Monday, November 28, 2011

Noble Mendaxity: Assange and Wikileaks win a Walkley

Julian Assange has won the Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism at this year’s Australian journalism Walkley awards – a win that labels him a journalist of the first rank. Assange won for his site Wikileaks which organisers said had a courageous and controversial commitment to the finest tradition of investigative journalism: “justice through transparency.” Walkley judges said Wikileaks applied new technology to “penetrate the inner workings of government". The payback was a global publishing coup and an avalanche of inconvenient truths.

Assange’s victory at a traditional media awards night may be a surprise, as is the fact is he is listed as a journalist at all. He has never worked for a newspaper, broadcaster or major media proprietor. Apart from the occasional contribution as a columnist or blog post, he is not even a curator of editorial content. Prior to Wikileaks, he was most famous as the underground computer hacker “Mendax”. Yet he deserves the award. As Glenn Greenwald says, Wikileaks produced more newsworthy scoops over the last year than every other media outlet combined.

It remains "Assange’s Wikileaks" as Greenwald called it and the man himself never stopped reminding people. Particularly his former co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Assange’s biggest fear was that Domscheit-Berg, who was effectively the other half of a two-man operation, would claim to be co-founder. Assange’s towering ego made him insufferably vain and uncaring but his steadfastness to a single great idea was undeniable. Wikileaks changed the relationship of whistle blowers to media forever by deliberately breaking the link between them. The reason disenchanted staff from Julius Bär bank or escapees from Scientology trusted Wikileaks, was that Wikileaks was deliberately set up so they could never track the whistle blower. This guaranteed anonymity set it apart from all classical forms of investigative journalism.

It was a shock to Assange when Bradley Manning was exposed as the Collateral Murder and Cablegate contributor. Manning was exposed not by Wikileaks, but by injudicious conversations with former hacker Adrian Lamo. Manning has always been provocative so it was inevitable he would eventually fall foul of authorities. That does not excuse his shameful treatment by the US authorities or calls from Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) for his execution.

It was the depth and scale of the information Manning donated to Wikileaks that astounded. A quarter of a million US diplomatic cables with a quarter of a billion words. Released from almost every embassy of the world, they were a snapshot of international relations at a point in time. They show what decision makers were really thinking and occasionally what they really did. The embarrassed Americans hit back by making it difficult for the non-profit to receive donations.

With such a large hoard of data at their disposal, it was natural Wikileaks would want to share it with trusted media brands. The New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel (the latter with Domscheit-Berg connections) began to publish their own spin on selected cables. The media that missed out were jealous of the chosen few and the few did not want to share with the many. The relationship quickly soured.

Assange could never fully trust anyone nor be trusted in return. His full hacker nickname “splendide mendax” means nobly untruthful and Assange felt he could get away with anything due to his higher calling. His acceptance speech to the Walkleys (delivered by video) shows he still has plenty of stomach for the fights ahead. “An unprecedented banking blockade has shown us that Visa, Mastercard, the Bank of American and Western Union are mere instruments of Washington foreign policy,” he said. “Censorship has been privatised".

Assange is paranoid but he has offended many powerful people so he has much to be paranoid about. He has also much to be proud of. Wikileaks may collapse under its own internal contradictions but the idea a whistle blower can anonymously pass their information to a wider public is extremely powerful. Big media could have developed this technology but didn’t. Yet the open slather of Cablegate ultimately ruined Wikileaks’s ability to pass on more mundane but equally vital information about banks and private companies. Assange’s former offsider Domscheit-Berg is developing Openleaks in the same mould, but more cautiously.

In his book Inside Wikileaks, Domscheit-Berg says Assange tried to do too much, too soon. “The sources uploaded the documents, members erased the metadata, verified the submissions and provided context,” Domscheit-Berg said. “At some point it became impossible to do all these jobs adequately.” That has never stopped Assange from trying. He is now immersed in a court case which will eat up considerable energies but he will continue to be a freakish force of nature. The Walkley Trustees said Wikileaks was not without flaws. But by constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, they said, "WikiLeaks and editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world.”
Hail to the editor-in-chief.

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