Emperor Assange’s New Clothes

Julian Assange, you are so busted.

Writer Becky Hogge today published an interview with the campaigner from 2009.  The publication coincides with the appearance of her book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, a personal account of her adventures in the realms of cyberactivism.  It’s a good read.

Assange, for all the serious credebility he’s gained for his freedom of information campaigning, is rather less of an authority when it comes to journalism.  Here’s an extract from Becky’s interview (my square brackets):

[JA] I know a guy in Malaysia, Raja Petra, who has four arrest warrants out for him for publishing Malaysia Today from in hiding. Do you see any journalists doing that in the UK? No, of course not. Why aren’t there more journalists in the West being killed?

Interviewer [BH]: Because there aren’t so many journalists in the West breaking rules.

Respondent [JA]: Well, I mean, journalism is a serious job. It has a serious policing function. Why aren’t there journalists being killed? There’s policemen being killed. It’s a serious job, it has a serious policing function, and police are expected to engage in dangerous situations as part of doing their job. Why aren’t journalists doing their job?

I’ve known Petra on and off for eight or nine years.  Malaysia Today is, essentially, his personal blog.  He’s a political activist, a campaigner and a polemicist.  He started out editing the opposition Keadilan party’s newsletter.  It was, like all such things in Malaysia, highly partisan.  His heart is largely in the right place.  I like him and consider him a friend albeit not a close one.  But a journalist, in any meaningful sense of the word, he most certainly is not.

He is the citizen of a country where corruption is rife, where the political process is stunted by gerrymandering, the absence of political rights, through the absolute government control of broadcast media and ownership of print media.  It’s a country where there’s only limited freedom of expression, where human rights abuses are common.  I should know.  I spent damned nearly five and a half years reporting from there.

But I also know that Petra was quite happy to report as fact things of which he had no proof .  On at least one occasion I remember finding articles in Malaysia Today that were demonstrably false and when I brought it up with Petra he conceeded as much.

Assange’s assumption is that Petra had to flee Malaysia because he was a valiant reporter doing what journalists should.  I suspect that had Petra proof of many of the allegations he made, publishable proof that would stand up to scrutiny, he’d have had an easier ride.  Petra has made enemies in the government because he is a vociferous opponent, has a large following and repeats such rumour as comes his way, willy nilly, not because he is a fearless champion of the Fourth Estate.

The tragedy for Malaysians is that in the absence of a free and independent press they have almost nowhere to turn for reliable news (with the honourable exception of websites Malaysiakini and more lately, apparently,  The Malaysian Insider).  The government press can tear Petra to shreds over an inaccurate article and swathes of readers will still believe Petra.  He is able to flourish precisely because good journalism in Malaysia is in such short supply.  His contribution is to make the government pay for its contempt for the free media by giving as good as Malaysians get.

However that does not make Petra a journalist.  It also signals that Julian Assange doesn’t understand what journalism is either.  If he thinks Petra is a benchmark against whom I should judge myself as a journalist then I’d politely suggest he takes his benchmark and uploads it to his back server.

Journalism is about gathering information, sifting it, checking it and releasing it.  Good journalism keeps opinion and reporting separate.  It reports without an agenda and without fear or favour.  It also does its damndest to ensure that its reporting does no harm.

Many, including myself, see journalism as a check and balance on power and believe that it has a duty to ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ (to misquote Finlay Peter Dunne) but we also have a duty to the truth as best we can discern it.

So when Assange dumps a heap of documents in the public domain without checking that they will do no harm, when he dismisses the possible danger it might put some of those mentioned in as collateral damage, he’s made clear where he stands.

He is a hacktivist.  He believes, in the great hacker tradition, that ‘information wants to be free’.  There’s no shame in his position and he’s achieved much good.  I hope he hasn’t done much harm.

But he’s no journalist and his choice of Petra as a journalistic icon to hold up for real journalists to measure themselves against is a joke and the very fact that he can gob off without checking his facts only underscores the fact that he really has no useful understanding of what good journalism should be.


There are a few more points I think it’s worth making.

Firstly, in case the above could be misconstrued, blogging can absolutely have value and some writing that touts itself as journalism is barely worth the name, if at all.  Journalistic pronciples, such as separating opinion from reporting, checking facts, offering a right of reply etc etc can all be adopted by bloggers at where they are guided by those their writing could most certainly be considered journalism.

Secondly I’d really dispute the notion that journalists in the West aren’t getting killed because they’re not doing their jobs.  Journalists get killed in countries where there is a reasonable return on the risk of killing a journalist; ie the benefit of silencing them outweighs the risk of killing them, so in  countries where law enforcement is poor and the killers have political connections (or are political players who can exercise control over law enforcement) the downside is far lower than in countries where the police would prosecute those who killed journalists.

So let’s look at the countries where most journalists are killed (figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists)

  1. Iraq: 150
  2. Philippines: 71
  3. Algeria: 60
  4. Russia: 52
  5. Colombia: 43
  6. Pakistan: 39
  7. Somalia: 34

I’d have to take issue with anyone who argues that journalists in those countries are simply doing their jobs better.  Those countries are either violent, there is a culture of political killing, the rule of law has broken down or a combination of the three.

Frankly if Julian Assange’s assertion were true Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would have long ago been walking along the bed of the Potomac in concrete boots.  No, there are far better ways of silencing journalists in the West; for instance rubbishing their reputations or getting them sacked.

Let me take an example, at random, of a freedom of information activist who has strayed into territory hitherto dominated by journalists; Mr Julian Assange.  Mr Assange has been working overtime to piss off governments the world over.  He is still alive.  He has however been accused of rape and the casehas been pursued ‘doggedly’ by a Swedish prosecutor cum politician.  Pressure has been brought to bear on companies like PayPal not to handle donations to his outfit Wikileaks.

So would having Assange shot advance the cause of the US government?  I doubt it.  Rather it would act to recruit thousands upon thousands more to the Wkileaks cause.  This way the money supply is slowly strangled and Assange discredited as a sexual predator – and mud sticks, so regardless of whether he is innocent or not he’ll remain smeared.

Governments can also bring financial pressure to bear on publications and broadcasters.  A senior editor on a major international news magazine and I were talking about Singapore, a country I have reported on.  He made it clear that the Singaporean government chooses to exercise control through advertising spending.  That can be Singapore Tourism, Singapore Airlines r any of the other entities controlled by the government.

In a world where newspaper and magazine sales are dropping, threatening to pull advertising has a sobering effect and the editor to whom I was speaking made it clear that his (respected) magazine pulls its punches where Singapore is concerned because it would pay for any bravery with advertising.

The same appplies to international broadcasters.  Don’t forget that even the BBC operates as a commercial entity when it comes to international TV (though not radio) and takes in a lot of advertising revenue from countries like Malaysia and Singapore either directly or from state owned or influenced entities.  The BBC will certainly say its editorial process is not influenced by commercial considerations.  You’ll have to judge each and every outlet for yourself, but don’t be surprised if less bad news comes out of countries who spend generously on advertising than from those that don’t.

I suspect Julian Assange wishes journalists were more like him.  I don’t.  I wish there were more people like Julian Assange.  What he and his fellow FOI activists do is provide source material for media outlets who can’t get hold of it for themselves.

I wish Mr Assange et al were able to put more resources into filtering the matrial they recieve to reduce the chances it might do harm (though I interviewed John Young of Cryptome last year and he was quite adamant that he believes very little information has the potential to cause harm of itself and his default is that everything should be published.  It’s a coherent position.  I don’t share his confidence that there’s never any comeback which is why, like most journalists, I strive to protect sources, for instance) but broadly speaking they’re a good thing.

What I wish he’d not do is confuse what he does with journalism.  There are places where Wikileaks activities intersect (such as the excelllent Iraq helicopter vid released in April 2010 – a proper journalistic coup) but there are many that don’t.

Rather I’d like him to focus on what it is that Wikileaks and other FOI sites do that journalists can’t or simply don’t.  Wikileaks is less burdened by the multitude of connections that the media have to maintain.  If the NYT gets a scoop that pisses off the White House it may get frozen out.  If Wikileaks publishes the information the NYT can run it ‘because it’s in the public domain’.  Everyone (except those who are exposed) wins because the information is put out there and the newspaper or broadcaster can defend itself with the ‘if we hadn’t run it someone else would have’ line and preserves its relationships far better.

Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they’re really good at and want to be something else (I’d still like to be a rock star).  I wonder if that applies to Mr Assange?


3 Responses to “Emperor Assange’s New Clothes”

  1. We’ve got Nick Davies (of the Guardian) giving a talk at the Headstrong Club – no relation 🙂 – in Lewes in September. He’ll be giving a talk on Mr Assange…

  2. […] Politico.com, The Washington Post and the International Business Times all published stories referencing the transcript, my thanks to Heather Brooke for pointing out the WaPo story, which I’d originally missed, when I saw her at the book’s launch party. Predictably, they all went for the NOTW angle. By contrast Jonathan Kent, a freelance journalist and broadcaster with several years reporting from the Far East under his belt, took objection to the perceived labelling of Raja Petra by Assange as a “real journalist” in this appropriately headstrong post. […]

  3. news…

    […]Emperor Assange’s New Clothes « The Headstrong Club[…]…

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