Julian Assange: Journalist or criminal?

There are a lot of myths surrounding Julian Assange, such as that he is some kind of fearless warrior for open societies. His cosiness with authoritarian regimes from Ecuador to Russia, not to say with anti-Semites, puts paid to that fantasy. As does his cavalier disregard for the “collateral damage” of his actions.

But the biggest myth about Assange is that he is a “journalist”. He is not. Neither by qualification nor by conduct. quote.

The decision to charge Julian Assange with violating the US Espionage Act will spark heated debate about media freedom and protections for journalists and publishers for disclosing classified information. But it shouldn’t.

This debate revolves around a single critical assumption — that Assange is a journalist who therefore deserves the same protections afforded to journalists who receive and report secret information from sources.

This is the line being argued by Assange’s lawyers and also by his supporters who were so excited by the revelations of the 250,000 confidential cables in his famous 2011 Wikileaks dump that they forgive his methods and his motivation.

But the far stronger case is that Assange is a dark force for democracy and a free press. end quote.

This isn’t to say that being a journalist is defined by having a university degree or – if you’re slightly more old-school – having served a cadetship. Some of the great journalists, from Dickens to Orwell, learned their trade by doing. “Journalism can be produced by anyone,” as the American Press Institute says. But not everyone is a journalist. quote.

At no stage did the Australian ever act like a journalist and at no stage did Wikileaks ever display the grown-up responsibility which any publisher is morally obliged to display in dealing with such a massive number of hugely sensitive documents. end quote.

Assange is not a journalist. But whether he is also a criminal is yet to be established. quote.

According to the US indictment against him, Assange is alleged to have “repeatedly encouraged sources with access to classified information to steal it”.

What’s more, it is alleged that Assange conspired with then Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning to help her crack part of an encoded password that would have let her log onto a classified computer network under a user name that did not belong to her.

Any journalist in Australia who helped someone else break into a classified computer system to encourage the theft of classified national security information would be sacked by their employer and most probably charged by the authorities, as Assange has now been. end quote.

Being a journalist comes with certain privileges: access to the powerful and famous, for instance, as well as (sometimes) legal protections. But it also comes with responsibilities. quote.

Assange’s worst sin was that he was hugely reckless and immoral in the manner in which he released his trove of Wikileaks documents.

Assange did not go through them carefully and weigh — as journalists and editors do — whether they will endanger sources or cause genuine harm to national security.

Instead Assange allowed documents to be released which included the names of sources, of informants and other pieces of information which potentially put lives at risk…Those are not the actions of a journalist, they are the actions of a rogue. end quote.

Supporters might well respond that much of the legacy media aren’t behaving like journalists, either. And they’d be right. Huge swathes of the legacy media have forsaken genuine journalism for partisan activism. They are paying the price in plummeting readers and viewers.

But that whataboutism doesn’t let Assange off the hook. quote.

Assange appears to have a deluded view of his contribution to democracy and to journalism when in truth, he is the enemy of both. Good journalism shines a light in dark places…Assange is not a journalist because he never behaved like one and the media industry should not fear that his fate will be a precedent for all journalists who seek to shine a light in dark places.

theaustralian end quote.