World Press Freedom Day! But for Julian Assange, David McBride, where is the freedom?

by Michael West | May 3, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Featured

If only the media would cover the persecution of Julian Assange with the same the same zeal as the wedding of shock-jock Kyle Sandilands; and the controversial attendance of Albo. At this time, when Jackie-O turned up late to the wedding, Michael West reports on World Press Freedom Day.

If you had remarked 20 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, that an Australian citizen, a whistleblower, would expose the grotesque war crimes of another nation, but rather than being hailed as a hero, had been forced into hiding and then imprisoned for 4 years without a trial, without charges, you would have been called barking mad.

Surely the Australian government would do all in its power to have him released, to be brought home?

Not so, instead in the case of Julian Assange, indeed of Australian war crimes whistleblower David McBride too, there is a feeble silence. These are two people who have been punished for doing the right thing, punished with their lives, their families punished too.

How could it be that successive Australian prime ministers and their corporate media courtiers have so ignored this story, the story of an Australian, the world’s most famous political prisoner, tortured? The answer is complex, it is nuanced, it goes to Julian Assange not being aligned to any political tribe; it goes to years of smears by the institutions of power, national security scaremongering, and it goes to the fusing of governments with large corporations.

Even the presidents of Argentina and Venezuela have done more to lobby on behalf of this Australian citizen than has the Australian leadership. At least they signed an open letter. In September 2020, along with 160 other high public figures such as Argentina’s Alberto Fernandez, and two former presidents of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, wrote to Boris Johnson in protest at the treatment of Julian Assange.

“Quiet diplomacy”, so quiet it’s tinnitus

In Australia, we are told by the latest regime that “quiet diplomacy” is the way to go. None of this, “Hey, about this $370bn we are giving you from our citizens’ taxes, would you mind not torturing this bloke any more?” Dat too ‘straight-talkin’?

Despite, however, requests to confirm that quiet diplomacy – or any diplomacy at all – has occurred on behalf of Julian Assange, the feeble silence lingers still, contaminating us all.

“Let’s drop this now”: calls rise for Albo to ask Joe Biden for release of Assange in tonight’s AUKUS talks

Here we have Albo, who has in the past expressed some sympathy for the “enough is enough” case – the informal Labor position – turning up in San Diego to great fanfare at the AUKUS meeting with Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, pledging $370 billion to the UK and US military manufacturers … yet there is no evidence of even a modest word leaked to a friendly journo?

Besides the obvious, that Australian leaders are fawning patsies to American might, the answer to the Assange conundrum lies in a combination of factors.

The excellent line-up of speakers at the “Persecution of Truth” conference in Brisbane on the weekend dwelled considerably on this. the lawyers are outraged at the oppressive legal failures to properly charge and try and the accused in accord with centuries of convention. The independent journalists and others are outraged by the extraordinary hypocrisy of a system which purports to favour human rights and proper legal process, yet Julian Assange remains incarcerated, tortured, for the crime of doing the right thing.

David McBride likewise, for exposing Australian war crimes, so doing the right thing cost him his life time of reasonably expected decent treatment by government because nobody can live comfortably under the spectre of a life in prison. In David’s case, as in Julian’s, the publishers have won awards, written books, dined out of it – the journos, the editors – while the real heroes are prosecuted.

Worse, he faces secret trials, something which countervails the very fundamentals of democracy, that is open court.

People are good … and sometimes not so much

The lawyers continue to expose the gross injustice, so we will explore just one aspect, that is the relationship of co-dependency between the political duopoly and the media duopoly. This co-dependency has flourished because governments need big media to be their messengers and – if we simply follow the money – big media relies on financial largesse from governments – indeed a cosy cash-for-access regime too. 

Australia is the land of duopolies; a big island with a small population and high industry concentration. The GFC and then Covid only made this worse as large institutions were protected explicitly, propped up, mollycoddled with subsidies and legal relief, too big to fail. Big media too was propped up subsidies of their own, special licence deals, cash hand-outs.

We don’t subscribe to the view that all operators in the fossil media have failed, or have been bought-off or compromised. People are people. There is a systemic failure however, which has led to a rising public distrust in large institutions; be they government or corporate.

Enter the internet

As the incursion of the internet and the global platforms such as Google and Facebook ate their revenues, fossil media was forced to cut costs to the point where quality of journalism faded. As their business models collapsed, the media houses were forced to get closer to their big advertisers, their CBAs, Qantas, Harvey Norman. It ate their independence too.     

As newspaper circulations plunged, so did ad revenues as digital ads – although so well targeted – ended up fetching just a small fraction of newspaper ads. As revenues fell for the likes of NewsCorp and Fairfax (now Nine), these companies became more reliant on fewer, larger advertisers.

It has got worse. The corporate media paywalls have become even tighter recently – their “public interest journalism” subsidised by the public but quarantined to paying customers only. Meanwhile new media – social media and independent media – are even more strident about the failure of fossil media to deliver in the public interest.

But to the co-dependency. The Scott Morrison regime took the black art of media management ad adsurdum when, instead of doing what governments used to do – leaking to either News or Fairfax in return for favourable coverage, they inveigled guild of political journos and leaked nightly to the both sides, the ABC too, ensuring that they all became part of a tight information cartel.

Media and ‘access for comment’

So it was that the ancient rivalries between News and Fairfax subsided – neither side could afford to be too critical of government lest they were punished with lack of access to the press releases a day early, the nightly “drops”.

And the new enemy has become independent media and social media; ‘the Twitter mob’ as they deride it as if public opinions are somehow inferior to their own.

This arrogance is another factor in the us-and-them mentality which has developed. No Australian journalist has achieved the impact of Julian Assange in holding power to account, in exposing war crimes. No Australian soldier or lawyer has achieved the impact of David McBride. Journalists might have studied communications at Moonee Ponds College of Communications and Media before getting a job in mainstream media but they will never reach these heights, ergo corporate schadenfreude.

Further cementing the political control over media is the 24/7 news cycle. The way it works is the ministers, the PMO and their ministerial black arts operatives leak to the press gallery club of an evening. Their ‘scoops’ are usually published between midnight and 3am, and the morning TV and radio producers – from the shock jocks to the ABC – duly take their cue from what’s in the newspapers.

The daily news agendas for the 24/7 news cycle are thus determined. 

Change relies on media

Without support from mainstream media, there is little political change. Thanks to media concentration in this country, change requires the consent of the government subsidised media duopoly and their secondary media acolytes.  

The bad thing is that the political and media oligopoly will fight hard to preserve their control, their Pravda. Without it, they become useless. 

The good thing is the relentless incursion of the internet into traditional media means paywalls have been tightening as their credibility diminishes. As the quality of news declines, its availability has also declined, only kept alive because the public broadcasters and commercial operators follow the agendas of the fossil media.

The good is that everybody is a publisher these days: Twitter, Facebook etc. Everybody can have their say. and that is where the support lies for Julian Assange and David McBride. That is why Scomo was tossed out and why Albo was elected, albeit with a tide of Teal and Green third party independent support.

Faustian Pact: no way back from public relations for News and Nine

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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