Politics

Why people (mostly Governments and journalists) hate WikiLeaks

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Wikileaks Party Senate candidate Alison Broinowski talks about Julian Assange and Wikileaks and why so many people want to shut them up and close them down.

Everybody hates Julian Assange

(Image by Matt Bors, via Generation Progress)

HATING WIKILEAKS

September's election showed that, in Australia, promoting a party to win a seat in the Senate is much like advertising a whiter smile to sell toothpaste. All you need is a likeable face, an attractive brand-name, a simple slogan, and the resources to promote it all on television and online. It also helps to be unsentimental about preferencing other parties. The objective is to get elected, and then do as you like.

These are not necessarily the values voters identify with. Nor are they confined to the Senate election. In the lower house, the new Government is already abandoning many of its pre-election promises just as it accused its predecessors of doing.  

Various expert suggestions for a better system are doing the rounds.

Psephologist Antony Green wants the deposit paid by candidates to be priced beyond the means of small parties. Robbie Swan, an unsuccessful Senate candidate for Tasmania, argues for optional preferential voting, allowing voters who wish to number several parties above the line, instead of having to either choose just one or number them all.

There’s also a pie-chart that shows what could have happened in September if Australia had national proportional representation instead of an equal number of Senate seats for each State:

(Image by Lawrence Bull via New Matilda)

 Slightly fewer seats in the new Senate would be held by the big three, and the remaining 17 seats would be shared among 11 small parties.  Instead, in July 2014, we will have a Senate dominated by the three major parties, with six small ones holding the remaining eight seats.

One of the successful 11 small parties, according to Lawrence Bull, would have been the WikiLeaks Party, and a Senate seat would certainly have gone to Julian Assange.

It didn’t, of course, for complex reasons that are still being debated, including by WikiLeaks Party members. We await the result of an inquiry, though I will risk a sweeping assertion further down.

WikiLeaks differs from most other small parties in having a known name.

It is widely understood that WikiLeaks the organization has for seven years been publishing information passed to it from inside governments and corporations. Voters can decide whether they approve of this or not. Some respond with enthusiasm, others with vitriol: on WikiLeaks there seems to be not much middle ground. Certainly, a party which stands for transparency, accountability and justice invites different responses from one that speaks for Motoring Enthusiasts, say, or supports Voluntary Euthanasia, or Animal Justice.

[READ WIKILEAKS LATEST LEAK OF THE DRAFT IP CHAPTER OF THE TRANS PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT]

A declaration of interest here: in September I stood in NSW as the second candidate for the WikiLeaks Party. This was not because I hoped or expected to win a seat, but I felt I had to make a gesture (which one friend mocked as ‘heroic’). I had been shocked at how the Australian Government prejudged and virtually abandoned Assange, in deference to American wishes.

I thought it would be decent of our representatives to show concern for him, rather than threatening to cancel his passport, passing information on him to the US, and denying it. I was also alarmed by the refusal of both Government and Opposition to discuss in public the facts revealed by Edward Snowden before the election, and their implications. Since that is now public knowledge, I thought they should come clean about Australia’s long collaboration with the U.S. and our Anglo-allies, their use of telecoms and Internet companies to secretly invigilate citizens’ private data, and what they do with it.

WIKILEAKS AND THE ‘DEEP STATE’

Something else concerned me.

For those who haven’t noticed, there’s a widening chasm between the public state and the ‘deep state’, as US former diplomat Peter Dale Scott and others now call it. The first and fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans freedom of speech and protection against unreasonable searches — rights that many in Australia imagine we also have.

Limited as our actual freedoms are, the secret and therefore unchecked power of the deep state is eroding them. Just knowing that unseen authorities are doing this can make people afraid, and enables governments to turn people’s fear of ‘terrorism’ into an inducement for compliance. Even knowing that what we write can be read instantly by someone in authority can make us think twice about writing it. Knowing that our next job, or promotion, or publishing opportunity, might mysteriously evaporate can tie our tongues. It’s as if the Cold War is back.  As H. L. Mencken wrote long ago:

'The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'

And yet, in my first days with WikiLeaks, I was struck at once by the ease and openness with which everyone communicated. No-one seemed concerned about who was reading our emails. No-one suggested we encrypt anything — although if there’s one organisation that could do secure communications, it should be WikiLeaks. Our teleconferencing, including with Assange, was wide open to the official and telco snooping that we opposed. We knew it, and didn’t even discuss it. Governments, it seemed, were more afraid of WikiLeaks than we of them.

Something that sets the WikiLeaks Party apart from others in Australia is its potential to become an international movement. WikiLeaks has global recognition and a worldwide audience for its releases of inside information. Books, feature films and docos about it, including the negative ones, give it huge visibility.

During the campaign, a lot of foreign media people interviewed us, several speculating about a WikiLeaks Party being cloned in their countries. Outside observers seemed to understand better than many Australians what Assange means by a ‘culture shift’. People whose use of technology has radically changed in a decade are dispensing with outdated routines in their own lives, at work and in government. They realize that governments and sections of the media routinely lie to them and they know how to access more reliable information.

This is a fundamental shift of citizens’ trust and it makes those who control the outdated routines acutely nervous.

They typically respond with name-calling and muck-raking assaults on the personal reputation of the messenger. Americans in Congress were quick to call for Assange to be executed. Julia Gillard asserted that Assange’s publication of US diplomatic cables was “an illegal act” — an un-lawyerly, un-prime ministerial statement that she has not retracted. Former Treasurer Peter Costello falsely claims that ‘sex charges have been laid against him’ in Sweden.

Names are mud, and they stick.

Just before the September election, I heard a senior representative of a major airline explain to a meeting in Sydney how transparency and openness with the public were essential for revealing problems and avoiding accidents, yet he couldn’t discern any connection between that and my support for WikiLeaks, which he was quick to dismiss as

“…a mob of hackers and anarchists.”

WIKILEAKS AND JOURNALISTS

That’s the mantra we often hear from journalists, who can be assumed to know a hacker when they see one.

In several of the journalists’ books, the pattern is similar: they begin with WikiLeaks’ humble origins, its increasingly sensational revelations and its rise to global prominence, but about half-way through the mood regularly sours. Snide accounts of Assange’s troubles in Sweden are backed up by interviews with former friends and collaborators about their fallings-out with him, claims about WikiLeaks’ dire straits and the impasse at the Embassy of Ecuador in London typically follow, with the common implication either that this Australian is an uncouth, difficult, upstart who has only himself to blame, or that he is a dangerous man who has to be stopped.

Mainstream journalists commonly seem to hate academics and authors, imagining they have limitless paid leisure for writing (and I have been all three). They appear to hate Assange even more for calling what he does ‘scientific journalism’, and for publishing scoops beyond their dreams.

WikiLeaks received more leaks in five years than all the corporate press in 30 years, according to Antony Loewenstein:

Press freedom notwithstanding, the mainstream media in the US circumscribe themselves, apparently for fear of losing the holy grail of power, access, and influence. Even though Bill Keller, editor of the New York Times, admits that exposing wrongdoing is ‘what journalists are supposed to do’, he took care to consult the US Administration in advance of publication of the WikiLeaks material, calling this ‘responsible’ behaviour. Journalists at the New York Times and at the Guardian, to whom Assange passed the warlogs, broke deals with him, distorted the stories they released in an effort to be ‘responsible’, and then turned on him personally in their books, articles, and television interviews.

Some Australians were less hostile. The Sydney Morning Herald, whose freelance journalist Philip Dorling is its channel to WikiLeaks, called Assange ‘the Ned Kelly of the Internet age’, presumably intending that as a compliment [David Leigh and Luke Harding, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, London: Guardian Books, 2011: 224].

Guy Rundle summed up for The Monthly Assange’s experiences in Sweden as

‘…a global bogan-with-a-modem coming into contact with the world’s most feminist state.’

Robert Manne, who traced Assange’s rise from his early days with Cypherpunks, said in the same edition that he and Murdoch were the most influential Australians of our era.

Clearly, neither man is always easy to get on with, but if being uncompromising has earned them derogatory labels, it has also produced results for both of them.

The negativity towards Assange of the Murdoch press, which was not fed the WikiLeaks material, is unrelenting, even while it gleefully prints leaks of its own and has hacked private phones in the UK. Journalists get awards and prominence for publishing leaks, which is their job, and this apparently justifies the means by which they get them. When journalists themselves are shown to be hackers, as several were in the News of the World scandal, they say, probably truthfully, that everyone does it and with the editors’ knowledge.

In 2009, Britain’s Daily Telegraph published the expense accounts of British MPs, together with a comment from intermediary source John Wick, saying he was dismayed at how poorly government safeguarded the privacy of the public’s information, compared to its own.

He said:

“We’ve reached the stage in society where they want to know everything about us, I think we’re entitled to know about them.” [Quoted in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency].

But when someone else claiming to be a journalist has opinions like Wick’s, the mainstream media response is very different.

At a university forum in Sydney in October, Peter Fray, a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald who is now an academic, warned students of the dangers of such rogue behavior. ‘Data journalism’ needs proper content analysis and verification, he said, implying that professional journalists are the only gatekeepers who can provide it. In contrast, he added, WikiLeaks was set up by hackers and anarchists (that label again).

He also claimed that WikiLeaks publications have dried up, apparently unaware that its recent publications include SpyFiles 3 — 249 documents from 92 global intelligence contractors, which reveal how intelligence agencies in the US are spending millions on next-generation mass surveillance technology.

Academics, on the other hand, commonly hate journalists for misrepresenting them and for deriding their work and deplore the media’s superficiality and sensationalism. Some commentators and political scientists are particularly vehement about Assange and WikiLeaks, possibly because they dare to reveal the truth, or perhaps because they challenge the accepted categories of political analysis. Others deploy sophisticated nuances, alluding to the principle of sovereignty, for example, or the secrecy that lies at the core of power, or the perennial conflict between public authority and privacy. Thus they elevate their own authority on these abstract subjects above the level of journalism and, for that matter, mere politics.

THE WIKILEAKS PARTY

Some dissociate WikiLeaks the organization from the Party.

Professor John Keane told the Sydney University gathering in October with some passion that he had been convinced, after meeting Assange in London in January 2013, that he could attract 25% of the vote. This was what a survey had told the Party founders, and their expectations were boosted by an ABC documentary and a successful national appeal by Christine Assange. Now, Professor Keane claimed, Assange’s mother had cut off all contact with the WikiLeaks Party, which he said had done a deal in Sydney with Glen Druery (the ‘Preference Whisperer’) over preferencing minor parties, while in Perth it had reneged on a deal with the Greens. The Party had ended up with less than 1% of the vote, Keane said, because of what he called a “public scandal of its own making”, over which a third of the Committee members resigned. The number one candidate on the WikiLeaks ticket in Western Australia, he said, was a serial election aspirant who had stood for and left other parties in the past, including the Greens. He had undercut a deal with WA Green Senator Scott Ludlam by preferencing an Indigenous candidate and the Nationals. The national inquiry promised by the Party into this, Keane said, was unlikely to happen. Assange, who he claimed took part only once in a national committee teleconference, should have stayed out of politics.

The public is owed the facts on this, and I don’t have all of them.

But even as a relative late-comer to the Party, it’s clear to me that some of Keane’s allegations are trivial while others are false.

No deal was done with Druery (although we might have fared better if it was) and only one of seven candidates resigned. The other Committee members who left with her all had Greens connections. An incalculable number of voters defected, but the volunteers who resigned were replaced by others before the election, and the WikiLeaks Party, in fact, received  I.24% of the vote. After the Melbourne defection, membership support actually increased in NSW. It is not the public’s business what contacts exist between Assange and his mother. The inquiry into WikiLeaks Party preference is happening.

His assertions position Keane on the Victorian side in what looks like a States’ rights conflict.

The Melbourne defectors wanted a democratically flat structure, in which all 12 Committee members had equal say. That would probably have been a first in Australian politics. Allocating preferences between so many parties is complex enough, but expecting what applies in Victoria to work equally in New South Wales, where different parties are standing, and Western Australia, where they have different levels of support, is unrealistic.

Ultimately, even in such a small party, someone has to take all views into account and make the final decisions, and that is what Assange wanted to do, as founder of the organization and its leading candidate. If he was elected and could not reach Australia by July, the second candidate in Victoria, Dr Leslie Cannold, would take his seat and lead the party in the Senate, and it was she who led the internal argument against a hierarchical structure. Assange and Cannold were, in effect, rivals for the only winnable seat.

North of the Murray, in the West and in London, the view within the Party was that the Greens saw WikiLeaks as competing for their support base, and were doing anything they could to offset it, including spreading damaging rumours that WikiLeaks’ preferences would result in the election of far right parties. So the WikiLeaks Party in those States responded by putting pragmatism before political proximity, preferencing the Greens in the electable middle third of the list below the mini-parties.

South of the Murray, Committee members who saw the Greens as allies preferenced them and others accordingly, and were outraged that the Party in the other two States did not do the same. With a system of national proportional representation, as I said at the beginning, this need not have happened: but it did. If an administrative error was made in NSW, it had no effect on the result. No right-wing parties were elected as a consequence of WikiLeaks Party preferences, although the Greens may live to regret their support of Clive Palmer.

Cynics may say Assange and his supporters didn’t care about the details, claiming that their single objective was to keep his personal cause in the public eye. Conspiracy theorists may detect a pro-Green wedge in Victoria if those members’ real aim, behind their calls for unanimity, was to divide the house so that it would fall, or to get their candidate up in Assange’s place. Certainly, the most aggressive online critique of minor parties came from the Greens in Victoria. Dispassionate analysts will eventually decide where the truth lies, though Professor Keane seems too committed to the Melbourne view to be among them.

Film-makers are as much drawn to Assange’s story as are journalists and academics, and a similarly vast gulf divides those with positive and negative positions.

In Australia, the film Underground: the Julian Assange story (Robert Connolly, 2012) dealt with Assange’s teenage activities, and how he outsmarted Australian authorities who, even then, were being urged by the US to get him. French and German documentaries about WikiLeaks also refrained from blaming the messenger.

On the other hand, Jemima Khan, who put up some of the bail for Assange, fell out with him over the documentary We Steal Secrets (Alex Gibney, 2013), which she produced. He objected strongly to the negative impression conveyed by its title, pointing out that it could create bias against defendants in pending trials. Though many wouldn’t know it, those words were used in the film by an American intelligence official to describe what his organization did.

Even more significant for Assange was the film’s suggestion that he personally persuaded then private first class Bradley Manning to pass hundreds of thousands of classified US documents to WikiLeaks, which could be grounds for a charge of espionage. Using selective quotes, the film proposes that WikiLeaks had no harm minimization strategy in releasing the warlogs. It presents Assange’s fears of extradition to the US as groundless or exaggerated. None of this is true, and interviewees have reasons of their own for saying it.

Some commonly add that Assange’s character flaws have tarnished his achievements and destroyed his organization: Assange is “not an easy person to work with”. Let us see if that, if true, is an indictable offence: in Virginia the grand jury is still at work on Assange.

By refusing to collaborate with Gibney, Assange of course left the microphone open for others to say as they liked. He did the same with a feature film, The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon, 2013), which he labelled opportunistic and hostile, a ‘geriatric snooze fest doomed for failure’.

In advance of its launch, WikiLeaks published the script of The Fifth Estate in September 2013. Assange also put out a commentary, saying the story is fictitious, one-sided, and gives undue authority to two books by people with a grudge against him. Assange is not inclined to suffer in silence, and to prevent inaccuracies being widely accepted, he lists them and dismisses each one: that he was originally a member of a cult, that he was merely imagining American surveillance of him in 2009 and 2010, that WikiLeaks was finished as an operating organization by 2010, that he advocates ‘wanton publication’ of everything governments do, and that WikiLeaks wanted maximum disclosure without regard to harm minimization in its release of the Afghanistan and Iraq warlogs and State Department cables.

The film also falsely claims that Assange’s white hair is dyed, while clearly the actor had his dyed for the role. In spite of the comical disconnect over hair, Assange and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him, have exchanged civilized letters, and have published them online.

While the US grand jury’s secret business grinds on, Assange waits for the statute of limitations in Sweden to expire in 2020, or for something else to change before then. In the meantime, American resistance to the deep state is spreading.

In mid-October four former US intelligence officials, who have all blown the whistle and been variously punished, visited Edward Snowden in Russia to present the Sam Adams award, which Assange has also received, for Integrity in Intelligence. The growing number of Americans like them includes a journalist, reporting of whose trial is gagged, another who is being prosecuted for refusing to reveal the source of his reporting on the National Security Agency (NSA), and a third who is implicated as a co-conspirator for accepting leaks from someone in the State Department. Aaron Schwartz, an internet activist, suicided in 2011, facing huge fines and long imprisonment for alleged wire fraud.

Guardian journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald were effectively exiled for reporting Snowden’s revelations, as are Snowden and WikiLeaks staffer Sarah Harrison.

All these people are saying merely what Julian Assange says: they want the rule of law restored and the surveillance state disbanded. Why is this anarchistic?

Compare the fury of American reactions to these leakers, and Manning, Assange and Snowden, with their complacent acceptance of NSA’s own interceptions of European telecommunications. Let’s face it, NSA have been hacking for years, on a much grander scale than News Corporation and with British and Australian compliance.

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