WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has launched an attack on former media partners The Guardian and The New York Times, for a misplaced focus on the UK phone-hacking scandal, claiming that such an attack threatened the viability of whistleblowing — even as he slated News Corp for “misusing its power”.

Speaking at London’s Frontline Club after he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize Medal, Assange responded to a question from Crikey by noting that indiscriminate attacks on phone intercepts would have made impossible the revelation of the “Petrogate” scandal

“WikiLeaks published 87 phone transcripts in Peru, revealing corrupt dealings between politicians and the oil business,” Assange noted. “It was the biggest news story in Peru for a year.

“There’s no doubt that large industrial concerns abuse their power in proportion to their size, but who decides who?”

“The Guardian has published more than 100 articles on what’s really a story about using default mobile passwords. It should not be ignored that The Guardian is launching an attack on its biggest competitor in the market, as is The New York Times, against The Wall Street Journal.

“Of course there should be the redress of libel for small institutions against large institutions, but public interest is defined by what the public is interested in.”

Assange slammed what he implied was a series of snobbish class judgments in The Guardian’s treatment of the phone-hacking scandal, which has centred on  “red top” tabloid the News of the World.

“News of the World readers have an interest in knowing about the figures that are central in their lives, and that may not agree with the middle-class morality of The Guardian ‘moral majority’.” Assange referred to newspaper readers metaphorically as “the proletariat”, who should ultimately determine the content of papers (although some reports took the reference literally).

Assange’s statement on the hacking scandal was a more libertarian formulation of his arguments about leaking, power and privacy than hitherto. Previously, he’s emphasised the relationship with the concern of privacy where there’s an absence of power, and has walked out of several interviews when questions were raised concerning s-x crime accusations levelled at him in Sweden.

In an address following the presentation of the Peace Foundation’s Gold Medal — a special version of the prize — Assange affirmed the moral and exemplary role of WikiLeaks, playing down the heroism of the group, in relation to the courage displayed by actual whistleblowers.

Quoting May Sarton that “you have to think like a hero to act like a human being”, Assange promised that “if you have the courage to act like a hero we will act like human beings”, and publish leaked material.

Later, in response to a question, he dismissed The Wall Street Journal’s recently launched in-house “leaks” site, pointing out that the small print allowed the WSJ to share the details of whistleblowers with any security agency at any time, noting that the most important feature of any leaks website was the character of the people running it, and whether they had withstood the political pressures that arise from whistleblowing. On both grounds he declared the News Corp site something to steer clear of, arguing that WikiLeaks was about the only site around fulfilling his criteria.

Assange announced that WikiLeaks was currently undergoing a period of “re-engineering” with a view to fully re-opening the process of submissions in the near future. Even without a clear submission portal, he noted that the organisation had been “inundated” with material, which needed to be assessed properly — but that the intense focus on the site — “there has been a 120-person US government team watching an organisation with eight full-time employees” — had made redesign necessary.

It may also have been brought on by the defection of leading figures from the group last year, some of whom have now created the yet-to-be-operational website OpenLeaks, and made film rights deals with Hollywood studios based on their memoirs of time with WikiLeaks. The Guardian’s book on its take on time with WikiLeaks has also been sold to Hollywood.

Introducing Assange, Professor Stuart Rees noted that the award had been given for Assange’s exceptional courage, and was spurred on by the Australian government’s persecution of him. Giving the award, Mary Kostakidis noted that WikiLeaks material made clear that David Hicks’ conviction on terrorism charges was based on fabrications and should be set aside.

Peter Fray

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