Covering Assange: We have taken our eyes off the prize

(Originally posted by British Journalism Review @ 10.32am on 5 September, 2012)

Covering Assange: We have taken our eyes off the prize

Christian Christensen

The media focus on Assange’s personality has overshadowed the importance of WikiLeaks, says an American professor in Sweden

“I think most people who know him go through this process: you start off trusting and liking him, then suddenly this kind of monster appears from behind the scenes and you kind of think ‘where on earth did that come from? You suddenly discover this extraordinarily dishonest man. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a human being as dishonest as Julian.” (Nick Davies)

“The right does not have a monopoly on paranoia, as the conspiratorial fantasies of supporters of Julian Assange show. Glenn Greenwald, Glenn Beck’s namesake and mirror image on the American left, made it embarrassingly obvious in the Guardian last week that a paranoid ‘leftist’ defence of an alleged rapist was the order of the day.” (Nick Cohen)

“An extraordinary aspect of the campaign against Assange is that op-ed writers feel free to pump out thousands of words about his alleged faults, with never a mention of far more serious state crimes revealed by WikiLeaks.” (Patrick Cockburn)

Let me get something off my chest right away: I will readily admit that my views on WikiLeaks have been coloured by the fact that I am an American, and witnessed first-hand the jingoistic, uncritical news reporting that began to unfurl on the morning of September 11, 2001. Over the past decade, from 9/11 to Guantanamo to drone killings, mainstream US journalism has – with a few exceptions – done very little to counterbalance government PR, militarism and populist patriotism. Many on the political left in the UK and the rest of Europe might well be critical of their respective media, yet they are relatively spoiled in comparison to those of a similar political sensibility in the US, who struggle to find outlets willing to challenge underlying tenets of US geo-politics.

When I see the broader WikiLeaks agenda drowned in a sea of vitriol against Assange and his supporters – particularly post-Swedish investigation and post-Ecuador asylum request – I cannot help but feel that journalists on both sides of the Atlantic (many of whom work for the very media outlets which collaborated with Assange and WikiLeaks in the first place) have taken their eyes off of the prize. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller offered a particularly acid post-mortem when he wrote that “not all that much” had changed after the WikiLeaks releases, and that the leaks, “did not herald, as the documentarians yearn to believe, some new digital age of transparency. In fact, if there is a larger point, it is quite the contrary.” In other words, according to Keller, WikiLeaks is actually responsible for the more aggressive stance taken by the US government in relation to security and surveillance. As I have noted in some of my earlier writing on WikiLeaks, an alternative understanding of this is that increased surveillance and security is not evidence of the solidification of old relationships, but rather a by-product of changing relationships, or at least the fear of changing relationships. Why would the US increase both surveillance and security, one should ask, if it does not feel that WikiLeaks is a legitimate threat to its power?

The broader issue here is that some journalists and commentators have allowed their personal distaste for Assange (and certain factions of his support) to interfere with a critical analysis of the past and future role of WikiLeaks as an organisation. Are Assange and WikiLeaks at least partially responsible for this blurring of lines between the person and the organisation? Yes, to an extent. The allegations against Assange in Sweden have become a central theme on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed, for example, leading many to feel that WikiLeaks has drifted from its whistle-blowing roots. Similarly, as journalists such as Nick Cohen have pointed out, some supporters have done themselves, Assange and WikiLeaks no favours by making suggestions that, for example, “radical feminism” has an iron grip on both Swedish politics and jurisprudence. I myself have written on and critiqued this position, and, as a result, have been accused (primarily via Twitter) of being an anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agent of US-Swedish power. Yet, if Cohen and others had a serious point to make about the potentially negative impact of some elements of the Assange defense, then it was lost in a problematic line of reasoning which foregrounded Assange the person, his purported paranoia and “conspiracy theories”, while pushing the broader WikiLeaks agenda and the realities of US power to the side.

As I see it, journalists who accuse Assange of delusions of grandeur — crystallised in his well-reported fear of extradition from Sweden to the United States – make four fundamental mistakes:

Mistake 1: An ill-founded belief in US fair-play and justice

Only a matter of days after Cohen’s broadside against Assange, former US President Jimmy Carter published an opinion piece in The New York Times slamming the Obama administration for what he saw as a blatant disregard for the rights of US and global citizens. Radical socialists don’t become President of the United States of America, so when a former Commander-in-Chief writes the following, it carries a fair amount of weight:

“Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces”, a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.”

Carter’s article also reminded us that there are 169 prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay who are denied the minimal right of habeas corpus. By ignoring the gross violations engaged in by the United States government, and by labelling WikiLeaks supporters conspiracy nuts, Cohen actually threw fuel on the fire of WikiLeaks supporters who suspect that the mainstream media have a short-sighted vendetta against Assange because he beat them at their own game.

Mistake 2: Being ahistorical

In addition to ignoring the issues discussed by Carter — drones, Gitmo, lack of oversight on presidential power – accusations of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering fail to address the fact that history books on the last 50 years of domestic US and international politics are hardly reassuring reading for a person with a fear of extradition to the United States. Salvador Allende, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Iran-Contra, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Gitmo, “extraordinary rendition”, water-boarding, Bradley Manning. When you look at this laundry list, and consider the fact that within many of these events, hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals have either died, been attacked or had their rights violated, then someone like Assange surely has cause to be worried for his own safety.

What makes a theory a conspiracy theory (as a pejorative term) is a perceived ludicrousness: a proposition so outlandish and technically unlikely (usually due to the involvement of multiple actors engaged in hidden activity) that the person who utters it must be divorced from reality. Can we honestly say that Assange’s fear of extradition to, and potential imprisonment in, the US falls into this category? Let me put it this way: if you had told me 12 years ago that Sweden would allow CIA agents to detain, assault and interrogate two Egyptian nationals on Swedish soil, then drug and fly them from Stockholm to Egypt on a private jet for torture, only to have Sweden deny it, I might have called that borderline conspiracy talk. But it happened.

Mistake 3: If sent to the US, Assange would be protected as a journalist à la Watergate

Every time a question pops up about freedom of speech in the United States, Watergate, The Washington Post, Deep Throat, the “Pentagon Papers”, Woodward, Bernstein and Nixon are trotted out and put on display as evidence of the Fourth Estate at work. Watergate was 40 years ago, and this is not your father’s America. In the 40 years since Watergate, we have precious few examples of US mainstream media actively challenging US corporate and military power. In fact, quite the opposite. We live with (and some in) a post-9/11 America of Fox News, the Tea Party and the Patriot Act. The First Amendment is a fantastic piece of writing, but in 2010, the Citizens United decision made by the US Supreme Court held that corporations have the same free speech rights as regular, human citizens. Even great political documents can be perverted.

The suggestion has also been made that WikiLeaks and Assange will likely be protected under US law because WikiLeaks, as Cohen put it, “was in effect a newspaper”. None other than the chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, Californian Democrat Dianne Feinstein, begged to differ. In 2010, Feinstein wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which she explicitly stated that WikiLeaks should not be afforded protection under the First Amendment, and that Assange should be prosecuted for espionage. As then Salon and now Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald reported in 2011, the US had opened a grand jury hearing to decide whether or not to prosecute WikiLeaks and Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act (the act used unsuccessfully against Daniel Ellsberg for his 1971 leak of the “Pentagon Papers” on the Vietnam War). And, it is not only Assange and WikiLeaks in the crosshairs: in July 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that US Republicans on the Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee are considering the prosecution of reporters who publish classified material obtained via leaks.

Again, some context from Sweden: one of the reasons why WikiLeaks initially used servers located in Sweden was the perceived protection offered to the organisation under Sweden’s stringent freedom of speech and whistleblower protection laws. Interestingly, however, that logic was called into question when it was noted that WikiLeaks could not be classified as a
journalistic organisation because it did not have what is known as a “responsible publisher” (a person legally responsible for the content): a condition necessary for an organisation to be considered journalistic in Sweden. In other words, lots of assumptions can be made about WikiLeaks being a news organisation, but assumptions don’t hold up in court.

Mistake 4: Conflating WikiLeaks Supporters

Although I have been subject to some accusations on Twitter in relation to my questioning of certain arguments made in Assange’s defence (particularly in relation to feminism), I suspect that the number of WikiLeaks supporters who adhere to dogmatic lines of thought, and attack those who disagree, is relatively small; and, that their voices have disproportionate strength as a result of echo-chambers like Twitter. I get the sense that many supporters of WikiLeaks are regular people who are tired of being used and lied to, and want to support an organisation which has shown a willingness and backbone to challenge some big schoolyard bullies. It takes guts to challenge the US: just ask people who have done so and paid the price. By playing the “conspiracy theory” card in relation to extradition to the US, and dismissing legitimate fears when there is ample evidence to the contrary, Cohen and others throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As the Assange saga continued, a small clique of journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Patrick Cockburn and the late Alexander Cockburn attempted to counterbalance what they considered to be an excessive focus on Assange the person, with a discussion on WikiLeaks the organisation. The most pointed defence has come from Greenwald, who wrote in The Guardian in July 2012 that the animosity toward Assange on the part of journalists is ironic, “given that he has helped to bring about more transparency and generated more newsworthy scoops than all media outlets combined over the last several years,” and that “this animosity leads media commentators to toss aside their professed beliefs and principles out of an eagerness to see him shamed or punished”.

To this I would add one final observation: while castigating Assange for generating a cult of personality around himself, journalists have, ironically, played a large part in contributing to that process precisely through their focus on personality, and not the substance of Assange’s fears regarding extradition to the United States, or WikiLeaks’ contribution to a greater understanding of the murky worlds of military action and diplomatic geopolitics.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism, Media & Communications at Stockholm University, Sweden. His Twitter contact is @chrchristensen.


About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: