(Image: AAP/Peter Rae)

That Julian Assange has asked the judge in his extradition trial to allow him to sit with his lawyers at the defence table, rather than behind the glass screen of the dock, is typical of the man.

Challenging power at any point that it manifests itself, even in the physical arrangements of a courtroom. The dock used to be open and in the centre of British courtrooms. Now the defendant sits behind a sheet of perspex glass with a few vents in it, at the back or the side of the courtroom.

There is at least honesty in the arrangement in this case. The procedure is a dealing between states, with a piece of courtroom theatre in the middle.

It is obviously worth it for Assange to participate, rather than standing mute, since there is a chance that the judiciary may find unacceptable the request to render a journalist to a potential 175 year jail term.

It’s unlikely. Unlikely too is that British PM Boris Johnson will recover a dash of his purported libertarian flair and refuse the request, but that’s worth a go too.

But the process is so draconian, and world opposition growing so strongly that there is a greater chance now than there might have been six months ago. So it’s worth trying anything.

What’s missing at the moment is any concerted and coordinated campaign by the major press of the world to stand up, not only for a journalist, but one with whom some of them worked closely and extensively for years.

The Guardian, The New York Times and others should be leading a global campaign, with coordinated front pages protesting the US charges and the hearing.

Perhaps they have something cooking, and they’re waiting for an initial verdict. But I wouldn’t put any interesting amount of money on it.

While The Guardian has featured a few opinion pieces protesting Assange’s treatment and made some editorial comment in his support, well, it hasn’t exactly been cry freedom, has it? The best you can say is that it’s undone some of the immense damage it did to Assange after he broke with them during the Cablegate releases of 2010.

The lack of a concerted response is all the more bewildering, given what is being revealed day-by-day in the hearing/trial as to the intent of the US as regards the criminalisation of journalism.

The multiple espionage counts aimed at Assange are for allegedly assisting someone — alleged to be Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning — in bypassing a password protecting data. The data had already been acquired by the informant; the alleged act was akin to a journalist cracking open a briefcase of documents leaked to them.

The ludicrous maximum sentence — two human life-spans — is pure theatre of terror. The point of a 175 year maximum sentence is the absurdity of it, the state’s indifference to actual human life.

That got a bit of attention from journalists whose daily business might involve a document drop. Then it faded.

But now in building a case the US is relying on some extremely fuzzy allegations about the release of unredacted files regarding the Afghanistan War logs — the first of the four drops from the full Cablegate archive.

This is an obvious attempt to play to the gallery of public opinion during what should be a technical legal hearing. After all, the question is whether an Australian citizen operating out of London could be even indictable for a US charge of espionage.

The introduction of alleged consequences (let in to “show” that the extraditable defence was non-trivial) is a measure of the process’s political nature.

It should also be a measure of yet another wake up call — mainstream journalism loves the snooze button — as to how the Assange case is being used for the global criminalisation of journalism.

The idea that you should try and minimise harm that would arise from reporting on conflict situations is a good one. The idea that any harm that is not avoided is something for which a journalist is culpable is absurd, and unlimited in its ramifications.

We’re not talking about the moral case of whether you should redact names in reporting on war, gang crime, etc. You should.

But if you don’t, through pressure of time, carelessness etc, are you responsible for the acts of violent others?

What if you, or a subeditor, fails to save redacting changes? What if you miss a name? What if you describe a landmark, a cafe, a tattoo that identifies someone?

The idea that even the most insouciant publication of hot information should remove the protection of journalism is a category error. Yes yes, if someone compiles a hit list of names and addresses and publishes it on “www.globalnews69lol.com”, it is absent protection.

But the Afghan War logs were published clearly as journalistic exposure of a war shrouded in secrecy, and with the participation of mainstream outlets — who were all in such doldrums in the digital age that they were desperate to attach themselves to WikiLeaks’s cyber expertise.

Indeed, the Assange case makes clear how catch-all this can be. When later on WikiLeaks released the full Cablegate archive online, they were roundly criticised — not least by David Leigh, one of The Guardian’s Cablegate operatives.

Yet, as WikiLeaks then pointed out, there were numerous encrypted versions of the Cablegate archive already floating around online — which were made accessible when the full long decryption password to them was made available by … David Leigh and Luke Harding in their quickie book on Cablegate, done so in order to heighten the book’s cloak-and-dagger atmosphere.

Is Leigh culpable for anything anyone does after accessing the archive using the password he provided? Of course not.

The US government is playing to the new ethos of “safety” to present all risk associated with journalism as illegitimate. It is a new and malign development in the global crackdown on standard journalistic practice.

The Assange hearings aren’t a sideshow to that — they’re a beta test of what interlocked states can get away with. Mainstream editors should be campaigning on this before they end up in their own trials-that-aren’t-trials.

Still, maybe they’ll be spared the glass screens and the dock; from what Assange has won them. Again.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW