Media Analysis

Abject failures of Australian media laid bare in Julian Assange’s return

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Julian Assange, 2014 (Image by Cancillería del Ecuador, via Flickr)

Press coverage of Julian Assange’s release from prison writes yet another disgraceful chapter of mainstream media hypocrisy, malice and spite, writes Alan Austin.

FORMER AUSTRALIAN Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was wheeled onto Sky News to say this last Friday:

“I find it pretty extraordinary that Julian Assange would be given a hero’s welcome in a country which professes to be such a close ally of the United States. Here is a man who... undermined the security of American soldiers and American diplomats — embarrassed and humiliated America."

Downer – who remains Australia’s worst-ever foreign minister – was wrong on all points. There was no hero’s welcome. Only his wife, his father and an unnamed lawyer greeted Assange at the airport on camera. Noisy supporters could be heard in the distance.

Nor did Assange ever embarrass and humiliate America. The brutal murders and mendacious cover-ups by the U.S. military did that. Assange simply revealed these to the world — which deserved to know.

Shameful misreporting

That was one of countless broadcasts and published articles across Australia which misreported the Albanese Government’s role in Assange’s release. This is precisely what Independent Australia managing editor Michelle Pini had predicted last Thursday.

In another snarky Sky News item, Chris Kenny claimed:

“The Prime Minister thinks the biggest thing happening in this country is the return of the paranoid, former computer hacker, anarchist — Julian Assange.”

That was also false.

Kenny had predicted the night before that Albanese would:

"Try to insert himself into the theatre around the arrival of Assange into Canberra ... imagine if the Prime Minister turns up, wrestling with Rudd and Smith and Assange for the best optics.”

Kenny was wrong at nearly every point, as were all Murdoch pundits and many others.

Nine newspapers observed the same facts and also interpreted them negatively against the Government — but in the opposite direction. Rather than Albanese “inserting himself”, a typical headline was ‘Assange, hero or villain? Either way, Albanese is keeping his distance’.

Several commentators insisted that Assange was “a convicted criminal who has been through a trauma of his own making”.

It is not true that “confessing” to a minor charge in the course of plea bargaining proves guilt. Countless innocent defendants have entered guilty pleas without a trial to end political persecution.

More seriously, News Corp hacks seem oblivious to the craven duplicity of their company condemning an Australian citizen who pled guilty to one charge while campaigning vigorously for Donald Trump – who was convicted on 34 criminal charges by a jury in May – to become U.S. president.

Abysmal Coalition failures

Assange’s supporters have begged every Australian government since 2016 to get him out of prison. This followed the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finding in February 2016 that Swedish and British authorities had wrongly jailed Assange and that he was entitled to freedom and compensation.

An early approach – to then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in February 2017 – achieved nothing. So in May 2017, Assange’s family and legal team formally requested incoming PM Malcolm Turnbull negotiate his release with the U.S. and Britain.

International support for Assange was extensive. Protest rallies were held worldwide. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister called for the UK to repatriate him. Then-British PM Theresa May was open to negotiation, saying her Government looks at extradition requests on a 'case-by-case basis'.

So none of the three Coalition prime ministers – Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison – had the competence to end the matter. This is generally glossed over by Australia’s media.

Credit where credit is due

To be fair, however, the challenge was enormous. The deal required compatible decisions by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. State Department, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service, Australia’s government, Prison Belmarsh in London, public prosecutors in Sweden, a judge in a U.S. court in the Northern Mariana Islands and Assange’s legal team.

All flights required private funding. So it was no easy task.

Influence was wielded at various times by U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy, U.S. President Joe Biden, several ministers in the Albanese Government, the cross-party group of six Australian MPs who flew to Washington to lobby American officials last September and sundry American lawmakers and others who that group met.

Plus, of course, Pamela Anderson.

Having determined to end the matter, Albanese assigned two ambassadors to the job – envoy to the United Kingdom, Stephen Smith and envoy to the U.S., Kevin Rudd. Smith had the extra clout of having been Australia’s Minister for Defence, Trade and Foreign Affairs. Rudd had served as both Foreign Minister and Prime Minister.

Lawyer Jennifer Robinson quoted Assange telling Albanese in their first phone call in Australia that he "saved his life".

Jennifer Robinson added:

"I don't think that's an exaggeration. This is a huge win that Australia stood up to an ally and demanded the return of an Australian citizen.”

Assange’s lasting legacy

The collateral murder video which triggered this saga in 2010 will forever show callous American and Australian servicemen slaughtering innocent civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters news staff.

This was done with the gung-ho enthusiasm of adolescents playing video games: 

“All right. Hahaha. I hit ‘em. Hotel two-six. Crazy horse one-eight. Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards! Nice.”

That information, along with other WikiLeaks revelations, has served to curb military excesses and make the world a safer place.

Extensive foreign media coverage of Assange’s return to Australia — virtually all of which is celebratory as well as factual and informative – testifies to this.

Albanese’s legacy

Assange’s return home follows Albanese’s ministers successfully repatriating Cheng Lei from China and Sean Turnell from Myanmar. They have also succeeded in getting death sentences imposed on Chinese-Australian Yang Hengjun in China and two Australians in Vietnam, all commuted to prison terms.

This is becoming an impressive record. Just don’t expect Australia’s media to report it accurately.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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