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Apr 10, 2013

ABC host: I quit the journos’ union because of Assange embrace

Is Julian Assange a journalist? ABC radio host Steve Austin says no. He's so passionate about the issue he quit the journalists' union.

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.”

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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37 comments

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37 thoughts on “ABC host: I quit the journos’ union because of Assange embrace

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    Who cares? Who the hell is Steve Austin and what has he ever done for anyone?

  2. Mike Flanagan

    At long last we have a member of the profession correctly call Assange a hacker rather than a journalist.
    Most of the material Asswange has dumped on the press is only suitable for gossip columns. We would have to be truely naieve not to accept there are personality differences and vigorous policy debate among our political and diplomatic players and elite. Military operation’s history is full of collateral damage and errors.
    Meanwhile Assange maintains his influence with a ‘look at me’personality defect, that is in contradiction to his own personal position that portrays a man determined to avoid scutiny.
    While he states his hacking and filching endeavours are to further ‘transpency and accountability’ he completely ignores and rejects that it should also apply to his own behaviour and choice of national protectors.
    Journalism’s skillos can be found in research, collation and expression of information not theft and filching of filing cabinets.

  3. Radguy

    Mike, that is a false dichotomy: expecting transparency activists to be transparent about their own lives.

    I doubt anyone expected Ellsberg to disclose any information about himself aside from who he was.

    Besides, what has Assange not disclosed about himself that you think that he should? Your post doesn’t refer to anything, despite this point being so important to you.

    Assange presented information and editorialised as journalists do. Was his editorialising just a figment of my imagination, or are the smearers just inattentive?

    As for the accusation of “stealing” information, I guess you think it is better for society to have governments and corporations hide important information from us in order to prevent difficult questions being raised such as how many innocent people are being killed in “our” name.

    Mike, I do not know what the basis of your intentions are, but they are certainly intentions that I intend on stymying.

  4. Will

    Sorry, but what are these vaunted professional ethics that Austin claims put journalists in a deserving category? Is Austin referring to the codes of conduct applicable to individual titles that until recently were mostly invisible to the public, unread by staff and routinely ignored? Or is he being more general about the self-regulatory framework as a whole, which until recently did not secure proper funding for adjudication and accountability and continues to allow titles to withdraw from their self-regulator to avoid hostile adjudications. FFS we just went through a bruising debate which proofed the media wants all the privileges and none of the obligations of their own codes.

    Admittedly, the ABC Charter at least provides better footing for the claim that ABC journalists are bound to standards, but that says nothing about the rest of commercial media. So, the idea of some kind of general standard of professional ethics is problematic outside certain areas. The main norms that are real candidates for universality are not so impressive when you look at them. Stuff like plagiarism and source-protection are good, but they are also extensions of normal norms of self-interest around repeat-business; they’re hardly sufficient for the grandiose pretensions of the forth estate.

    As a matter of law, I do not see much difference between Wikileaks and the NYT as publishers which is what matters. The distinction of journalist vs. non journalist has little importance to the public, unless real matters turn on it.

  5. Bob the builder

    It’s hardly news that ‘journalists’ don’t like Assange!
    Look at the jihad against him that even the Guardian has been waging.
    Steve Austin, whenever I’m forced to listen to the blancmange that is ABC local radio the word journalist doesn’t come to mind.
    All the careerist ‘media workers’ who are too lazy or gutless to do real journalism can’t stand the fact that an outsider like Assange has broken more stories than the lot of them put together would do in their lifetimes.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Mike, he is not hacking, he is receiving stuff for publishing.

    That is two different things entirely and he has been recognised by the most influential journalists in the world as one of them.

    The spivs. here are jealous and that is all.

  7. Warren Joffe

    “It’s hardly news that ‘journalists’ don’t like Assange!”

    That seems a bit of an overstatement when he has been awarded a Walkley by journalists.

    However…..

    It seems a pity that he has to be called a “journalist” when “publisher” and/or “hacker” would have been at least as accurate. But he does/did have to be called a journalist to assist the cause of his legal defence should he ever fall into the clutches of careerist, self-righteous or vengeful US prosecutors. He can’t be allowed to be just the grubby source for some of the brilliant investigative journalists at the NYT, Guardian or whatever.

  8. Radguy

    One more thing, it should be remembered that it was David Leigh who provided access to the unredacted cables as he admits that he published the password for the archive.

    If you catch anyone accusing Assange of placing people in danger, know that they are either extremely uninformed or worse.

    So much for your “data dumps” accusation Mike.

  9. gazo

    As well as winning a 2011 Australian Walkley for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism, Julian Assange has been awarded:

    1. 2009 Amnesty International UK Media Award for exposing extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya.

    2. The 2010 Sam Adams Award (awarded by retired CIA officers).

    3. The 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, awarded on an annual basis to journalists “whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel'”.

    4. Plus countless other awards for human rights.

    Alex Massie wrote an article in The Spectator called “Yes, Julian Assange is a journalist”. Alan Dershowitz said “Without a doubt. He is a journalist, a new kind of journalist”. And he has been described as a journalist by the Centre for Investigative Journalism.

    Thanks to the Australian Journos union for supporting a man who has done more real journalism in the past few years than many organisations achieve in decades. Steve Austin, don’t let the door etc.

  10. zut alors

    ‘…an increasingly slippery approach to journalistic standards…’

    Considering how lowly they rate on the Most Trusted Professions List (slightly higher than telemarketers), journalists are not too far from rock bottom credibility.

    One assumes Austin believes this is the first Walkley ever given to an undeserving party – otherwise he would’ve given the MEAA the flick years ago, right?

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