Assange and the media: how far is the Fourth Estate to blame for Julian’s persecution?

by Michael West | Mar 9, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

How is the media culpable for the travesty of justice which is the persecution of Julian Assange? An edited version of the address by Michael West to the Night Falls in the Evening Lands conference.

The investigative journalist turned lawyer Mark Davis was with Julian Assange in London at the time the Wikileaks cables were first published. “For nine years,” said Davis later, “Julian Assange has been accused of risking lives and refusing to redact the names of informers in the 2010 Afghan War Logs release. Countervailing this narrative, driven by governments and global media, said Davis, “Assange wanted to redact the names. He did redact the names. He wanted to protect informers, save lives. He did protect informers”.

The journalists from the New York Times and The Guardian went on to enjoy glamorous careers. They wallowed in the prestige of their big scoop, they wrote books, they gave speeches. Julian Assange ended up rotting in jail without proper legal process, a speedy trial. He has been persecuted, not prosecuted. This for working with extraordinary commitment and bravery to force the darkest activities of governments into the open; for exposing assassination, torture and the casual killing of civilians.

No greater service could be made for the public interest, and yet Assange is paying the highest price for doing the right thing: endless internment and the fear of death. Surely death itself would be preferable. Why were the same standards of ‘justice’ not applied to the publishers, the journalists who also published the cables? 

In defamation law it is the publisher not the source who has most to fear – it is the distributors of the news are at risk – yet Julian is being prosecuted under arcane laws a century old. Given the gravity of the threat to democracy and the severe abuse of human rights in the case of Julian Assange, you would think the media would have rallied behind Julian. Many have, so why has enough pressure not been applied to have the world’s most famous political prisoner freed?

When I first thought about delivering this address, I was gathering as many data points as possible to blame the media – for it is the media which is the messenger. But on second thoughts, there is no wholesale failure. And this reporter is no fan of the mainstream media, one of its most persistent critics in fact. The problem is there has been failure from the top. The media is too close to government.

Individually, many journalists have performed their duties to the letter, many harbour a personal and professional sympathy for Julian Assange and most fully understand the abuse of human rights and the threat to democracy.

They have covered each trial, each juncture of Julian’s tortuous journey, professionally. Yet not enough pressure has been applied. Personal prejudice has played a big part. Anecdotally, speaking to various journalists over the years, some were put off by Wikileaks releasing the Hilary Clinton cables, the emails which damaged her 2016 presidential campaign. Others were affected by the smears of the Swedish assault allegations. Assange brooks no sympathy among many senior female journalists.

Then there is the right wing media, the Murdoch media, which despite its protestations about free speech, is more about driving corporate and political agendas. Although it should be said that many right wing journalists have been supporters of Assange. To bring home this point, it is a similar situation in politics where Barnaby Joyce is pictured alongside Andrew Wilkie and the Greens – politicians from across the spectrum gathering together to demand the release of Julian Assange.

The point is that ardent support for Julian Assange is spread across the political spectrum, yet it is contained both in media and politics. Mostly, the big issues are debated along Left and Right wing views, not so with Assange. His case is an oddity in this.

And this phenomenon appears to have enfeebled the media in campaigning for his release. This reporter was at the 2011 Walkley Award ceremony when Wikileaks was awarded a gong for journalism. Parts of the room burst into applause, most of the room did not. The vibe was mixed. How could this upstart internet hacker be regarded as a journalist. Where did he do his cadetship, can he do Pittman shorthand? He never worked for the Guardian, he was there source!

There is a snobbery in progressive media and an unsavoury perception that he is not really a journalist. The reality is that Julian stands far above this fray of mediocrity. He is an historical figure, an icon.

The challenge of political change

Politicians are similarly confused. This is not an issue of personal appeal, this is a matter of global importance. Feelings should not come into it. But, for media to foment change there needs to be three parts: media revelations and coverage which leads to public outrage, and that public outrage leads to political change. This has not happened.

In Australia, to provide an example which has driven political change, we were involved with the 2015 Senate Inquiry into Corporate Tax Avoidance. It was the media who revealed the gigantic scam of multinational tax avoidance, that awakening in the community compelled political reforms which resulted in new laws, effective new laws. The perception had changed, the Double Dutch Irish Sandwich was no longer a funky, sophisticated ploy; it was suddenly seen for what it was, a rip-off of ordinary taxpayers.

This process has not evolved in the case of Assange, despite the overwhelming public interest in rewarding people for acting in the public interest rather than punishing them. And in this, the media, the messengers, have failed. It is an institutional failure, a failure made worse by Australia’s effective media duopoly of News Corp and Nine Entertainment. There are others such as the Seven Network but when it comes to public interest Wills and Kate, and Harry and Meghan are more important clickbait.

The ABC, with some noble exceptions, has become a follower rather than a leader in setting the news agenda. This is in part because of the demands of the 24 hour news cycle and social media relevance and distribution which means the early morning producers trudge in and follow what has been published at midnight in The Australian, the SMH, the AFR and Guardian.

In turn, the parliamentary correspondents in the Canberra press gallery are ever closer to government. And government, as evinced by the AUKUS pact, is ever closer to the US and UK. It is a daisy chain of cap-doffing which entrenches the narrative that ‘there’s not much we can do, it’s the American alliance’.

When the Labor Party swept to power in 2022, A-G Mark Dreyfus put out the call for a media roundtable. We weren’t invited and initially the thought was that this would be about media freedom and reform. Yet the feedback came. The room was full of spies and natsec types. This was about national security and containing the media, about cooperation. Cooperation with government is anathema to real journalism.

Politicians, always far more credible in Opposition than in Office, just give up and mumble inanities about ‘deep concern’ and ‘doing what we can through appropriate channels’.

And so it is that we are party to the genocide in Gaza, party to the torture of our own citizens. Journalists are not to blame but institutional media surely has played its part. For, if there was a concerted campaign for his release, across the political and media spectrums – given we are forking out $368B to the weapons makers in the US and UK – it would be within the Australian government to bring Julian Assange home.

Julian Assange ignored in “press freedom roundtable” as spies cosy up to Big Media

Michael West established Michael West Media in 2016 to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. West was formerly a journalist and editor with Fairfax newspapers, a columnist for News Corp and even, once, a stockbroker.

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