WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not a journalist and should not have been awarded a Walkley Award for publishing leaked diplomatic cables, according to prominent ABC Local Radio host Steve Austin.

And Austin is so disturbed by the support given to Assange by the journalists’ union that he quit the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance last September after more than 20 years of membership. The veteran journalist, who replaced Madonna King in the high-profile mornings slot on 612 ABC Brisbane last year, says the union’s embrace of Assange is emblematic of an increasingly slippery approach to journalistic standards in wider society.

“I don’t think Julian’s a journalist,” Austin told Crikey. “He’s not a journalist; he’s more of a publisher — and a publisher with some pretty shoddy standards. I believe in journalism with an ethical code.”

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Austin acknowledges WikiLeaks has released much newsworthy information that is in the public interest. But he draws a line between traditional journalism (where reporters, who abide by professional and ethical codes, sift through information for stories) and WikiLeaks-style “data dumps” of classified information.

While acknowledging many people — including journalists — may not agree with him, Austin is not alone in his stance. Bill Keller, The New York Times‘ executive editor during the publication of the leaked cables, has said he “would hesitate to describe what WikiLeaks does as journalism”.

Austin — who scored extended interviews with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott earlier in the year — is also uncomfortable with Assange’s decision to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

“He’s never accountable, and now he’s gone to the Ecuadorian Embassy, and Ecuador harasses journalists pretty effectively, as I understand it,” he said. “I think a lot more caution was needed before proclaiming him a journalist.”

The MEAA made Assange an honorary member in late 2010 after he contacted the union to say his credit card had been cancelled and he might not be able to pay his dues. In 2011 WikiLeaks won the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism (MEAA is also the custodian of the Walkley Awards).

The distinction between Assange as a journalist and Assange as an activist could prove crucial if he is ever charged under the US Espionage Act. Journalists have historically received the most protection under the First Amendment, according to US defence attorney Abbe Lowell.

In response to enquiries, a spokesman for the MEAA directed Crikey to a 2011 statement by the Walkley Trustees:

“While not without flaws, the Walkley Trustees believe that by designing and constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world.”

Assange has previously described WikiLeaks’ work as “scientific journalism” that “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?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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