally source-dependent. We get what we get. As our profile rises in a certain area, we get more in a particular area. People say, ‘Why don’t you release more leaks form the Taliban?’ So I say ‘Hey, help us, tell more Taliban dissidents about us’.”
Many journalists and editors would read that and wonder why Taliban dissidents hadn’t contacted them.
Perhaps somebody should examine what the motives of Assange actually are; he’s written a manifesto of sorts years ago.
But professional frustration isn’t the only key issue here. It’s the media’s overly-respectful posture towards authority. There is an overly-suspicious attitude towards people like Assange who refuse to play the traditional media game. He’s an outsider with exclusive information. He hasn’t spent years cultivating contacts inside the media tent. And he doesn’t spend most of his free time socialising with political staffers, editors and insiders.
John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, reminds journalists of the truth:
“All governments have a legitimate right to protect national security. This should be a specific, and closely scrutinised, area of policy. Most of our secrecy rules are designed merely to protect politicians and officials from embarrassment.”
The Australian media’s performance this week has been mixed at best. There has been a fascination with the Gillard Government’s response and an attempt to mitigate the potential embarrassment for authorities.
The vast bulk of the local reporting – Paul McGeough in Fairfax was a notable exception though he mistakenly claimed the previous WikiLeaks drops on Iraq and Afghanistan were “relatively harmless” – has challenged the reliability of Assange and questioned his sanity and seriousness. A Fairfax video was entitled, ‘Assange reliability under question’ when in fact nobody credibly claimed the cables were falsified.
It’s as if the corporate press can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the lies told by the US government, fearful of losing access in the process. Instead, many in the Australian press are giving valuable space to the US ambassador in Canberra who unsurprisingly condemns the leaks.
Moreover, one of the key take-away points from the revelations is the US contempt for democracy around the world. Public opinion can be essentially ignored for the perceived greater good; backing Zionist and Arab dictatorships in the name of oil security. We should care that US officials pressured nations not to investigate alleged human rights committed by the US post 9/11.
Interestingly, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) just announced that no part of WikiLeaks remains on the Australian blacklist of banned websites.
All WikiLeaks releases bring up questions of accountability of the organisation itself. This week leading human rights groups expressed concern that activists in repressive regimes, who may have had contact with US embassies, could be named in the cables and threatened.
Pentagon Paper’s leaker Daniel Ellsberg said this week that WikiLeaks had made “mistakes” in the past by inadvertently releasing names and personal details in previous dumps. He also stressed that the Pentagon was prone to exaggerating the threat posed to anyone listed in the documents. Quite simply, there is zero evidence of lives being threatened or lost over any WikiLeaks documents though a Canadian aid worker claims the cables will hurt dissidents in repressive regimes.
The job of real journalists is not to insulate officials or governments from embarrassment but to investigate legitimate stories relevant to the public interest. Note how many reporters are primarily worried about Washington’s loss of information, not the details contained within the files.
Damaging the “national interest” is a principle that should be questioned when policies of the state are deliberately designed to ensure secrecy over state-sponsored terrorism. Transparency and accountability are what WikiLeaks offers. Those who oppose it must be vigorously challenged. with America’s ABC he said that Washington simply wasn’t credible when they claimed the release of documents would hurt individuals.