Biggest moments of 2011 #15 Publish and be damned
With the strange exception of the Walkley Award judges, many people and media organisations revised their assessment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange over the past 12 months.
Assange shot to prominence last year with the explosive release of secret government documents from around the world, many of which revealed stories which were wholly in the public interest. They ranged from high level diplomatic assessments of foreign governments, to the more titillating but fascinating snippets of info which shed light on the personalities of world leaders. In the domestic setting we learned some interesting facts about our own government.
We learned that, as Prime Minister, the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd was of the view that Australia and its chief ally the US should prepare for the possibility of a war against China.
We also learned that MPs such as the so-called faceless man Mark Arbib was fond of spending his time briefing the American Embassy about the latest goings-on with the Labor leadership.
Assange was already becoming something of a transparency hero. His legend status appeared to be cemented when Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused him of being irresponsible and possibly criminal, both in his manner of obtaining and then releasing information. Many members of the public disagreed, as did the mainstream media, which saw no material difference between Assange’s release of information and the type of journalism driven by whistle-blowers and anonymous leaks. He became a free speech hero and in Australia a group of editors, this one included, signed a public statement defending Wikileaks.
What happened next?
It soon became apparent that, unlike the mainstream media, Assange’s operation had absolutely no regard for the consequences of publication and no intention of trying to shield the identities of people who could be placed at risk.
There had been some criticisms over Wikileaks’ unfettered release of some 80,000 US military cables in 2010 about the war in Afghanistan. This year 250,000 new cables were released, many of them including the names and even the addresses of Afghani civilians who had been informing against the Taliban.
The stock and trade of diplomacy – the ability to relay national assessments in secret to your home nation – was turned on its head with the release of classified cables from across the world. Diplomats were suspended or expelled from countries such as Mexico, where leaked cables had revealed US alarm at the Mexican Army’s complicity or ambivalence over the drug war.
The five newspapers which had been collaborating with Wikileaks on the release of the cables - Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, the Guardian and the New York Times – suspended publication and ran editorials denouncing Assange’s recklessness.
In the background, Assange remains the subject of an extradition attempt by Sweden over his alleged sexual assault of two Swedish women. With no knowledge of the facts, Assange’s supporters have hailed the case as a politically-motivated stitch-up, and his critics have been just as blasé, saying it proves that the guy is no good. Nothing at all has been proven yet in the case.
What we learned
On a personal level, that while it might be trendy and faddish to posture as a free speech purist, and sign a self-important public communiqué, you might end up looking like a bit of a dill when it turns out the person you’re supporting is a reckless nut.
How The Punch covered it
Brilliantly, thanks to Joe Hildebrand, who had dinner at his share house with a funny looking pale guy called Julian a few years ago, who told the guests that he intended to amass an unprecedented collection of diplomatic and defence cables and strike a death blow to the military-industrial complex. As if!
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