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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.

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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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