Collateral Damage – WikiLeaks In The Crosshairs

The horrific killing of six people in Arizona, and the wounding of a dozen more, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, generated a wave of discussion on the impact of violent political rhetoric. A leading article in The Times commented:

“American politics has a strain of mean-spiritedness that, when it connects to disturbed individuals, can have terrible consequences.”

True enough, although Britain certainly has its own “strain of mean-spiritedness”. It is possible to disagree with others “in a reasonable way”, The Times observed, without giving “unintended succour to those on the fringes who harbour extreme views and even worse methods”. (Leading article, ‘A Mean Spirit,’ The Times, January 10, 2011)

In August 2002, Times journalist Michael Gove – variously, the paper’s comment, news, Saturday and assistant editor – wrote:

“We have no alternative but to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq to prevent Saddam completing his drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Massive military force must be deployed to remove Saddam’s regime.” (Gove, ‘We need Bush and not Saddam calling the shots,’ The Times, August 28, 2002)

Gove suffered no ill effects from this expression of “extreme views and even worse methods” – he is now Secretary of State for Education.

In January 2003, also gunning for war, David Aaronovitch wrote in the Guardian:

“If I were an Iraqi, living under probably the most violent and repressive regime in the world, I would desire Saddam’s demise more than anything else. Or do we suppose that some nations and races cannot somehow cope with freedom?”

Again, extremism was given no “unintended succour” – later that year, the judges of the 2003 What the Papers Say awards made Aaronovitch columnist of the year, commenting:

“At a time when most left-leaning commentators were opposing the war in Iraq, he took a brave and consistent stand, presenting the case for action in the most coherent and persuasive manner.”

Speech that incites violence against individuals at home is unacceptable. Speech that incites mass death and destruction against entire nations is met with indifference, and/or high office and awards!

In Mediaspeak, the word ‘violence’ actually refers to crimes committed by the ‘bad guys’ against the ‘good guys’, ‘us’. ‘We’ do not commit violence, ‘we’ deploy ‘assets’ to ‘neutralise’ ‘targets’. ‘We’ ‘intervene’ to bring ‘security’ and ‘humanitarian relief’.

Because ‘we’ don’t commit violence, it is fine for ‘us’ to non-violently kill ‘our’ enemies. Thus, columnist Jeffrey T Kuhner wrote in the Washington Times last month:

“We should treat Mr Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him.”

William Kristol, former chief of staff to vice president Dan Quayle, pleaded:

“Why can’t we act forcefully against WikiLeaks? Why can’t we use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators, wherever they are? Why can’t we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible?”

The net hosts numerous articles with titles like ‘5 Reasons The CIA Should Have Already Killed Julian Assange.’

On the BBC website, Matt Frei praised Barack Obama’s mollifying response to the Arizona massacre:

“The president kept it personal and poignant. He reined in the attack dogs on all sides and called for a more civil, gentle tone. The tragedy has allowed him to play the role of consoler-in-chief with conviction.”

Perhaps not on all sides. The “consoler-in-chief” had nothing to say about the crosshairs hovering over Julian Assange. 

Of Wikiblokesphere And Lying Feminist Slags

Responding to the killings in the Independent, Joan Smith lamented the state of political debate, recalling “a concept I’m very keen on but haven’t heard much in recent years: civility”. The abuse is rampant:

“Among the online-abuse community, it’s beyond question that Julian Assange’s accusers are lying feminist slags.”

There was precious little civility in this ugly distortion. If a minority of bigots do perceive Assange’s accusers this way, they have not been contributing to the rational, awesomely well-informed discussions we have seen.

John Pilger has commented on the playing of what might be called ‘the feminist card’ in the WikiLeaks debate. The gambit has form. In December 2007, we found that, over the previous 12 years, the terms ‘Taliban’ and ‘women’s rights’ had been mentioned in 56 Guardian articles. Of these, 36 had appeared after the September 11, 2001 attacks. As Pilger noted last month in the New Statesman:

“The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was supported by leading feminists, especially in the US, where Hillary Clinton and other false tribunes of feminism made the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women the rationale for attacking a stricken country and causing the deaths of at least 20,000 people while giving the Taliban new life.”

Something similar is happening now, Pilger writes, “as a group of media feminists joins the assault on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks… From the Times to the New Statesman, apparent feminist credence is given to the chaotic, incompetent and contradictory accusations against Assange in Sweden”.

Some of the worst examples have appeared in the Guardian, one of WikiLeaks’ “media partners”. Libby Brooks identifies an “unlikely alliance between leftwingers and the misogynists of the Wikiblokesphere,” which has seen them “indulge in the basest slut-shaming and misogyny”.

Again, if this is true somewhere, it is not true of serious, left online debate, where words like “slut” are simply abhorred. In a similarly one-sided Guardian report, Amelia Gentleman quoted Swedish tabloid journalist Oisin Cantwell, who argued, quite outrageously, that the “celebrity support for Assange was similar to the support offered by Hollywood stars to Roman Polanski when he was arrested last year, accused of raping a 13-year-old…”

Nick Davies, the leading Guardian reporter who originally organised the Guardian-WikiLeaks partnership with Assange, before the two sides fell out, wrote a piece titled: ’10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange.’

This included salacious tidbits such as:

“Another friend told police that during the evening Miss A told her she had had ‘the worst sex ever’ with Assange: ‘Not only had it been the world’s worst screw, it had also been violent.'”


“Police spoke to Miss W’s ex-boyfriend, who told them that in two and a half years they had never had sex without a condom because it was ‘unthinkable’ for her.”

Bianca Jagger noted in Huffington Post that Davies had published “selective passages from the Swedish police report, whilst omitting exculpatory evidence contained in the document”.

Assange was, Jagger wrote, being “subjected to a ‘trial by newspapers,’ in an effort to discredit him”.

Assange’s former barrister James Catlin commented:

“The complete absence of due process is the story and Davies ignores it. Why does due process matter? Because the massive powers of two arms of government are being brought to bear against the individual whose liberty and reputation are at stake.”

With “media partners” like these, WikiLeaks hardly needs enemies. 

Blood On The Guardian’s Hands?

Worse was to come from the Guardian. On December 27, Africa correspondent David Smith reported:

“Zimbabwe is to investigate bringing treason charges against the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and other individuals over confidential talks with US diplomats revealed by WikiLeaks.”

Treason charges could mean the death penalty, which, one would guess from this article, could mean blood on WikiLeaks’ hands.

One week later, on January 3, James Richardson, an “account services director for Hynes Communications”, wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian claiming: “now, with the recent release of sensitive diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder, upending the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and signing the death warrant of its pro-western premier…”

WikiLeaks, Richardson argued, should just shut up:

“Before more political carnage is wrought and more blood spilled – in Africa and elsewhere, with special concern for those US-sympathising Afghans fingered in its last war document dump – WikiLeaks ought to leave international relations to those who understand it – at least to those who understand the value of a life.”

Political analyst Glenn Greenwald commented on Salon:

“There was just one small problem with all of this: it was totally false. It wasn’t WikiLeaks which chose that cable to be placed into the public domain, nor was it WikiLeaks which first published it. It was The Guardian that did that.”

In fact the Guardian decided to publish the cable about Tsvangirai, not WikiLeaks, which only published the leak after the Guardian had done so.

The reaction in the US press was predictable enough. An article in the Wall Street Journal was titled, ‘Julian Assange’s reckless behavior could cost Zimbabwe’s leading democrat his life.’ Who was to blame? “Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.” A piece in the Atlantic observed: “WikiLeaks released [this cable] to the world” and so “provided a tyrant with the ammunition to wound, and perhaps kill, any chance for multiparty democracy”. (Ibid.)

Responding to criticism, the Guardian amended Richardson’s opinion piece, noting:

“This article was amended on 11 January 2011 to clarify the fact that the 2009 cable referred to in this article was placed in the public domain by the Guardian, and not as originally implied by WikiLeaks.”

The Guardian’s deputy editor, Ian Katz, worked hard to explain why David Smith had reported that WikiLeaks, rather than the Guardian, had published the Tsvangirai cable. Katz wrote: “it would be fair to describe us as joint publishers of any cables we have selected, with joint responsibility for any consequences of their release”. Using the WikiLeaks name was “a piece of widely understood journalistic shorthand. The material was routinely referred to as a ‘WikiLeaks revelation'”.

If the term “WikiLeaks revelation” is “shorthand” that is “widely understood” to refer to the Guardian’s status as joint publishers with WikiLeaks, why did David Smith not turn to his own editor for comment on the Guardian’s shared responsibility in the news piece reporting that Morgan Tsvangirai faced a treason inquiry? Has any Guardian journalist ever turned to the Guardian editor for comment on allegations that the Guardian-WikiLeaks partnership had endangered life? We asked Ian Katz on Twitter but he failed to reply. It seems clear that the Guardian has not rushed to advertise its shared responsibility – we suspect it will be news to many people.

The crucial point, in light of the Guardian’s amendments, is that mainstream media outlets have shown flat zero interest in accusing the Guardian of having blood on its hands for publishing the Tsvangirai cable. But why? There is only one explanation: the earlier media outrage was motivated, not by a desire to protect life in Zimbabwe, but by a desire to demonise and destroy Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

A related propaganda theme is that WikiLeaks has recklessly “dumped” a “flood” of diplomatic cables on the web, so endangering lives. Arch-war monger John Bolton wrote in the Guardian:

“WikiLeaks has yet again flooded the internet with thousands of classified American documents, this time state department cables” which was the “third document dump.”

The Daily Mail reported: “Then this week he [Assange] disclosed around 250,000 cables from U.S. embassies, many containing sensitive information.”

This, also, is nonsense. In reality, WikiLeaks has, so far, slowly and carefully released only about 2,000 documents in close cooperation with its media partners.

Greenwald explains the rationale behind the selective outrage and false claims:

“To justify this assault, the U.S. Government needs to claim that WikiLeaks is somehow distinct from what other press outlets do. So it invents outright falsehoods to do so: unlike newspapers, WikiLeaks indiscriminately dumps diplomatic cables without editorial judgment; unlike newspapers, they refuse to be transparent about their methods (nobody is less transparent about what they do than large newspapers); and now, WikiLeaks endangers people’s lives by recklessly publishing a cable which leaves democratic leaders in Zimbabwe vulnerable to attack, even though it wasn’t published by them at all, but by The Guardian.”

Once again, the mainstream media has distorted and deceived to manufacture, isolate and target a ‘threat’ for destruction. Certainly WikiLeaks is embarrassing the powers that be much more effectively than mainstream journalism. But mainstream outlets also publish government leaks, including ‘Top Secret’ information, which the diplomatic cables are not. Assange is a journalist and he is engaging in journalistic activity. The “collateral damage” of his destruction might well involve the freedoms enjoyed by the very journalists currently seeking that outcome.


Suggested Action

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to:

Ian Katz at the Guardian

Email: [email protected]


Nick Davies

Email: [email protected]


Libby Brooks

Email: [email protected]


Amelia Gentleman

Email: [email protected]


Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:

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