Julian Assange displays the front page of then-media partner The Guardian to an audience at The Frontline Club
In 2010, WikiLeaks was a journalistic dream; releaser of torrents of classified information – much of it newsworthy – with an intriguing backstory and publicly polarising philosophy. When it called for partners in the media to publicise its material, then, it was lapped up by publications all across the globe, most notably Britain’s The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, America’s New York Times and Spain’s El Pais.
Every party involved had something invaluable to gain from the ensuing partnerships: WikiLeaks found a platform through which to inform the world of its material (which had previously been ignored by a majority of publications and peoples alike), and its various media partners found their sales figures rising significantly. The Guardian in particular had been enduring a “30 year slump” in sales before its partnership with WikiLeaks, but was seen to recover shortly after the organisation’s leaking of the Afghan War Logs (albeit temporarily).
So a journalistic honeymoon ensued. Publication and organisation proudly endorsed each other, both satisfied that they were gleaning all that they wanted from the relationship. Just as The Guardian splashed news of WikiLeaks over its front page, Julian Assange could often be seen with a copy of the newspaper tucked approvingly under his arm, or in his hands as he explained the importance of WikiLeaks’ releases. Superficially, all was well within this working relationship – and for eight long months this remained the case.
Then, suddenly, the scales began to tip.
The Guardian, now sufficiently strongly associated with WikiLeaks to gain access to deeply sensitive, private information relating thereto, began to regard its privileged position as an opportunity for monetary gain, even more so than it had before. A couple of its more – shall we say – ambitious journalists began working on a book, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, which, when published, would result in Julian Assange himself threatening to sue the newspaper for libel, and WikiLeaks’ and the Guardian’s relationship terminating spectacularly.
The book is riddled with accusations; some against Assange personally, many more against his organisation’s handling of the information it assimilates and leaks. Some of these were taken so seriously by WikiLeaks that they’ve had to be publicly denied – most notably the claim that Assange can be quoted as saying: “If [informants] get killed they’ve got it coming to them”, an accusation Mr. Assange strongly denies. Recently, the “58-character password” so proudly displayed at the beginning of the book’s 11th chapter was found to be the key to a Bit Torrent download of hundreds of thousands of unredacted diplomatic cables, prompting accusations of negligence aimed primarily at Guardian journalist David Leigh. All in all, the book has led to criticism and ostracism of those who wrote and endorsed it – plus, ironically, despite all the newspaper’s efforts sales for the Guardian are currently at an all time low.
And yet, unsuccessful as it has been, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy has become the first in a seemingly endless stream of attempts by writers from all around the world to cash in on the WikiLeaks story. One by one, every Tom, Dick and Harry with Microsoft Word and some kind of connection (tenuous as it may be) with WikiLeaks and / or its founder has wriggled out of the woodwork to share his story with the world, whether or not the world wishes to hear it. To my knowledge, all but one of these books (the exception being Der Speigel’s Staatfeind WikiLeaks) have been criticised tremendously by their non-fictional characters, and yet still the onslaught of nigh-on-identical WikiLeaks-related accounts continues.
Perhaps most offensively, very few of their writers endeavour to show WikiLeaks in a positive light; Daniel Domscheit-berg’s Inside WikiLeaks and Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will be Digitalised both chart their authors’ gradual disenchantment with the very organisation they have chosen to monetarily exploit. Heather Brooke, an investigative journalist once involved with the exposure of British MPs’ business expenses, sold her story to The Daily Mail, an exceptionally lowbrow and right-wing British newspaper, under the tabloid headline “WikiFreak”. Her “story” itself, based around a few encounters she had with Julian Assange, sets out to portray him as a “predatory, narcissistic fantasist” – but Ms. Brooke’s decision to force her irrelevant and unoriginal account down the country’s most right-wing of throats, attacking a man she clearly was once quite close to for the sake of monetary gain, brings to mind imagery of the pot calling the kettle black.
The Daily Mail, which lapped up the story like a buffalo at a watering hole, joins the ranks of many – if not most – other mainstream newspapers, all of which frequently and intentionally endeavour to show WikiLeaks in a negative light. When WikiLeaks decided to release its full 251,000 unredacted cables after the passkey was leaked by The Guardian, the newspaper and WikiLeaks’ other media partners (The New York Times; Der Spiegel; El Pais; Le Monde) released a joint statement condemning the decision – whimpering how they feared for the ramifications, etc – even though one of their number, and its negligence, was clearly a main contributing factor towards the release. And, of course, there is the Evening Standard’s bold declaration that “WikiLeaks is Now the Foe of Free Speech”, the article that follows it conveniently failing to mention The Guardian’s publishing mishap and therefore unfairly depicting WikiLeaks in a far worse light than is appropriate. That headline is quite eye-catching, though, to an unthinking, impulsive public…
It is true that WikiLeaks has received phenomenal publicity thanks to the press – that the extensive coverage by the media of the organisation’s findings has been invaluable during the last year, helping WikiLeaks to attain a following larger than would otherwise have been achievable.
However, the motives behind this coverage, so loyal it would pass as a glue substitute, are painfully obvious. If not through the coverage itself, but through the stream of selfish attempts to cash in on the story by journalists and writers all across the globe, it becomes obvious that the old (unrealistic?) values of the press (write because the story needs to be told, not because we can make money off it) have faded. That the press thinks it necessary to establish a “quid pro quo” relationship with Wikileaks (i.e: we’ll publish your work – which we should be publishing anyway – in exchange for the ability to monetarily exploit you using negative cohesion) is deplorable, and speaks volumes of the attitude of international media over the last couple of decades. Of a deep-rooted, almost visceral desire to make money that seems to pervade in the mainstream press.
As images of the News of the World’s latterly posthumous phone hacking scandal flash before our eyes, they pair off quite neatly with the press’ insensitive and unsympathetic handling of the WikiLeaks saga, cementing the concept of a breed of journalism which puts its own needs before those of its sources. A breed of journalism which is thriving in our materialistic, greed-dominated world – a world WikiLeaks itself is attempting to expose.
The journalists of The Guardian abused their relationship with WikiLeaks for the sake of monetary gain. The News of the World, it seems, acted similarly, and yet the story of Rebekah Brooks and Sara Payne is viewed with repulsion by the world’s press. The same self-righteous press that has unwaveringly followed the Guardian’s lead in ostracism and derision of WikiLeaks.