Julian Assange is not on trial simply for his liberty and his life. He is fighting for the right of every journalist to do hard-hitting investigative journalism without fear of arrest and extradition to the United States. Assange faces 175 years in a US super-max prison on the basis of claims by Donald Trump’s administration that his exposure of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan amounts to “espionage”.
The charges against Assange rewrite the meaning of “espionage” in unmistakably dangerous ways. Publishing evidence of state crimes, as Assange’s Wikileaks organisation has done, is covered by both free speech and public interest defences. Publishing evidence furnished by whistleblowers is at the heart of any journalism that aspires to hold power to account and in check. Whistleblowers typically emerge in reaction to parts of the executive turning rogue, when the state itself starts breaking its own laws. That is why journalism is protected in the US by the First Amendment. Jettison that and one can no longer claim to live in a free society.
Aware that journalists might understand this threat and rally in solidarity with Assange, US officials initially pretended that they were not seeking to prosecute the Wikileaks founder for journalism – in fact, they denied he was a journalist. That was why they preferred to charge him under the arcane, highly repressive Espionage Act of 1917. The goal was to isolate Assange and persuade other journalists that they would not share his fate.
Assange explained this US strategy way back in 2011, in a fascinating interview he gave to Australian journalist Mark Davis. (The relevant section occurs from minute 24 to 43.) This was when the Obama administration first began seeking a way to distinguish Assange from liberal media organisations, such as the New York Times and Guardian that had been working with him, so that only he would be charged with espionage.
Assange warned then that the New York Times and its editor Bill Keller had already set a terrible precedent on legitimising the administration’s redefinition of espionage by assuring the Justice Department – falsely, as it happens – that they had been simply passive recipients of Wikileaks’ documents. Assange noted (40.00 mins):
If I am a conspirator to commit espionage, then all these other media organisations and the principal journalists in them are also conspirators to commit espionage. What needs to be done is to have a united face in this.
During the course of the current extradition hearings, US officials have found it much harder to make plausible this distinction principle than they may have assumed.
Journalism is an activity, and anyone who regularly engages in that activity qualifies as a journalist. It is not the same as being a doctor or a lawyer, where you need a specific professional qualification to practice. You are a journalist if you do journalism – and you are an investigative journalist if, like Assange, you publish information the powerful want concealed. Which is why in the current extradition hearings at the Old Bailey in London, the arguments made by lawyers for the US that Assange is not a journalist but rather someone engaged in espionage are coming unstuck.
My dictionary defines “espionage” as “the practice of spying or of using spies, typically by governments to obtain political and military information”. A spy is defined as someone who “secretly obtains information on an enemy or competitor”.
Very obviously the work of Wikileaks, a transparency organisation, is not secret. By publishing the Afghan and Iraq war diaries, Wikileaks exposed crimes the United States wished to keep secret.
Assange did not help a rival state to gain an advantage, he helped all of us become better informed about the crimes our own states commit in our names. He is on trial not because he traded in secrets, but because he blew up the business of secrets – the very kind of secrets that have enabled the west to pursue permanent, resource-grabbing wars and are pushing our species to the verge of extinction.
In other words, Assange was doing exactly what journalists claim to do every day in a democracy: monitor power for the public good. Which is why ultimately the Obama administration abandoned the idea of issuing an indictment against Assange. There was simply no way to charge him without also putting journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian on trial too. And doing that would have made explicit that the press is not free but works on licence from those in power.
For that reason alone, one might have imagined that the entire media – from rightwing to liberal-left outlets – would be up in arms about Assange’s current predicament. After all, the practice of journalism as we have known it for at least 100 years is at stake.
But in fact, as Assange feared nine years ago, the media have chosen not to adopt a “united face” – or at least, not a united face with Wikileaks. They have remained all but silent. They have ignored – apart from occasionally to ridicule – Assange’s terrifying ordeal, even though he has been locked up for many months in Belmarsh high-security prison awaiting efforts to extradite him as a spy. Assange’s very visible and prolonged physical and mental abuse – both in Belmarsh and, before that, in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he was given political asylum – have already served part of their purpose: to deter young journalists from contemplating following in his footsteps.
Even more astounding is the fact that the media have taken no more than a cursory interest in the events of the extradition hearing itself. What reporting there has been has given no sense of the gravity of the proceedings or the threat they pose to the public’s right to know what crimes are being committed in their name. Instead, serious, detailed coverage has been restricted to a handful of independent outlets and bloggers.
Most troubling of all, the media have not reported the fact that during the hearing lawyers for the US have abandoned the implausible premise of their main argument that Assange’s work did not constitute journalism. Now they appear to accept that Assange did indeed do journalism, and that other journalists could suffer his fate. What was once implicit has become explicit, as Assange warned: any journalist who exposes serious state crimes now risks the threat of being locked away for the rest of their lives under the draconian Espionage Act.
This glaring indifference to the case and its outcome is extremely revealing about what we usually refer to as the “mainstream” media. In truth, there is nothing mainstream or popular about this kind of media. It is in reality a media elite, a corporate media, owned by and answerable to billionaire owners – or in the case of the BBC, ultimately to the state – whose interests it really serves.
The corporate media’s indifference to Assange’s trial hints at the fact that it is actually doing very little of the sort of journalism that threatens corporate and state interests and that challenges real power. It won’t suffer Assange’s fate because, as we shall see, it doesn’t attempt to do the kind of journalism Assange and his Wikileaks organisation specialise in.
The indifference suggests rather starkly that the primary role of the corporate media – aside from its roles in selling us advertising and keeping us pacified through entertainment and consumerism – is to serve as an arena in which rival centres of power within the establishment fight for their narrow interests, settling scores with each other, reinforcing narratives that benefit them, and spreading disinformation against their competitors. On this battlefield, the public are mostly spectators, with our interests only marginally affected by the outcome.
Gauntlet thrown down
The corporate media in the US and UK is no more diverse and pluralistic than the major corporate-funded political parties they identify with. This kind of media mirrors the same flaws as the Republican and Democratic parties in the US: they cheerlead consumption-based, globalised capitalism; they favour a policy of unsustainable, infinite growth on a finite planet; and they invariably support colonial, profit-driven, resource-grabbing wars, nowadays often dressed up as humanitarian intervention. The corporate media and the corporate political parties serve the interests of the same power establishment because they are equally embedded in that establishment.
(In this context, it was revealing that when Assange’s lawyers argued earlier this year that he could not be extradited to the US because extradition for political work is barred under its treaty with the UK, the US insisted that Assange be denied this defence. They argued that “political” referred narrowly to “party political” – that is, politics that served the interests of a recognised party.)
From the outset, the work of Assange and Wikileaks threatened to disrupt the cosy relationship between the media elite and the political elite. Assange threw down a gauntlet to journalists, especially those in the liberal parts of the media, who present themselves as fearless muckrakers and watchdogs on power.
Unlike the corporate media, Wikileaks doesn’t depend on access to those in power for its revelations, or on the subsidies of billionaires, or on income from corporate advertisers. Wikileaks receives secret documents direct from whistleblowers, giving the public an unvarnished, unmediated perspective on what the powerful are doing – and what they want us to think they are doing.
Wikileaks has allowed us to see raw, naked power before it puts on a suit and tie, slicks back its hair and conceals the knife.
But as much as this has been an empowering development for the general public, it is at best a very mixed blessing for the corporate media.
In early 2010, the fledgling Wikileaks organisation received its first tranche of documents from US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning: hundreds of thousands of classified files exposing US crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange and “liberal” elements of the corporate media were briefly and uncomfortably thrown into each others’ arms.
On the one hand, Assange needed the manpower and expertise provided by big-hitting newspapers like the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel to help Wikileaks sift through vast trove to find important, hidden disclosures. He also needed the mass audiences those papers could secure for the revelations, as well as those outlets’ ability to set the news agenda in other media.
Liberal media, on the other hand, needed to court Assange and Wikileaks to avoid being left behind in the media war for big, Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, for audience share and for revenues. Each worried that, were it not to do a deal with Wikileaks, a rival would publish those world-shattering exclusives instead and erode its market share.