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Assange has shaken up media universe

January, 2011

The Wikileaks revelations indicate a sea-change in the three-way relationship between power, information and the masses, writes ANGELA LONG

The story of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks revelations was manna from heaven for mainstream media at the end of 2010, during the notoriously fallow ‘silly season’. Not only was there news, but there was hot and strong news. One titillating revelation followed another, interspersed with more serious issues such as North Korea’s military preparedness. The overriding and delicious theme was revelation of what the powerful and privileged said and thought when they were not concealed in the cloak of correctness, or diplomatic euphemism and political non-speak. A lot of the revelations, as some commentators pointed out, fell into the characterization of ‘is the Pope a Catholic?’ Attitudes or antipathies we could easily have guessed were fleshed out by actual diplomatic cables.

Two features made the Wikileaks revelations important, even earth-shaking:
They were all true, undeniable, and in context, although many were opinions.
They shattered the myth that the press is there to reveal, and not take part in a cosy cartel conspiracy with the establishment.
And, to a lesser extent, Assange and his works have challenged the notions of privacy as they apply to journalistic ethics.
The Wikileaks cables, around a quarter of a million despatches, were all communications which came within the view of the US government, and nobody has challenged their provenance or accuracy. This in itself is glorious – no politician, caught out in the previously unthinkable pursuit of speaking his mind, could claim he was ‘misquoted’ or his words used ‘out of context’. What is non-contextual about declaring that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ‘like Hitler’ – or revealing a report that a senior official slapped him in the face at a meeting?
Both of these stories come within the remit of gossipy but interesting news, and possible straws in the wind about a world leader who is a thorn in the side of many – and leads a country of 72 million.
But setting aside the actualities of the words and events that Wikileaks (and original leaker Bradley Manning, whose fate should never be overlooked in this), what is truly revolutionary in all the torrent of embarrassing info was the change it signified in the relationship between the powerful information generators and withholders, and the mass public.
Assange describes himself as a journalist. His background shows no training in news writing and presentation – and this is a lack, for it is a skill. But the meaning of the journalist in society has gone in the past century from a polite recorder and interviewer of the famous, to muck-rakers and lift-lidders, to tame lapdogs and voicepieces for public relations and publicity-hungry ‘entertainers’ of various types. There are honourable exceptions to this picture, sometimes in a whole career, such as John Pilger, who rushed to the assistance of Assange when the handcuffs were laid on. But Assange is scarcely a Pilger, putting himself in the immediate picture of human rights catastrophes from Cambodia to Timor.
Assange has done some serious things, but he appears to be in danger of taking himself a little too seriously. Being martyred can do this to a guy. But it is more what he represents in a paradigm shift, than any individual piece of news he has released, that is significant.
The internet is still in its infancy. We don’t really know how to use it yet, how to harness it, if it is indeed possible to ride the wind of ubiquitous and bottomless content. Policing its content and communication is like herding cats. Only the Chinese authorities have taken a proper crack at it, and with limited success. Assange has pointed up how meaningless and futile it is for governments and large corporations – the powerful and the rich – to try to maintain the entirety of their advantage in a world of free speech. Will the internet become ‘tiered’? – British Telecom is proposing a special delivery service to some clients, and the question of net neutrality will become increasingly vexed in the first years of this decade. Shall the nasty great unwashed become shut out of a first-class lounge of internet users, where frequent fliers like the US government can channel their diplomats comments about troublesome world leaders?
Assange has cocked a snook at the large, traditional media organizations. Many of them are corrupt (hello, Mr Murdoch) and deserve to be purged of practice and individuals. It was instructive to note that there was no threat to jail the editors of the New York Times or The Guardian for publishing all the Wikileaks material, although arguably the cables might have never reached even a millionth of their audience if these large and important newspapers had not published. Look for the little guy, and smear him, preferably sexually. Roger Casement – who exposed the hideous practices of the Belgians in the Congo a hundred years ago – you know the story well.
And we all know the Wikileaks story. Will it run and run?

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