Why all the Assange bashing? It's no good for journalism

Julian Assange has been a remarkable source for mainstream media. So why has he been so ill-treated in return? There are many accusations levelled at him and his organisation, and whatever their bases, none of them justifies the reactions. And this hurts journalism as a whole

Over the past several months leading figures of the news industry have lined up at journalism conferences and in the MSM (“mainstream media”) to hammer Julian Assange’s reputation.  Astonishingly, the people bashing the founder of Wikileaks are the same people who relentlessly pursued and used him as a source.  Protecting the source is what reporters in general and investigative reporters in particular are supposed to do, but a glaring exception is being made for Assange.

It’s been happening at least since October, when David Leigh and Heather Brooke, both of The Guardian and authors of recent books about Wikileaks, took the stage at the Global Investigative Journalism Congress in Kiev to denounce Assange’s alleged treachery and lechery.  They did the same again in Paris at UNESCO in February.  On both occasions no representatives of Assange’s organization were asked to speak; so much for open debate. The details deserve to be outed.  
Leigh has repeatedly complained that Assange makes deals, then breaks them.  As Leigh and Ian Harding recount in Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, Assange first annulled his exclusive deal to publish Wikileaks’ archives with The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian (he brought in two other dailies) after the Times ran a front-page piece that portrayed him as a megalomaniac.  True or not, try to think of another source whom The Times exposed like this, facing the dangers Assange faces.  A source needn’t be crazy to wonder whose side such partners are on and start looking for a Plan B. (Which he found, as we’ll see later.)

Leigh has also blamed Assange for the release of hundreds of thousands of raw documents that can put individuals who work with the US government in danger.  What happened, according to Leigh in Kiev, is this: Assange gave him a cryptographic key allowing temporary online access to a server where the documents were stored.  Leigh assumed that the key had expired when he and Harding wrote their book, and they published it down to the last letter.  The server was immediately cracked and the documents spilled out.  Leigh claims that Assange had not warned him that the key still worked.  Publishing it was still a grave mistake in more ways than one.  By blaming Assange, Leigh cannot help but raise the risks for him.  According to Wikileaks, the Stratfor emails hacked by Anonymous indicate that a sealed indictment has already been issued on Assange, and that the US might “declassify the death of a source” that could be tagged to Wikileaks.

The standards to which Wikileaks and Assange are being held are remarkably high – particularly when one considers that Wikileaks’ activities can be classed as civil disobedience, hence nonviolent protest.  That claim gets weaker if someone were killed because of its disclosures.  Its activity may violate US secrecy laws; that risk gets weaker if Wikileaks is seen as a significant public interest publisher.  But unlike other such enterprises (say, The Center for Public Integrity), Wikileaks is charged with not being transparent, especially with regard to its own finances. It is also accused of opacity when compared with its targets.  That’s not ideal.  

But this is hardly the only ethical issue in the situation.  We might consider that the US government has successfully stopped donations to Wikileaks through the major online payment sources – the most visible part of Wikileaks’ finances.  Must one be transparent to the point of disappearing?  That’s how Wikileaks’ quandary looks to me.  In their situation, which is close to a shadow war, in their place, in their danger, I would not say yes; I would not tell my enemies, the guys who emailed their profound desire to make me a prison “bride”, how to starve me.  

Assange is also supposedly becoming a cheap celebrity, working for a dubious Russian TV network, RT.  Well, maybe Assange likes having other options than the MSM, even if they seem a bit low rent.  In fact, part of the significance of the Stratfor leak is that it showed Wikileaks can assemble its own wide distribution network, without the MSM.  On top of that, for the first time Assange has a regular mass media outlet.  I don’t think CNN offered him a slot.  Doesn’t sound too crazy to me. Nor does running for senator in Australia; senators have immunity from prosecution.  

And finally, Assange’s inner circle included a shady character who allegedly gave US diplomatic information on Belarussian opponents of the power… to the power.  If it happened, it’s a security mistake comparable to Leigh’s.  What matters isn’t that they’re even.  What matters is that in this new domain taking shape, security issues surpass even expert expectations.  Assange and Leigh know more about security than most of us, but there are surprises for them along the way, too.  This is where we can all use some transparency.  The technology of security is becoming more important to journalism; the practice lags.  We have to see the lags to address them.  Leigh et al. make this point, too, but in a more limited way.  They do not apply it to themselves, only to Assange.  
 
The Wikileaks repenti are also appalled by Assange’s sex life.  Leigh and Harding report that Assange made love to a woman in Sweden while she was sleeping.  That, they say, would be a crime under Swedish and UK law.  But it has not yet been proven.  Assange’s side has not been heard.  Why the rush to condemn?   

Brooke’s book, The Revolution Will be Digitised, reveals that Assange made a pass at her, and lingers over his seductive correspondence.  Obviously she put up with it to some extent for the sake of getting information, and withholding one’s feelings from certain sources is a reporter’s valid choice.  But it’s dubious to see her turn around and call him a skirt chaser.  Assange hit on a woman I know, and gave up when she asked.  When did Brooke ask?    

In contrast, former New York Times editor Bill Keller merely trivializes Assange when he recounts that at a conference in Berkely where Assange appeared on video, “about half the audience seemed on the verge of tossing their underwear at the screen.”  Memo to Keller and Brooke: No one elected Assange, and he hasn’t spent a penny of tax money.  Whether he goes to bed with fifty women or does not go to bed with Heather Brooke is of no public interest whatsoever.   

Assange’s critics are hardly so frank about their own human failings – their hunger for his information, their arrogant disdain for him once they got it.  Here’s Keller, in an “afterword” to Cablegate (which is anything but over), published in February: “My consistent answer to the ponderous question of how WikiLeaks transformed our world has been: really, not all that much.” Brooke likewise minimised the originality of Assange’s enterprise at UNESCO.  The implication is that if Assange goes down, it won’t matter, really, not all that much either.

No?  Even Leigh and Harding say otherwise: “By increasing the amount of information in the system,” they write, “Wikileaks had generated unpredictable effects.” The Arab Spring, for example, gained strength from Wikileaks.  We can’t be certain that anyone else will step up to do what Assange has done, and pay the price he is paying.  

There is one serious accusation remaining, partly justified: Wikileaks does not really protect its own sources.  Bradley Manning, in torturous solitary confinement for months in apparent hopes he will testify against Assange, is held up as proof.  

That is false:  Manning was taken not through any fault of Wikileaks, but because he talked to a reporter who alerted the Feds (who knows why; perhaps to avoid accusations of complicity and conspiracy).  A wise reporter named Elena Egawhary recently evoked another, more thoughtful angle: Assange, she said, does not really support sources, because they don’t need anonymity, they need counsel that they can’t get if no one knows where to reach them.  In other words, security based on anonymity is not enough for high risk sources.  

But Manning’s fate tells us that the MSM have hardly addressed the issues such sources raise, either.  Why talk to a reporter if he gives you to the cops? This isn’t an isolated case.  Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent, told at Kiev how her partner in whistleblowing at MI5 offered confidential documents to a London daily that then offered them to the police in order to get certain unrelated charges dropped.  


Which brings us to the betrayal of Assange by the MSM.  Here is what he was promised, according to Leigh and Harding, by reporter Nick Davies of The Guardian: “We are going to put you on the moral high ground – so high that you’ll need an oxygen mask.  You’ll be up there with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa… They won’t be able to arrest you.  Nor can they shut down your website.” (
Leigh and Harding, p. 99) I know Nick Davies well enough to believe that he meant every word.  But instead, The Guardian, in the person of prominent reporters, is helping to bury Assange.  


This betrayal carries a price for all journalists.  People who try to talk to the media have just been shown, again, that when they blow the whistle they will be briefly applauded and then ripped open and handed to the wolves.  That is precisely why Wikileaks came into being – because people who wanted to be heard did not trust the MSM.  Judging by what’s happening to Assange, they were absolutely right.  

Sources need help to reveal the abuse of power.  Journalists rely on the goodwill of sources.  However difficult Assange may be, it does not change those facts.  Nor do the past exploits of his tormentors – Leigh and Brooke have done very good work – justify this campaign.  In fact their reputations just make things worse, because they’re supposed to uphold standards.  They are giving license to the lowlifes who thrive further down the news food chain.  Enough: Whatever is behind the ugly spectacle of Assange’s former allies subverting their source, it has to stop.          

About the author

Mark Lee Hunter is Adjunct Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre. He was a participant in openDemocracy's New News Seminar He is the author of Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists (UNESCO 2009), Un Américain au Front: Enquête au sein du Front National (Paris: Stock, 1998)  and a founding member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.