“Journalists don’t like WikiLeaks”, Hugo Rifkind notes in The Times, but “the people who comment online under articles do… Maybe you’ve noticed, and been wondering why. I certainly have.” (Hugo Rifkind Notebook, ‘Remind me. It’s the red one I mustn’t press, right?,’ The Times, October 26, 2010)
Rifkind is right. The internet has revealed a chasm separating the corporate media from readers and viewers. Previously, the divide was hidden by the simple fact that Rifkind’s journalists – described accurately by Peter Wilby as the “unskilled middle class” – monopolised the means of mass communication. Dissent was restricted to a few lonely lines on the letter’s page, if that. Readers were free to vote with their notes and coins, of course. But in reality, when it comes to the mainstream media, the public has always been free to choose any colour it likes, so long as it’s corporate ‘black’. The internet is beginning to offer some brighter colours.
If Rifkind is confused, answers can be found between the lines of his own analysis:
“With WikiLeaks, with the internet at large, power is democratised, but responsibility remains the preserve of professionals.”
This echoes Lord Castlereagh’s insistence that “persons exercising the power of the press” should be “men of some respectability and property”. (Quoted, James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility – The Press And Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.13)
And it is with exactly this version of “responsibility” that non-corporate commentators are utterly fed up. We are, for example, tired of the way even the most courageous individuals challenging even the most appalling crimes of state are smeared as “irresponsible”.
Thus, Rifkind describes WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as “a frighteningly amoral figure”. In truth, journalists find Assange a frighteningly moral figure. Someone willing to make an enemy of the world’s leading rogue state in order to expose the truth about the horrors it has inflicted on Afghanistan and Iraq is frightening to the compromised, semi-autonomous employees of corporate power. Assange’s courage is the antidote to their poison.
A separate Times editorial comments:
“Nowhere in WikiLeaks’s self-serving self publicity is there a judgment of what the organisation is achieving for the Iraqi nation, and what it hopes to achieve… Its personnel are partisans intervening in the security affairs of Western democracies and their allies, with a culpable heedlessness of human life.” (Leader, ‘Exercise in Sanctimony; The release of military files by WikiLeaks is partisan and irresponsible,’ The Times, October 25, 2010)
Again, the truth is reversed – it is The Times, together with virtually the entire mass media, that is notable for its “heedlessness of human life”, for its endorsement of the West’s perennial policy: attack, bomb, invade, torture, kill based on any crass pretext that can be got past the public. As WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson politely told the WSWS website this week:
“The media is getting much too close to the military industry. They are not following the changing moods of the general public who are increasingly opposed to the wars.”
In the Daily Mail, Edward Heathcoat-Amory’s article raised the important question:
“Paranoid, anarchic. Is WikiLeaks boss a force for good or chaos?”
After all, “The Wikileaks supremo lives a bizarre peripatetic life, with no house and few belongings…” He also has “disciples” whom “he ruthlessly manipulates”.
As for Assange’s motivation: “His critics says he’s motivated by a desire for personal publicity.”
Like Rifkind, Heathcoat-Amory is appalled by Assange’s lack of “ethical judgments”, his “cult of secrecy, with no accountability to anyone”. Lack of accountability can indeed be a problem. Heathcoat-Amory, it should be mentioned, is of the Heathcoat-Amory Baronetcy, whose humble “family seat” was at Knightshayes Court in Tiverton, Devon.
In The Times, passionately pro-Iraq war commentator David Aaronovitch recalls the main theme of his questions to Assange: “from where did WikiLeaks derive its authority and to whom was it accountable”. And from where exactly does The Times derive its authority? To whom is it responsible? Its advertisers? Rupert Murdoch? Aaronovitch continued:
“And this is where something strange happened. Questioners wanted to know from Assange just how he and his team decided which documents to publish, which to redact, which to leave unpublished… Not only would Assange not answer these questions, it was almost as though he regarded them as illegitimate… I could tell that the overwhelming reaction was surprise at Assange’s refusal to engage in any discussion about himself as anything other than an uncaped crusader.” (Aaronovitch, ‘Enigmatic WikiLeaks chief keeps his guard up,’ The Times, October 2, 2010)
Strange indeed, because in fact Assange has addressed these questions numerous times (See here for a recent example: ). Aaronovitch focused on Assange’s jacket, his shirt, his shoes – “incredibly long and pointy black winkle pickers”. The very fact of the focus suggested something was not quite right. The unsubtle implication: Assange was unsavoury, strange, sinister.
A Daily Mail reporter described Assange as “somewhat bizarre-looking”.
An Independent news report referred to the “sometimes erratic behaviour of Wikileaks’ founder”. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/online/secret-war-at-the-heart-of-wikileaks-2115637.html)
In an interview with ABC News (Australia), the Independent’s Robert Fisk derided Assange as “some strange code-breaker from Australia”.
Dan Jones wrote in the Evening Standard: “Assange is slippery. He is a master of the moral non sequitur… Do we really want the definition of what constitutes the public interest resting in the hands of a highly politicised neo-anarchist like Assange?” (Jones, ’There are limits to the freedom of the internet,’ Evening Standard, August 2, 2010)
Again, the level of self-awareness hovered around zero.
The Daily Telegraph observed: “the publication of classified documents risks endangering the lives of both soldiers and those who collaborate with them.”
Failure to publish the documents risks the lives of the inevitable next target of the US-UK killing machine in Iran, or Yemen, or Syria, or Venezuela. At this point, the only people capable of stopping the “coalition” is the public they are supposed to represent.
The New York Times’ Hit Piece
In the United States, the same and worse has been pouring out of the media. Assange “moves like a hunted man” around “London’s rundown Paddington district”, John Burns writes feverishly in the New York Times, having apparently not tried to rent or buy in Paddington recently. He notes of Assange:
“He demands that his dwindling number of loyalists use expensive encrypted cellphones…”. He has made “a remarkable journey to notoriety” and has recently made “his most brazen disclosure yet”. “Now it is not just governments that denounce him: some of his own comrades are abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.” Assange has “come a long way from an unsettled childhood in Australia as a self-acknowledged social misfit”. He now “pursues his fugitive’s life, his leadership is enforced over the Internet. Even remotely, his style is imperious…” (John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, ‘WikiLeaks Chief on Run, Trailed by His Notoriety,’ New York Times, October 23, 2010; )
The New York Times afforded the same treatment to Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old army private suspected of supplying the classified documents to WikiLeaks. The newspaper described how “classmates made fun of him for being a geek”. Later, “classmates made fun of him for being gay”. Manning’s partner was “a self-described drag queen”. People who knew Manning offered insights into his early life and “how he came to be so troubled”. At school, Manning “was clearly different from most of his peers” – former students remembered him “being teased for all sort of reasons”. In case readers had lost focus wading through this appalling smear, the Times told them again that Manning’s partner had described himself as a “draq queen”.
What could Manning’s motivation possibly have been for leaking evidence of thousands of unreported civilian deaths and many hundreds of examples of torture? Some of Manning’s friends “say they wonder whether his desperation for acceptance — or delusions of grandeur — may have led him to disclose the largest trove of government secrets since the Pentagon Papers”.
This reads like a parody of Soviet-era propaganda in the days when dissidents were carted off to mental hospitals. As Assange has said, the article “removed all higher-level political motivations from him and psychoanalyzed him down to problems in his childhood and a demand for attention”.
Writing for the Salon website, media analyst Glenn Greenwald describes Burns’ piece on Assange as “one of the sleaziest, most vicious hit pieces seen in The New York Times in quite some time.”
Greenwald adds a crucial point:
“This kind of character smear (‘he’s not in his right mind,’ pronounced a 25-year-old who sort of knows him) is reserved for people who don’t matter in the world of establishment journalists – i.e., people without power or standing in Washington and, especially, those whom American Government authorities scorn. In official Washington, Assange is a contemptible loser – the Pentagon hates him and wants him destroyed, and therefore the ‘reporters’ who rely on, admire and identify with Pentagon officials immediately adopt that perspective – and that’s why he was the target of this type of attack.”
Burns has defended his article on Assange as “an absolutely standard journalistic endeavor that we would use with any story of similar importance in the United States…” Not quite, says Greenwald:
“If anyone doubts that, please show me any article that paper has published which trashed the mental health, psyche and personality of a high-ranking American political or military official – a Senator or a General or a President or a cabinet secretary or even a prominent lobbyist – based on quotes from disgruntled associates of theirs. That is not done, and it never would be.”
Greenwald quoted from Burns’s earlier coverage of the departure of Nato Afghan war leader General Stanley McChrystal, describing the “grave misfortune it is, considering what is lost to America in a commander as smart, resolute and as fit for purpose as General McChrystal…” With his heart on his sleeve, Burns added:
“Reporters, of course, do best when they keep their views to themselves, to retain their impartiality. But it’s safe to say that many of the men and women who have covered General McChrystal as commander if [sic] Afghanistan, or in his previous role as the top United States special forces commander, admired him, and felt at least some unease about the elements in the Rolling Stone article that ended his career.”
Media analyst Norman Solomon has noted:
“I was in Baghdad before the invasion and spoke with Burns, and he was seriously eager to have this invasion take place. And throughout the war, he constantly denounced the behavior of Iraqi insurgents without ever applying the same human rights standards to the American forces in Iraq.”
How to explain the media’s propaganda performance? Greenwald comments with rare insight and honesty:
“They receive most of their benefits – their access, their scoops, their sense of belonging, their money, their esteem – from dutifully serving that role… ‘neutrality’ means: ‘serving the interests of American political and military leaders and amplifying their perspective’.”
Readers – the same irresponsible commoners derided by Rifkind – reacted furiously to the smearing of Assange. Burns says that in his 35 years at the New York Times he cannot “recall ever having been the subject of such absolutely, relentless vituperation”. His email inbox and the comments section under his article have been flooded with criticism from readers, including a number of academics at Harvard, Yale and MIT. Some, he said, used “language that I don’t think they would use at their own dinner table”.
Ironically, last June, Burns wrote about reader reaction to his reporting of McChrystal’s resignation:
“Not for the first time, I’m struck, reading the comments and questions, by the comprehensive grasp so many of our readers… have of the issues… In an otherwise deeply dispiriting moment, that is something to celebrate: With all else that has gone wrong for America in recent years, in the wars and the economy at home, it has the enormous advantage, indispensable to the republic’s health, of a well-informed and active citizenry.”
Indeed so – well said!
The rising level of dissent really is wonderful news. It is a sign that a public empowered by the internet is beginning to seriously challenge the propaganda, lies and smears of the “responsible” media that make mass killing possible. Life will never be the same again – the Burnses, Baronets and Rifkinds are going to be challenged, tested and thwarted at every turn by ordinary readers who do not accept that truth and human life should be subordinated to privilege and power.
Part 2 can be found here.
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