Wikileaks exposes the bromance between journalists and politics

My following article appears on ABC Unleashed today:

Who can now say that the WikiLeaks cables detail no new information?

It was only last week that ABC TV’s 7.30 Report featured a story with supposed foreign affairs experts, including the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, who largely dismissed the significance of the document dump. Within a few days these men were all proven wrong.

Now we know Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib sends confidential information to the Americans. He’s not alone.

Crucially, however, our media class aren’t asking the next obvious questions.

The Australian’s Paul Maley argues that communication between politicians, journalists and diplomats is part of the daily job.

“It is no surprise the Americans were talking to Arbib,” he writes, “They talk to everyone.”

And yet the senior Murdoch journalist doesn’t understand that the general public are rarely told about such meetings. What is discussed? What are the agendas? Is there transparency in such dealings? And who is telling what information to whom? Who benefits and what stories are not being told to avoid embarrassing somebody?

The cosiness between these players is exactly what WikiLeaks is aiming to challenge. Why shouldn’t the voting public be privy to whims and wishes of the American government and their relationships with key government ministers, individuals voted in by all of us? If Arbib was warning the Americans he thought Rudd may fall, why wasn’t he telling his constituents, the ones who put him in office?

The fact that the US had followed the rise of Julia Gillard and approved her views on the American alliance, Afghanistan and Israeli aggression is worrying though unsurprising.

It’s extremely rare that a leader rises who hasn’t received American approval or extensive years of obedience grooming. Former Labor leader Mark Latham was loathed by the US because he publicly expressed scepticism about the US alliance, the war in Iraq and then-president George W Bush.

It’s worth recalling that Latham called former prime minister John Howard an “arselicker” of the Bush administration and described a delegation of Liberal party politicians going to Washington as “a conga line of suckholes”.

Latham would undoubtedly use equally colourful language to describe Arbib and Kevin Rudd. So why did ABC TV’s 7.30 Report feel the need to mitigate the damage to Rudd and Australia with the latest release of cables this week by featuring a soft-ball interview with assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell?

Host Kerry O’Brien didn’t even blush when he acknowledged that, “he [Campbell] asked to come on the program to counter the damage from today’s exposure in Fairfax newspapers of the US embassy cables”. Since when is the ABC designed to offer air-time to a senior US official with a clear agenda to kiss and make up with Canberra? Moreover, viewers were expected to believe that Rudd was one of Barack Obama’s “best mates”?

The interview was symptomatic of the greater media malaise in this massive story; journalistic jealousy and closeness to state power.

The latest leaks that show profound Australian Government doubts over the Afghan mission are damning. Ministers are complicit but what about the journalists who visit Afghanistan, embed with our troops and paint an overly rose picture of brave men and women in a winnable war? Scepticism is often in short supply when reporting from the front lines.

When Hillary Clinton recently visited Australia, she was treated to a light interview with ABC’s Leigh Sales (who even Tweeted a grinning photo of the two). There were no challenging questions, just friendly banter and space for the Secretary of State to spin lines about loving Australia and its hospitality.

To learn a few weeks later, via WikiLeaks, that Clinton directed US officials across the world to spy on unsuspecting governments and UN officials should elicit outrage from a media fraternity that recently offered little more than obsequiousness before American power. There’s been not a peep.

Such obedience doesn’t come naturally; it takes years of practice. Annual events such as the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue – a secret gathering of politicians, journalists and opinion-makers – consolidate the unhealthy, uncritical relationship between Australia and America. Many corporate journalists have attended, including the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher and former Labor MP and ABC reporter Maxine McKew. It aims to consolidate American hegemony rather than challenging it.

It’s largely a one-way street. Australians display loyalty to an agenda and the Americans are allegedly thankful. As US participant Steve Clemons wrote in 2007:

Phil Scanlan, founder of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, is proud of the fact that in 15 years, no-one has leaked any of the internal conversations of the conference. I won’t either… unless I get permission from one of the speakers or commentators to do so which is allowed by the rules.”

The Australia-Israel Leadership Dialogue, inspired by the American one, is once again about to head to Israel for a short burst of Zionist propaganda. Journalists and politicians invariably return with the required Israeli talking points (let me guess this year; Iran is the greatest threat to the Middle East and the world?).

The Age’s Michelle Grattan tweeted this week of the post-WikiLeaks reality of the tour:

“All those pollies travelling to the Aust-Israel dialogue might be a bit more inclined to zip their lips in private.”

But why are such gatherings so secret? Why do journalists allow themselves to be romanced without revealing the kinds of agendas they’re pushing? It’s obvious why; being close to top officials and politicians makes them feel connected and important. Being an insider is many reporters’ ideal position. Independence is secondary to receiving sanctioned links and elevated status in a globalised world.

The WikiLeaks documents challenge the entire corrupted relationship between media and political elites. Founder Julian Assange is an outsider and doesn’t attend exclusive and secret meetings where the furthering of US foreign policy goals are on the cards. He aims to disrupt that dynamic. Many in the media resent not being leaked the information themselves and are jealous. Others simply dislike a lone-wolf citizen with remarkable tech-savvy to challenge their viability.

One can dismiss The Australian’s bragging of knowing virtually everything in the WikiLeaks cables before they were released – if only they more deeply scrutinised the effect of war policies they backed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and beyond – because the key point here isn’t merely covering disillusionment over Rudd or Gillard or anyone else. It’s something far bigger; a fundamental re-writing of the relationship between journalists and governments.

The WikiLeaks cable dumps have revealed a chasm between establishment attitudes towards truth-telling and furious attempts to protect the embarrassed. The sign of any healthy democracy is the ways in which it deals with the most sensitive of information. Senior media figures and government authorities are often remarkably consistent in their messaging. They move in similar worlds and they often rely on each other for sourcing.

It’s this kind of dangerous, mutual sycophancy that WikiLeaks could break.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution and currently working on a book about disaster capitalism

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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