Hard News by Russell Brown


Watching the Watchmen

This week's Media7 takes on the Wikileaks story – and the wider issue of the spreading secret establishment. Paul Buchanan granted us a useful interview from Singapore (we won't have room for all of it in the show, but we'll put the whole thing online), and we'll have Jon Stephenson and Scoop's Selwyn Manning in the studio.

If you'd like to join us for the recording tomorrow (ie: WEDNESDAY), you'll need to come to the Victoria St entrance of TVNZ (it's a gate) from 5pm (but before 5.30). If you were to click "Reply" and let me know you're coming, that would be handy.

I've written about my mixed feelings about the Wikileaks organisation before, but here's a further backgrounder based on some of the research for the show …

You may have seen this scary little number on the internet. It's called "Collateral Murder", and it depicts a bloody assault from a US helicopter gunship on what turned out to be a group of Afghani civilians and journalists.

It's been viewed seven million times in its main YouTube instance alone. That's nearly as many as views as Miley Cyrus's 'Party in the USA'.

You saw the video only because it was leaked by a junior American intelligence officer to Wikileaks, an extraordinary organisation led by a spectral-looking Australian called Julian Assange. And your response to it may well have been shaped by the way Assange chose to title and edit the raw video.

Since it launched in 2006, Wikileaks – which is nothing to do with Wikipedia – has published on the internet swathes of leaked secrets: from the dodgy docs of Swiss banks, and Scientology manuals to – weirdly – Wesley Snipes' tax records.

Sheltered by whistleblower laws in Sweden, where its server is hosted, Wikileaks seems to be an untouchable source of sunlight on secrecy. Yet one the most striking features of Wikileaks' public image is the scepticism it attracts from those who ought to be its friends.

Iconic left-wing magazine Mother Jones recently observed that:

Assange can be as prickly about unwanted scrutiny as any of his targets. After MotherJones.com published a version of this story, he left a comment saying it was filled with "extremely irritating tabloid insinuations of the type that might be expected from a poor quality magazine." That comment then inexplicably accumulated tens of thousands of "recommends" from just a few thousand page views.

Scientist and open-government crusader Stephen Aftergood wrote in June that:

WikiLeaks must be counted among the enemies of open society because it does not respect the rule of law nor does it honour the rights of individuals.

Liberal satirist Stephen Colbert dropped out of character to give Assange a grilling on his show.

And even Wikileaks' co-founder and the creator of the respected Cryptome.org, John Young, has turned on the organisation:

I don't want to limit this to Wikileaks, but yes, they're acting like a cult. They're acting like a religion. They're acting like a government. They're acting like a bunch of spies. They're hiding their identity. They don't account for the money. They promise all sorts of good things. They seldom let you know what they're really up to. They have rituals and all sorts of wonderful stuff. So I admire them for their showmanship and their entertainment value. But I certainly would not trust them with information if it had any value, or if it put me at risk or anyone that I cared about at risk.

The critics' websites often receive a vigorous virtual visit from Assange himself. A spectacular feud in the wake of the Mother Jones story saw him accuse the magazine of:

gutter journalism … craven sucking up to the Pentagon … right-wing reality distortion

Some will see this wariness of Wikileaks as an expression of professional ethics; others, as mere professional jealousy. Assange's legion of fans aren't in any doubt. Aftergood and other critics are routinely accused of being in the pay of the Pentagon. In their readiness for the fray, their certainty, their willingness to allege an agenda, some of the keenest fans remind me of any other sort of conspiracist.

So why would you trust this shifty guy with his personality cult to responsibly dish out secrets any more than you'd let Cameron Slater adjudicate on name suppression orders?

And yet, Assange did win the confidence of journalists at three major newspapers for what is probably the greatest military intelligence leak in history – the so-called Kabul Diary.

In a war room hosted by The Guardian, journalists from The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times worked through 90,000 leaked documents that told the story of an Afghan war we might have suspected but now had starkly confirmed. A war, as Assange put it, of countless small tragedies, of corruption and deceit:

Under the leadership of legendary investigative journalist David Leigh, the Guardian in particular showed what newspapers can do in the age of "data journalism":

The material brought to light is impossible to ignore. And perhaps Assange's decision to work with established journalists this time will ease the qualms of Wikileaks' critics.

But whether you regard Assange as a courageous and committed campaigner or an irresponsible egotist – or, more realistically, a man who occupies some territory between those poles – you can't not talk about him if you're interested in journalism and a free press. The New Yorker has a thoughtful and thorough story about him, The Atlantic's senior editor Clive Crook was scathing, and Leigh wrote yesterday in The Guardian that "the Afghan war logs story has proved to be a global journalistic phenomenon."

You can't turn away -- because Wikileaks is the definitive press freedom story of the modern media age.

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