Picture the scene: The 2020 presidential election is six months away, and a reporter is sent a cache of emails from inside one of the campaigns. The source of the cache has dubious motivations, but there's no doubt the emails are genuine. What should the reporter do?
The answer, for reporters and editors at least, is obvious. You comb through the emails for the newsworthy stuff, then you publish. The decision about what is in the public interest is, ultimately, up to the reporter and their editors. Officials, prosecutors, and judges may later decide whether laws were broken, and, importantly, whether that breach was justified. But these are all ultimately subjective decisions. Much like obscenity, what's in the public interest is never quite defined — but we know it when we see it.
These are the kind of decisions that Julian Assange, and the hundreds of media organizations across the world that have published his leaks, made dozens of times over the last decade. As he faces extradition to the United States over one of those leaks — one that resulted in extensive coverage from almost every major newspaper in the world — we need to be very clear about what’s at stake.
The charges announced by the Department of Justice yesterday send a chilling message to journalists and whistleblowers, because what Assange did to receive secret military and diplomatic documents — the crime of which he is now accused — was what thousands of journalists do every day. He was contacted by a source with potentially useful information; he cultivated and encouraged that source to give him as much raw detail as possible; and then, in partnership with publications of note from across the globe, he published the best bits.
This, and nothing else, is what Assange could face prosecution for. If any journalist, or any consumer of journalism, cannot see a problem with that, then the media may be in an even worse state then we fear.
Leaks are the absolute lifeblood of journalism. Australian journalist Murray Sayle is credited with the formulation that there are really only two stories in journalism: "We name the guilty man" and "Arrow points to defective part."
In recent years, I have established a formulation of my own: The three greatest words in journalism are "disgruntled former employee." I have had the privilege of judging investigative magazine Private Eye’s annual investigative journalism award, and from that I have seen time and again how leakers may be self-sacrificing, public-spirited, and essentially decent people. They may also just be people who bear grudges, or people trying to undermine a politician. Journalists shouldn’t be in the business of distinguishing between these motivations, if the news is good enough to print.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks emerged at a point when journalism, and society as a whole, was still optimistic about the internet. Transparency will set us free, we used to say back then.
In 2008 I was working for Index on Censorship, and we awarded WikiLeaks a New Media Award, sponsored by the Economist. WikiLeaks had published papers belonging to a Swiss bank, Julius Baer, which it said strongly suggested a money laundering operation. This was one of the earliest of the mass data exposés that have characterized investigative journalism in the past decade, and it was exciting.
Even then, working with WikiLeaks was enormously frustrating. In the weeks leading up to the award ceremony, Assange went silent on us. We had arranged for the journalist Martin Bright, who recently had his own travails with the state and whistleblowers over Iraq war intelligence, to pick up the award on Assange’s behalf. About 15 minutes before the ceremony was due to start, a member of the venue staff told me there was a man asking for me at the caterers’ entrance. It was Julian Assange — then, as now, addicted to drama. He was apparently paranoid enough to avoid the main entrance, but not quite paranoid enough to avoid accepting an award in front of most of the British media and legal elite, who had paid good money to bask in the presence of worthy dissidents.
The pattern would repeat: While WikiLeaks would occasionally do stupid things, such as publishing Sarah Palin’s private family photos — what newspaper has not made a similar mistake? — the good appeared to outweigh the bad. After WikiLeaks exposed the workings of Kaupthing Bank — the institution widely blamed for Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008 and ’09 — Icelandic politicians embraced Assange’s radical vision and created the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. Iceland would become a safe haven for whistleblowers, hackers, and internet freedom activists.
The Iraq War Logs and US diplomatic cables leak probably represented WikiLeaks’ zenith, but also the point where people began to question Assange’s judgment. His enthusiasm for full transparency for those he perceived as powerful elites was only matched by his own demand for full secrecy from those around him. And a hypocrisy was becoming clear: Assange’s definition of "power" and "elite" often stretched only as far as Western governments and their allies. Tyrants such as Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko (and later, Vladimir Putin) did not figure. At an Index on Censorship event in late 2010, Assange embarrassed the free speech–focused organizers by demanding no press photographers be allowed in the room.
We broke with Assange shortly afterward, when WikiLeaks refused to answer questions about unusual dealings in Belarus. Since then, Assange’s political leanings have steadily veered towards terrible, from Putin to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.
All this is history, but it’s a history worth telling, because it’s important to remember that WikiLeaks and Assange were embraced by progressives and the media not just for the "wrong" reasons (reflexive anti-Westernism) but for the "right" reasons too. WikiLeaks provided crucial insights into the key failures of the financial crisis and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and put whistleblowing center stage. Assange, in a curious way, actually tamed the fundamentalist hack-for-the-sake-of-it tendencies of his internet peers, though he never quite shook the idea that there could not be such thing as a good secret (except when it came to himself).
Julian Assange went on the run in Britain, betraying people from John Pilger to Jemima Khan who had posted bail for him as a matter of trust: For that alone he is a traitor to his friends, and a criminal who has been found guilty. He has gone to extreme lengths to avoid facing sexual assault accusations in Sweden: For that, he is a coward and a misogynist who should face up to the consequences of his actions and attitudes toward women.
Some say he had been working with Putin’s Russia, in which case evidence should be brought.
But the charge brought against him by the US is about an act of journalism — an act people may agree or disagree with, but which should not take up the time of a federal jury.
In Britain, as I type this, police are attempting to prosecute a pair of journalists for using material supposedly "stolen" from police in their investigation of a massacre of Catholic football fans watching a game during the 1994 World Cup. They have an important story to tell, and that is likely why the police want to stop them telling it. This habit will be replicated across the world if the US sets the example that it’s OK to shoot the messenger.
If the US prosecutes the WikiLeaks founder on the charge currently laid before him, it’s not just Julian Assange who's in trouble.