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Dec 8, 2010

WikiLeaks and the price of partnership

WikiLeaks is paying a price for hooking up with mainstream media outlets. But eventually the media must pay one too.


One of the more interesting battles opened up by the WikiLeaks cables has been over what WikiLeaks actually is. This is more than just a debate about what to call the site — witness the unsubtle campaign to remove its appellation “whistleblower site”. As Julian Assange notes in his rambling self-defence today, the famous mastheads running some of the cables have so far been relatively free from the kinds of attacks WikiLeaks has endured. No politician or columnist has called for the editor of the New York Times to be assassinated. Financial institutions or web hosts have not been pressured to block The Guardian.  No one has demanded that Der Speigel journalists be prosecuted under the United States’s Espionage Act (which makes as much sense as prosecuting an Australian).

Nor is it likely that Julia Gillard would launched her clumsy, petulant charge of “illegality” if this material had emerged in an established publication.

Nonetheless, however little politicians, officials and some conservatives like it, WikiLeaks is a media organisation. It did not steal the cables.  Assange is no Daniel Ellsberg. The leaker — allegedly — is in custody in the United States, unlikely to be taste freedom for decades. Regardless of his motivations, Assange merely does what journalists and editors have done for centuries, provide a public platform for material the powerful want to keep hidden, for reasons good or ill. Moreover, like traditional media, WikiLeaks releases material subject to assessment as to what impacts it will have on individuals and the public interest.

However, as Assange noted, it’s a new and small media outlet. It relies on the internet for its broadcast infrastructure, and social media for its self-promotion. It lacks the branding that traditional, high-profile mastheads still retain even in the face of precipitately declining revenues. It also lacks the analytical capacity to explain the material it provides. That’s why it has partnered up with traditional mastheads such as the Times or the Guardian. This partnership is an extremely close one, to the extent that the outlets themselves are essentially dictating what WikiLeaks releases.

That partnership — like most partnerships, really, has its problems. In order to obtain some commercially appealing exclusivity, the mastheads are drip-feeding new material before the relevant cables are available. This prevents us from doing exactly what Assange says is the benefit of WikiLeaks. “Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?” In most cases we can’t know, at least for a few hours or days.

That’s the main problem with Fairfax’s coverage of cables about Kevin Rudd, said to be among “hundreds of US State Department documents relevant to Australia released by the WikiLeaks website” to Fairfax. Not merely has Fairfax not linked to the cables, it hasn’t even linked to a working WikiLeaks site, instead offering the URL www.wikileaks.org, which was shut down under US government pressure days ago. We all know that Kevin Rudd was a control freak with a high opinion of himself. Did the cables say anything else? What was the context for the remarks? As of this point, we can make no judgement about that, we cannot, as Assange says, “judge for ourselves”, because Fairfax won’t let us. We’ll have to wait until this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next week, to verify the account and see the full context, by which time the media cycle will have long since moved on.

That’s another price to be paid by WikiLeaks for hooking up with mainstream media outlets — particularly ones such as Fairfax where heavy-duty analytical expertise has long since fallen victim to cost-cutting. Examining the cables containing comments about political leaders elsewhere, it quickly becomes clear that strident comments, or one-liners, taken out of context and put into headlines, form part of a more nuanced picture provided by State Department officials in the relevant documents.

Fairfax isn’t alone in skipping that nuance — an emphasis on the personal and the gossipy has been a prominent feature of the mainstream media coverage. Individuals are easier to focus on than issues, and none more so than Assange himself, whose skirmishing with the Swedish legal system have been elevated by one asinine NBC journalist into an “international manhunt” and garnered as much attention as the cables themselves. There’s a similar kind of partnership at work here, however, given Assange  has assiduously and cleverly used the media and his own image to promote WikiLeaks (not to forget that Assange’s own ego benefits similarly).

This is all the price WikiLeaks is willingly paying to more effectively reach its audience, just like any media organisation.

As Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald has noted, the penny might now be starting to drop among journalists and editors that if WikiLeaks can be attacked, so too can the mainstream media. Self-appointed Witchfinder-General in the whole business, US Senator Joe Lieberman, has already gone in this direction by suggesting the New York Times may have committed a crime by publishing the material — comments that at least have the virtue of being targeted at an entity that is actually within the United States. Attorney-General Robert McClelland here has been talking about voluntary “arrangements” that might see mainstream media outlets — the only ones invited to participate in the development of the arrangements — self-censor national security-related material. Which gives rise to the obvious question — what happens if editors decline to participate, and ignore any such “arrangements”?

The mainstream media must eventually accept its interests are aligned with those of WikiLeaks. If WikiLeaks has to pay a price for its partnership with mainstream media, so does the media itself.


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30 thoughts on “WikiLeaks and the price of partnership

  1. John Marlowe

    Excellent insight and analysis Bernard. This is the analysis that enriches the value of the leaked material and adds meaning to the whistleblowing phenomenon. Such analysis is to Wikileaks, what columnists and bloggers are to mass media headline news. Headline news is a low value commodity. It is the analysis, review and questioning of the establishment that offer important value to society.

  2. Frank Campbell

    Translation: the media are whores and politicians their clients.

  3. Scott

    Wikileaks is no different to any other PR merchant shopping around for a mass media distribution platform for their products. They are just trying to drive traffic to their site (and hence get a few more leaks coming their way). Don’t make it into something it’s not. There is no new “paradigm” here.

    As for legalities, in the US there is a fair bit of common law regarding newspapers publishing secret material. In the case New York Times Co. v United States, the US Supreme Court voted 6-3 to remove an injunction preventing the New York Times from publishing extracts from the pentagon papers. If I was the editor of the paper, I wouldn’t be losing any sleep about wikileaks. I’d just be sitting back and watching my circulation figures rise.

  4. Socratease

    Self-appointed Witchfinder-General in the whole business, US Senator Joe Lieberman,

    … doubtless chanelling the ghost of Sen. Joe McCarthy.

  5. Susi-Q

    Brilliant article, sums it all up nicely.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    The Fairfax mob didn’t even note that Scheiffer and McCallum were unashamed Dubya boosters who disgreed openly with the ALP over Iraq.

  7. freecountry

    There’s a difference. Traditional outlets aim (or at least profess) to inform, and will expose secrets in order to do so. Wikileaks practices exposure for its own sake, regardless of whether the fragments of information–lacking analysis or even context, as you say–serve that purpose or not. Assange trades in mere data, not knowledge.

    Yesterday I was wondering about Assange’s motives, his take on government and world affairs. Today’s article from him is a disappointment. The “scientific journalism” idea is interesting but not developed.

    His political views seem to be a mish-mash of anecdotes about government corruption and secrecy, with no binding theme to suggest what makes some governments corrupt and others decent. Not even a coherent line of reasoning to argue that more transparency leads to more honesty. Without a coherent rationale, he sounds almost like an anarchist, simply out to make life hard for governments the best way he knows how.

    The remaining half of his article is about the persecution of himself. To be sure, he is being persecuted. The r@pe charges are dodgy by most countries’ standards, the timing and the extradition are clearly political, the Australian government was very tardy in offering consular support, and comments by people like Julia Gillard who should know better are puerile in their fist-shaking indignation.

    But what did he expect? Compare Assange’s whining to the laconic all-in-a-day’s-work demeanour of Nigel Brennan and Amanda Lindhout, two real journalists who were held hostage for three months in Somalia. Consider the dignity and grace of Aung San Suu Kyi after 20 years without her family or her freedom. And where are the thanks to all the media organizations, journalists, bloggers, and members of the public who have so loudly proclaimed their support for him? Julian Assange has a long way to go to earn a place in the freedom of speech hall of fame.

  8. Frank Birchall

    Free Country’s bagging of Assange because of his “whining” is most unfair. To make that judgment by relativistic benchmarking against journalists held in Somalia and with Aung San Suu Kyi (who is not a journalist) simply misses the point. Assange justly complains (not whines) about some politicians in the US (that bastion of free speech) publicly asserting that he should be executed and a blogger suggesting that Assange’s son should be abducted. IS FC seriously suggesting that Assange should simply shut up because Somalian hostages dealt with their plight as “all in a day’s work” and ASSK showed “dignity and grace”? And how forgetful of Assange to not thank global supporters; perhaps he had more pressing matters on his mind. All neatly wrapped up with a non sequitur final sentence.

  9. Socratease


    Julian Assange has a long way to go to earn a place in the freedom of speech hall of fame.

    As far as I know there is no such hall, other than in the minds of individuals of various viewpoints.

    Assange is a cause célèbre, like many other before him.

  10. Tom McLoughlin

    George W Bush’s personal friends is appointed as US Ambassador. He sledges the leader of the ALP identified with the US Democrat side of politics back home.

    Ambassador McCallum then resigns as soon as W Bush is defeated by the Obama administration at the US election.

    And there is ANY surprise he writes negatively about Opposition leader then PM Rudd?

    Oh please, that headline in the SMH today was … let’s put it clearly … a joke. The actual implicit news is that the current US Govt DOESN’T criticise Rudd.

    Derr. Analysis AO1.

  11. freecountry

    So Julian Assange is a cause célèbre. Here is some information from the International News Safety Institute on journalists killed so far this year, some of them gruesomely, in the course of trying to tell folks what’s going on. 75 journalists killed on the job so far this year. Many of them get little more than a brief obituary before their byline is replaced by another. Some of them died for reporting things that governments wanted to hide.

    If you’re looking for martyrs of truth, you can do better than Julian Assange. Yes I am hard on him. I really was curious to read in his own words what he was all about. I didn’t expect roughly 50 per cent of the limited word count to be all about how hard it is on him.

    Much that is hidden, should be disclosed. Much that governments or criminal organizations kill to silence, should be told. That does not mean that there is no legitimate place for secrecy, discretion, or privileged communication. Simply dumping everything on the web that some government doesn’t want us to know, is not the same as digging out and reporting the stories that really do add to the public’s knowledge of the world.

  12. Venise Alstergren

    BERNARD: Excellent article-thanks. If Julian Assange does nothing else he will have given conspiracy theorists a quantum boost.

  13. Socratease


    If you’re looking for martyrs of truth

    I’m don’t consider Assange a martyr of anything — not yet anyway. However, his international arrest warrant on what appear to be trumped up charges, and the international response to that, does make him a cause célèbre.

    The difference between Assange and those journalists you mention is that he has very effectively created for himself a high international profile.

  14. John Marlowe


    Quite. The US Congress are in a froth and bubble state that their direty linen is being exposed to the public they supposedly represent – Thomas Jefferson notions of liberty and all that.

    US Republican Pete King has branded WikiLeaks ‘a terrorist group’. King: WikiLeaks Release ‘Worse Than Military Attack’

    This is the US equivalent of the fatwa! Just like Salman Rushdies’ book The Satanic Versus of 1988 incurred the the wrath of Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for blasphemy against Islam. Julian Assange is the Salman Rushdie of the US Government. Clearly, the US Government considers exposing its accountability as blasphemy but against what?

    Are we going to see Julian Assange extradited to the US and then off to Guantanamo?

  15. Venise Alstergren

    Isn’t it amazing? I actually watched the beginning of the ABC news-for once. After all the flooding around the Eastern seaboard, and pictures, and interviews thereof, we were treated to the stunning ‘latest’ news re Julian Assange which anyone reading Crikey would have already known.

    We were switched to London and the greatest case of overkill in the history of reportage. A giant paddy wagon big enough to hold a dozen people rolls up. Hundreds of media reporters went sprinting after it, and it appeared to disgorge one person only. Switch again to be confronted by a Swedish politician denying, in English, any suggestion that Assange’s arrest was politically motivated. So believable-NOT!

    Then followed the Wikileak re the ex-Ambassador from George Bush’s America to the land of Oz and the spectacular news that Kevin Rudd is a control freak and a real pain in the a–s–e. Gosh, golly gee this is a remarkable insight into Kevin Rudd’s character. Who would have guessed it??????

  16. MLF

    @FreeCountry – I am really pleased to read both your posts here because similar issues have, in recent days, been bothering me also.

    I agree that much that is hidden should be exposed, and as I’ve stated before, I think the war files shone a light on very dark and secretive times. And I believe we are, in general, better for the knowledge those files provided.

    I get the principle of Wikileaks and I generally support it. But I will not follow blindly and cheer every release made. For me, “for the public good” has to be a primary consideration and evident motive.

    So I wonder, do we need to assess what WL is releasing in light of JA’s apparent ‘vendetta’ against the US? Calling for the resignations of Obama and Clinton because “they authorised spying” says to me – just a little bit – that what is being released is at least partly driven by JA’s anti-US agenda. And if that is the case, its no wonder the US a likening him to a terrorist. I’ve watched some US news shows and the commentary suggests they really do think the country is being held to ransom.

    I don’t necessarily agree with that, nor do I agree with the branding of terrorist, but I do think if we are going to be reasonable and responsible citizens we have critically question what is being released, when it is being released, and why.

    After all, anyone can submit files to WL. They are then reviewed and WL decides what is deemed for release. In that respect WL can’t be seen to be that different to any media house with an agenda. And I don’t really trust most media houses to give full and unbiased reporting.

  17. Space Kidette

    No one is above the law. The fact is how do we, Joe Public, become aware of the misdeeds of governments, if not via media outlets. It is all part of the checks and balances of society and democracy.

  18. Roquefort Muckraker

    Your use of the phrases such as “media outlet” and “media organization” say it all. The profession of journalism, with its traditions and practices, is dying. The SMH is no longer staffed by journalists, and it ceased being a newspaper long ago. It is now an outlet, dispensing cheap and nasty media bits.

    I think you’re spot on when you say that the Wikileaks docos are published out of context, with no real interpretation. What I find particularly interesting is the fact that yesterday’s column from the SMH retelling the US missions’ view of Rudd did nothing to link those views with the views of coup leaders in the ALP. Was Rudd so bad that diplomatic missions around Canberra were busy belittling Rudd and his ALP led government? If the very friendly Yanks were saying this, what about the less friendly governments? And, in meetings with ALP heavies, what were US and other diplomats from other missions saying? There is so much more there that’s meaningful, so many questions opened up that could be pursued. But alas, media outlets and media organizations don’t do those questions.

    Journalists, however, do pursue such questions. Where have the journalists gone?

  19. John Marlowe

    So of this supposed “illegality” trumped up against WikiLeaks, the crime and the charge remains undisclosed by the US froth and bubble. It is akin to what the Chinese Politburo does to its citizens. China labels them ‘dissidents’ and there are thousands incarcerated – Liu Xiaobo being one. Indeed foreign nationals who the Chinese regime consider undermine commercial secrets like Stern Hu which it secretly convicted of bribery and espionage. Last month, Australian businessmen Matthew Ng was arrested because the Politburo didn’t get a cut in the profits of a commercial deal and so has accused Ng of embezzlement.

    The US Government clearly seems to think it has the same dictatorial power over anyone it deems to be unsavoury. Look at how indiscriminately Cheney and Bush could throw anyone with a headscarf into Guantanamo.

    So is Obama the effective boss of the US Government directing PayPay and VISA to suspend donations and directing Amazon to cancel WikiLeaks webhosting or is the CIA director Leon Panetta behind this?

    It is US Republican senators that are most froth and bubble over WikiLeaks. Republicans Peter T. King, John Ensign and Scott Brown as well as the warmongering Independent Joe Lieberman, are behind plans to craft a bill to make it illegal to publish the names of informants serving the US military and intelligence community.

    Is the CIA then responding behind the scenes to political demands of these Senators and acting like the IRA did for Sinn Fein? If you want a president assassinated, Pinochet kidnapped in Britain, a war waged in Guatemala or Iraq, or an Australian whistleblower in Britain silenced, the CIA can arrange it under its ‘universal jurisdiction’.

  20. Angra

    ‘The United States is pleased to announce that it will host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in 2011. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information.’


  21. whoknows

    Rather than using comparison to evaluate real journalism verses WL’s, why can’t it be seen as a compendium to journalistic work. To date most of the revelations via WL’s has not been unearthed by traditional means.

    This should not a ‘judgment’ on which is better, they now both exist and do different tasks, albeit to reveal, uncover and present the truth so it can inform community. That WL’s has become a conduit to traditional media and may well allow a journalist to fast track investigation a story is a good thing.

    Surely the bottom line is: more transparency, so that what a government says and does are the same. It is evolving in business as well. A company that markets a particular position to its ‘audience’, but operates counter to this, is paying the price in diminished customer loyalty. So too is that loyalty diminishing with governments that operate deceitfully.

  22. Astro

    Interesting the Arbib revelations today, wonder if there will be an investigation or a smoke screen, as numbers are tight

  23. Angra

    Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame) has an interesting article on his web site.

    “EVERY attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time…the media is key. No one has said it better than Monseñor Romero of El Salvador, who just before he was assassinated 25 years ago warned, “The corruption of the press is part of our sad reality, and it reveals the complicity of the oligarchy.” Sadly, that is also true of the media situation in America today.”


  24. Angra

    The Guardian is reporting on the extent of corruption in the Nigerian Government and oil industry, as revealed by Wikileaks cables.

    “The oil giant Shell claimed it has inserted its staff into all key ministries of the Nigerian government, giving it access to politicians’ every move in the oil-rich Niger Delta, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable.

    The company’s top executive in Nigeria told US diplomats that Shell had seconded employees to every relevant department and so knew “everything that was being done in those ministries”. She boasted that the Nigerian government had “forgotten” about the extent of Shell’s infiltration and were unaware of how much the company knew about its deliberations.”

  25. John Marlowe

    @Astro, the gaping hole in the whistleblowing process is the absence of a watchdog. Even if the revelations show Arib more loyal to the US than to Australia, which watchdog will repremand?

    This is the underlying problem – even if these politicians can be shown to be false, liers, deceitful, or worse, there is no accountability because there is no watchdog, no penalty and no consequences. Therefore how can there be change in behaviour?

  26. MLF

    I disagree.

    If he’s been shown to be providing information about Australian Government to a foreign government without authorisation, he should be fired, arrested and charged.

    Failing that – because lets face it, how likely is it that THAT will happen – we should be demanding his resignation.

  27. Scott

    Surely ASIO and the AFP will be all over this like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Members of Parliament are not above the law. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will also have a look at this.

  28. John Marlowe

    @MLF, @Scott, yes the claims of improper conduct or worse of an MP must be ‘properly’ investigated (i.e. independently and publicly). The public must have trust and faith in the watchdog investigating – are ASIO and AFP sufficiently accountable to the public or do they have a bit of CIA impunity about them?

    Also, the leaks are but claims and the docuementary evidence must be tested. As I have commented in the associated article on Arbib, it is a tenet of of democratic society that we uphold teh principle of the presumption of innocence. WikiLeaks whistleblowing is a phenomenon which everyone is trying to comphrehend and deal with. It is in its infancy, and is proving to be a valuable asset to democratic society demanding accountable government.

  29. Venise Alstergren

    The conduct of Mark Arbib would, in another country-certainly in another century, be called treason. To sell out one’s country to another nation, whether that nation be friend or foe, is treachery. I wonder if the people who do sell out, do so for any requital?

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