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Nov 28, 2011

Walkley Awards decide Julian Assange is a journalist

The awarding of WikiLeaks with the prize for contribution to journalism in last night's Walkey awards raises once again the questions of what is a journalist and what is journalism?

The awarding of WikiLeaks with the prize for contribution to journalism in last night’s Walkey awards again raises the questions of what is a journalist and what is journalism?

That’s not surprising. Citizen journalism is with us, and so too is the global publication of pictures, news and information by people who would never think to call themselves journalists, but who find themselves caught up in events that people want to know about.

Locally, we have a media inquiry that is canvassing the issue of whether membership of the Australian Press Council should be a criteria for deciding who gets the special legal protections and access rights that are given to those organisations that claim to do journalism. Would WikiLeaks join the Australia Press Council? It is an interesting question to ponder.

The question of whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not has come up before. This is not the first award for journalism he has won — he got the Martha Gelhorn prize earlier this year.

Some of the newspapers who worked with Assange, then fell out with him, have claimed they treated him as “just another source”. Baloney. This source had the biggest and best leak in history.

Unlike the purveyor of the Pentagon Papers or other leakers of time past, he did not need mainstream media to get the information out there. He collaborated with mainstream media because it suited him, not because it was his only option.

On the other hand the US State Department has pronounced that Assange is not a journalist, in part because he is a “political actor”.

That is clearly a risible reason for saying he doesn’t qualify. If we disqualified people on the basis of being political actors, we would have to rule out all those journos who have worked as political staffers before returning to journalism. We would also have to rule out all those who engage in polemic as part of what they do — journalists from Greg Sheridan to John Pilger.

There has been a debate floating around in recent months about whether Andrew Bolt is a journalist. On one measure, he surely is. He trained in a newsroom, worked for mainstream media, and had a fairly conventional career path.

Yet now he writes mainly commentary. The recent court case in which he was involved found that, on at least two occasions, that commentary was built on a faulty factual base, and indeed that the facts were skewed to suit his polemical point. So is he no longer a journalist. Or were those columns merely instances of bad journalism?

We could go round and round like this. And that’s without even starting on the issue of whether or not journalism is a profession, analagous to law or medicine, or a craft — an issue I don’t intend to canvass here.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the question of “what is a journalist?” is potent in our own time. Journalism as a paid occupation was the byproduct of the invention of the printing press, and all that followed. Given that we are now living through at least the equivalent in technological innovation, we shouldn’t be surprised that the future of the occupation is in question, and that its boundaries are blurring.

As we live through this transition, I think it is more helpful to ask not “what is a journalist?”, but “what is journalism?”. That is, to see journalism as a practice that many people might engage in, not all of them identifying as journalists. Defining journalism as more of a practice than an occupation also allows us to say that not everything done by people who call themselves journalists qualifies as journalism.

So what is the core of the practice? First, it is finding things out and telling people about them. Assange qualifies, and then some.

Second, it is commitment to factual accuracy and verification. Again, Assange qualifies. Nobody has claimed that the material he released was not what he said it was.

Third, it is, at least sometimes, editing, curating and verifying. Assange has done some of this, and organised for more to be done through his relationship with media partners. Barbara Gunnell, the UK journalist, wrote in Griffith Review how WikiLeaks provided an edited movie — “Collateral Murder” — as part of its initial Iraqi related release and the raw footage, so viewers could assess the integrity of the editing.

Lastly, and certainly implied if ethical standards are to be taken as part of the accreditation of journalism, there is an ideology, or a vibe — a belief in transparency, and in the democratic effect of sharing information.

WikiLeaks qualifies. While one might argue about the extent to which it adequately fulfills its responsibilities (just as one might with any mainstream media organisation), 
WikiLeaks has a clearly described agenda of working for good governance. The mission outlined on its website is that leaking calls governments and corporations to account, and that “public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions … Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.”

Most serious journalists would have no trouble signing up to that mission, even if they want to argue that WikiLeaks has failed in areas of ethical responsibility (and which media outlet has not?).The main thing, surely, is that in the inevitably changing practice of journalism, WikiLeaks has been an enormous and highly significant leapfrog into the present and future. To quote Gunnell’s Griffith Review piece:

“Julian Assange has changed journalism. To debate the good or otherwise of organisations such as WikiLeaks, or to ask whether its staff are data thieves or real journalists, is to miss the point. Secure, anonymous leaking is now part of the media landscape, as is disseminating large amounts of leaked information through the mainstream media … even if the organisation were to close tomorrow, such data dumps for whistleblowers and secret sources are here to stay. As fast as governments encrypt and hide, whistleblowers and hackers will decode and seek places to publish. Phillip Knightley, a highly regarded journalist, has argued that the WikiLeaks saga represents ‘a sea-change in the way we are ruled and the information we are entitled to expect’.”

Undigested data dumps are not destined to be the main way in which journalism is done. Every new media experiment we know of has had, or found it necessary to reinvent, roles such as that of editor or verifier.

Last night’s award will be controversial for all the reasons Assange is controversial — the r-pe allegations, the issue of whether and how lives were put at risk, his personality, and so on and so forth. It is also notable that the award went not to the man, but to the organsiation, which raises a raft of other issues about the extent to which the two are divisible.

But then, the Walkleys have never been about whether or not someone is a nice person. Lots of shits have won Walkleys.

But greatest contribution to journalism? Whatever your concerns about how WikiLeaks understands and performs it responsibilities, the giving of this award to WikiLeaks is really inarguable.

WikiLeaks’ work has led to rafts of world-changing stories in the world’s best newspapers. It was arguably a spur for the Arab spring. It has changed the way journalism is practised forever.

No other piece of Australian journalism can claim more.

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36 comments

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36 thoughts on “Walkley Awards decide Julian Assange is a journalist

  1. David Coady

    In a free society you don’t need to pass any special tests or be a member of any professional association to be a journalist (it’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer), you just have to provide the public with information it has a right to know. Of course Julian Assange is a journalist. Unfortunately many of the “journalists” working in the conventional media are not.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Agree with David. Let’s talk about Australian journalist so brainwashed and ignorant over the last decade they still believe Ruddock’s nonsense that giving refugees a ride is “people smuggling” when international law says it is not and we signed up to the international law to say it is not.

    They are morons who still think it is our business who people pay to get them out of other countries, our business to police the borders of the world and still refuse to read the actual laws and transcripts of court cases.

    The morons now seem to have realised we are wasting enormous sums of money to jail poor Indonesian fishermen while the so called “organisers” are left untouched, we have been doing that for the past 12 years.

    Before that there were no such things as people smuggling rings or smugglers.

    The reality is they don’t want the refugees.

    But the moron media in this country tell me the law is “my opinion.”

    This was a great award – contrast where Dillard was, inducting the no talent budgie into the music hall of fame.

  3. G Andrew

    I’ve had to read this a few times to determine whether you are praising or deriding the award given to Wikileaks last night. Perhaps a bit of both?
    Ultimately I feel that Assange is not a journalist, but Wikileaks provides a resource, and one of high quality at that, for said same journalists to draw upon, therefore the award is perfectly in keeping.

    @Marilyn – the Walkley’s was wonderful viewing, and you are totally correct, it is embarrassing how our PM seems to want to put her face everywhere and be this pop culture figure.

  4. Neil Walker

    A journalist is someone who asks questions. They either interview someone via telephone, in person or even via email and then report on a subject.

    Writing opinion pieces is not journalism although journalists can occasionally write opinion pieces.

    Unfortunately far too many people working in modern media regard themselves as journalists despite never contacting anyone for comment on anything ever before writing up their opinion and claiming it is journalism.

    The Australia Press Council – like its UK equivalent – has been an abject failure. It is directly financed by the media outlets it purports to regulate (who sometimes threaten to withdraw funding if a ruling is not to their liking) and has done nothing to curb the worst excesses of some so-called journalists.

    The question is not should citizen journalists be allowed to join the Press Council but why would citizen journalists want to join the Press Council?

  5. Oscar Jones

    SHEPHERDMARILYN is correct. No qualifications are need to be a journalist and yet the major organizations employing them in Australia, namely Fairfax & News Ltd want total freedom to act as they see fit and the ability to destroy reputations without any person-unless they are well heeled enough to access libel courts-being able to repair the damage done.

    Fairfax has descended almost to News Ltd level and that’s exampled by their boss fronting a media inquiry and demanding ‘self regulation’, an option not available to any other profit making entity.

    Assange happened despite the world’s media. And the Walkey’s are an in house joke.

  6. klewso

    “Political actor”? Do they mean like Murdoch – “Citizen No.1”?

    (Surely a journalist is one who “contributes to a journal”?)

  7. Neil Walker

    Also, Julian Assange is not a journalist. It’s arguable that Wikileaks is even a source.

    Wikileaks is a conduit — albeit a fascinating and high-profile conduit — for sources.

    Unlike most sources Wikileaks had no direct dealings with those it revealed information about. (Unlike, for example, a current or ex-employee of a government or private company that leaked to the media)

  8. zut alors

    I was pleased Gillard was at the Aria awards instead. Maintain the Walkleys as a politician-free event.

  9. NAJ Taylor

    Whilst there’s some truth here: “Unlike the purveyor of the Pentagon Papers or other leakers of time past, he did not need mainstream media to get the information out there. He collaborated with mainstream media because it suited him, not because it was his only option.”, the very point is that Assange did need the mainstream media – he has many times spoken of his disappointment and amazement that his first few leaks had little to no impact. “The people” often need to be communicated to, not given information – apathy scuppers scandals and corruptions too.

    BTW, Assange has long referred to himself not as a spokesman, but a journalist in official documentation.

  10. Paul Quill

    At this point it does seem fair to point out that News of the World hackers are journalists. So is your typical PR. All of them can join the union, which decides who can be a journalists. Even people who get paid by universities to talk about other people’s “journalism” are, apparently, journalists.
    As the currency continues to devalue in line with the long lost drachma, “journalism” as it was once identified by the audience – a trusted source of what’s going on – is now anything at all. Or nothing. Or something you don’t trust in the least, like a blogger. (Sorry, a “citizen journalist”.)
    The Walkey booze up is resembling these days the ballroom of the Titanic.

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