Assange returns to Australia to the resentment of hacks

July 3, 2024
US defence lawyer Barry Pollock reminds the media that the US government itself admitted that it had no evidence that anyone was harmed by WikiLeaks' publications. Photo: WikiLeaks Updates/Facebook

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, is now back in Australia, having endured the cramped digs in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for seven years to the maximum-security facilities of Britain’s Belmarsh Prison for another five.

His return, after striking a plea deal with the US Department of Justice, sees him return to a country with some of the most onerous secrecy provisions of any in the Western world.

As of January 2023, according to the Attorney-General’s Department, the Australian Commonwealth had 11 general secrecy offences in Part 5.6 of the Criminal Code, 542 specific secrecy offences across 178 federal laws and 296 non-disclosure duties, spanning 107 federal laws, criminalising the unauthorised disclosure of information by current and former employees of the Commonwealth.

Last November, the Anthony Albanese Government agreed to 11 recommendations advanced by the final report of the review of secrecy provisions.

While Labor aspired to thin back the excessive overgrowth of secrecy, old habits die hard. Suggested protections regarding press freedom and individuals providing information to royal commissions will hardly instil confidence.

With that background, it is unsurprising that Assange’s return, while delighting his family, supporters and free press advocates, has stirred the resentment of the national security establishment, Fourth Estate crawlers and any number of journalistic sell-outs.

Damn it, Assange’s detractors seem to say: he transformed journalism, stole away our self-censorship, exposed readers to the original classified text and let the public decide for itself how to react to disclosures revealing the systemic abuse of power.

Minimal editorialising allowing for maximum textual interpretation by citizens is a terrifying prospect for governments. 

Given that the Australian media establishment is distastefully comfortable with politicians — the ABC, for instance, has a reporting bureau in Parliament House — Assange’s return has brought much agitation.

The Canberra press corps earn their crust in a perversely symbiotic and often uncritical relationship with the political establishment, that furnishes them with rationed morsels of information.

The last thing they want is an Assange scuppering such a neat understanding.

Let’s wade through the venom.

Phillip Coorey of the Australian Financial Review proved provincially ignorant about WikiLeaks: “I have never been able to make up my mind about Assange”.

Given that his profession benefits from leaks, whistleblowing and the exposure of abuses, one wonders what he is doing in it.

Assange has, after all, been convicted under the US Espionage Act of 1917 for engaging in that very activity, a matter that should give Coorey pause for outrage.

For Coorey, another parallel was more appropriate: “The release of Julian Assange has closer parallels to that of David Hicks 17 years ago, who like Assange, was deemed to have broken American law while not in that country, and which eventually involved a US president cutting a favour for an Australian prime minister.” 

Hicks’ case remains a ghastly reminder of Australian diplomatic and legal cowardice.

Coorey is only right in that both cases feature US imperium keen on breaking a few skulls in its quest to make the world “safe” for Washington.

The military commissions, of which Hicks was a victim, were created during the global “War on Terror”, pursuant to presidential military order.

Intended to try non-US citizens suspected of terrorism held at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, they were farcical exercises of executive power, a fact pointed out by the US Supreme Court in 2006.

It took Congressional authorisation via the Military Commissions Act in 2009 to spare them.

Peter Hartcher, international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, was similarly uninterested in what Assange exposed.

For him the publisher’s return was the moment “Assangeism came into plain view”. He had no stomach for “the cult”.

He also wondered, perversely, whether Assange could “use his global celebrity status to campaign for public interest journalism and human rights”.

To do so, he said, Assange would have to “fundamentally” alter “his ways to advance the cause”.

This was the prelude for Hartcher to take the hatchet to the journalistic exploits of a man more decorated with journalism awards that many in the Canberra gallery combined.

The claim that Assange is “a journalist is hotly contested by actual journalists,” Hartcher said.

Despite the US government conceding that the disclosures by WikiLeaks had not resulted in harm to US sources, “there were many other victims of Assange’s project”.

The returned publisher, he said, was only in Australia “on probation”, a signal that the media establishment may continue their efforts to badger him into treacherous conformity.

This was too mild for another hack, Michael Ware, who had previously worked for Time Magazine and CNN. He thought Assange “a traitor in the sense that, during a time of war, when we had American, British and Australian troops in the field, under fire, Julian Assange published troves of unredacted documents”.

Never mind truth to power; in Ware’s world, veracity is subordinate to it, even in an illegal war. What he calls “methods” and “methodology” cannot be exposed.

Such gutter journalism has its necessary cognate in gutter politics.

All information was threatening, unless appropriately “handled”.  Simon Birmingham, leader of the Opposition in the Senate, found it “completely unnecessary and totally inappropriate for Julian Assange to be greeted like some homecoming hero by the Australian Prime Minister”.

Chorusing with hacks Coorey, Hartcher and Ware, Birmingham repeated the same distortions: that Assange had published half a million documents “without having read them, curated them, checked to see if there was anything that could be damaging or risking the lives of others there.”

Dennis Richardson, former domestic intelligence chief and revolving door specialist, similarly found it inexplicable that the PM contacted Assange with a note of congratulation. “I can think of no other reason why a prime minister would ring Assange on his return to Australia except for purposes relating to politics,” Richardson moaned to the Guardian Australia.

For Richardson, Assange had been legitimately convicted, even if it was achieved via that most notorious of mechanisms — the plea deal.

Sharp eyes will be trained on Assange, however long he wishes to stay in Australia.

He is in the bosom of the Five Eyes Alliance, permanently threatened by the prospect of recall and renewed interest by Washington.

And there are dozens of journalists, indifferent to the dangers the entire effort against the publisher augurs, for their own craft, wishing that to be the case.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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