Mainstream media and editors came under fire from WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange at the Global Editors Network summit in Hong Kong today, as he accused most journalists of entering the profession to “crawl up the ladder of power to become associated with power”.
Addressing the conference via Skype, Assange told the audience of editors that most journalists aim to “sit at same table as those you hold to account” and as a result editors “become corrupted”.
“We all know what is going on. As insiders we all know when people in the media become powerful … editors are invited to sit at the table of those powerful individuals and the reality is that’s why most journalists go into journalism. It is to crawl up the ladder of power to become associated with power, to sit at the same table as those you hold to account.
“Editors become corrupted and they do not hold those very people to account, we know that. What is new is that the rest of the world is starting to know it. Not just as a result of reaction to attack by Washington on WikiLeaks, it is starting to know it as a result of there being other forms of publishing, unmediated publishing. There is a crisis of legitimacy within the mainstream press, a rightful crisis of legitimacy.
“We always maintained the line that our moral justification for our existence … is our moral virtue and our moral virtue is holding power to account. If the press doesn’t hold powerful corporations and governments to account then how can a democratic process work? But the mainstream press has failed in that task and failures are becoming evident and corruption in individual cases are becoming evident.
“The mainstream press is not able to be its own gatekeeper any more,” he added.
Speaking after Assange, Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde – one of the media partners involved in the release of the US embassy cables – responded saying “I didn’t do this job to crawl up the ladder of the powerful”.
“I don’t think this accusation stands,” she added.
During Assange’s speech – which came a day before the one year anniversary of the US embassy cables release and a day after WikiLeaks was awarded a Walkley award for most outstanding contribution to journalism – he also discussed the redaction process carried out by its news partners to remove material from the cables which he said would breach human rights.
As a comparison, he claimed that while the Guardian redacted one in four cables, the Hindu in India redacted just three out of 5000 cables, and questioned this “discrepancy”.
Kauffmann said she was “sorry” certain papers had been singled out which were not represented on the panel.
Returning to the debate later, Assange responded to Kauffmann by also questioning Le Monde’s redaction decisions. He also followed up on earlier criticisms of former media partners such as the Guardian and New York Times by saying: “Both of these organisations have done fine work with us, their best stories were very good.”
But he said, in his opinion, the “best journalism” from the cables has come not from “old democracies” but from countries including “India, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Kenya”.
“Those journalists are more courageous, hard working and often younger than ones in older democracies. And for them the stakes are higher and therefore journalism has more ability to impact the power structures within the country.”
When asked whether any information should be kept private, he re-stated the “duty” of news organisations. “Media organisations have a duty and that is to inform the public. We should be very careful about compromising that prime objective.”