They were conspicuous by their glum silence maintained for more than a decade. Professionally degrading, the press thus embarrassed will wish the incident best forgotten.
When big media outlets deliberately ignore the obvious, only to make a belated acknowledgement, credibility of the general media landscape sinks. Professional lapses in news channels give audiences the exacting task of finding out what is what. Being informed on current affairs becomes a complicated proposition.
In a stinging rebuke, Australian journalist and documentary maker John Pilgeris is disgusted by the news media these days. Citing the Ukrainian war and information flowing from the United States, the London-based journalist rues: “Nothing is to be believed. ... so much tsunami of jingoism.”
The Australian-born WikiLeaks Publisher/editor Julian Assange has emerged as a living media martyr, hounded and prosecuted by the governments of at least two major world powers, the United Kingdom and the United States. His “crime”? On October 22, 2010, his agency published leaked documents based on nearly 400,000 US Army field reports on the 2004-9 Iraq War. It also disclosed files recording 66,081 civilian deaths, though many other sources claim that at least 500,000 civilians had been killed in the war.
Five prominent news outlets, originating in different countries engaged themselves in publishing a series of revelations in cooperation with Wikileaks. The stories made international news headlines that came to be known as “Cable gate”. Corruption and diplomatic scandals were part of one of the biggest news scoops in the post-World War II decades.
Feeling the heat of the embarrassment it would suffer domestically and internationally, the US government sought to punish the publisher of Washington’s highly sensitive “classified documents”.
The fierce fury with which the governments sought to dilute the impact of the revelations apparently did not leave unscathed even the media hailed as highly influential in their countries. Some of them were the first to lap up the WikiLeaks revelations, winning large scale audience attention span. Their subsequent method of news angling the Assange story exposed a reprehensive conduct under the weight of pressures applied by their publishers. They distanced themselves from the Australian-born media publisher.
In less than a month after collaborating with WikiLeaks, Britain’s Guardian snapped off ties with it and launched a massive smear campaign against Assange.
Twelve years after they all published with great fervour the massive series of disclosures, the editors and publishers of the five news media made a joint appeal last month to the US government for ending its prosecution of Assange for publishing state secrets that exposed US war crimes.
In a joint open letter last month, the bigwigs of the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel asked the US President Joe Biden to halt prosecuting the WikiLeaks publisher. The faltering five admitted that Assange’s story “disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale”.
Inevitably, the logical question is what took them so long to break their deafeningly unprofessional silence.
Forced to seek refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange was arrested and subjected to solitary confinement in 2010. All along, however, the five prominent members of the press remained conspicuously silent over the persistence with which the British and the US governments pursued and prosecuted him.
Moreover, they gave regular and extensive coverage to official briefings in London and Washington on charges against Assange. The official design was to manipulate the media for creating doubts in the public regarding Assange’s stance and credibility.
Apparently, the governments belatedly realised the contrasting methods of applying legal search in their quest for avenging the Assange disclosures. While Assange was persecuted, the five media houses that collaborated with him in publishing the leaked documents have been left unscathed.
At long last, the publications have acknowledged that the material published by Assange was of vital public interest and importance, noting that what he released “disclosed corruption, diplomatic scandals and spy affairs on an international scale”.
The intriguing part is as to why, after all these years, have the meek five decided in a concerted move to make a volte face? They know very well that history will not treat them well over their conduct in the post-WikiLeaks disclosure years.
Perhaps they have been tipped off about a London-Washington scheme to get over with the Assange affair and put an end to the damage the case has caused to the credibility of the UK and the US governments whenever they sound the rhetoric of press freedom. Assange’s extradition to the US and subsequent trial in the court of law would cause more harm while the case would be dismissed by a growing number of free speech champions as a shop trial.
Once the big bosses decided to get rid of the case, they would be keen to aid in the damage control for the media outlets that more often than not chorus in unison when it comes to presenting international issues of Western concern. This way the media could hope for relief from the daily grind of embarrassment they had to undergo whenever anyone said or did anything concerning Assange and the WikiLeaks.
It would not be surprising if the case against Assange were allowed to fizzle out in the foreseeable future. A state reprieve could be an option. The way out taken for winding up the case should be of mundane interest. Such an end would be welcome but it would in no way absolve the murky sides of governments and news outlets involved in the shameful episode.
Placed in a high security British prison after being arrested in April 2019 in response to a US arrest warrant, Assange shares space with terrorists and individuals associated with organised crime. Washington wanted his extradition to the US and have him face criminal charges. If convicted, he faces up to 175 years in prison.
If consequences against free expressions are reviewed, voices of authority would be more detailed in depth and dimension. Shadowing, sidelining or ostracising the messenger to discourage him or her from speaking truth bodes ill for any democracy. When the media investigate and produce reports based on facts and truth, history records them as a seminal moment.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)