Where’s Wikileaks in the celebrity circus?
Julian Assange repeatedly said that is the car accidents not the bus accidents of war that have resulted in the massive numbers of civilian casualties revealed by the Afghanistan and Iraq War Diaries in 2010.
Now it’s the media circus around the comparatively pedestrian accident of his legal situation that is drawing global attention away from Wikileaks and the revelations it has made.
Malcolm Turnbull was right when he said that Prime Minister Julia Gillard should not have jumped on what he called a “media frenzy” in describing Assange as a criminal when it had not been established that he broke Australian law.
Political point-scoring aside, Turnbull was also right to talk about the implications of the internet for governments and whistleblowers alike.
The point he didn’t make, however, is how the media focus on Assange, and more recently the treatment in detention of Bradley Manning, distracts from bigger issues.
In our celebrity saturated world no brand is without its spokesperson and no global issue is without its celebrity endorsement: human rights has Brangelina, global warming has Al Gore, Leonardo Di Caprio and Prince Charles, and PETA and animal rights have Lady Gaga.
High profile people draw attention to the issues they believe in, but the creation of a celebrity – as has happened with Assange and Bradley Manning – can be equally used to take attention away from a difficult question.
Assange had always been an elusive figure with no fixed address, appearing for press conferences at some times, and releasing statements online at others. The accusations of rape made against him in Sweden, and the subsequent extradition proceedings in London focused more attention on him.
The regular court appearances made for continual events where coverage concentrated more and more on his possible fate. But like or loathe him, Assange’s actions and alleged actions raise issues that are bigger than his personal morals, that are bigger than he is entirely.
Assange and his fate still make headline news. Other Wikileaks celebrities have joined him. First was Bradley Manning who is accused of leaking secret material and whose treatment has been widely criticised. Second was P.J. Crowley, former US Assistant Secretary of State who resigned earlier this month because he was one of those critical voices.
He was recently quoted saying he did not regret his remarks but didn’t “necessarily think the controversy would go as far as it did”. As the media mouth-piece of the State Department he should have recognised that the celebrity-obsessed market would delight in having a high-profile figure the story of Manning’s mistreatment could be attached to.
The challenges raised by Wikileaks are not only for governments but for society as a whole. The core issue is one of control of information: who has it and who should have it? How much can and should a government keep hidden from its citizens and the rest of the world? What are the rights and responsibilities of those who find themselves with access to secret information they think should be known to the public? What of the actual material in the Cablegate documents? What is the gap between officialdom’s public statements and secret actions?
The motivations and morals of whistleblowers are, as Turnbull pointed out, questions that the public has a right and a reason to be interested in. But when they become the headlines we are losing out on our chance to scrutinise issues that are more important.
Ad hominem attacks on individuals are a staple of political life and reporting; taking on a person not a policy is an easy way to score cheap points.
The US government’s much publicised determination to pursue anyone it can possibly blame for leaking classified information is a red flag to the bull of public opinion, drawing attention away from its own failures and misdeeds. The more Assange and Manning are made into celebrities the less attention is paid to anything else.
None of the really important questions are answered, discussed, or even asked when the sole focus is on an individual, be it Assange or Manning or Crowley.
The Cablegate data dump answered a lot of questions about who said what and then put it in writing. The questions it raised, however, can’t be answered by making celebrities out of the people who asked them in the first place.
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