We’re all journalists now

Monday, 20 December 2010 

The words that defeated the US military industrial complex and struck a blow for freedom.

Shaun Carney in The Age thinks the Wikileaks revelations have been an “immense political disaster for the Gillard government”. There’s no doubt that condemning Assange outright was a further example of Gillard’s surprising lack of political touch. It’s yet another attempt to ape Howard by a government for which it never seems to occur that the whole reason that it is a government in the first place is that Howard’s tricks no longer work. When Howard originally refused to back Hicks, he knew that the War on Terror over-rode any niceties of who incarcerated him. Until of course it didn’t, and Hicks became a cause célèbre for those for whom the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians didn’t especially upset, but who could get worked up about the treatment of a hometown loon.

But this is lost on a government still stuck somewhere between 2001 and 2003 and can’t get their heads around what happened in 2007, let alone 2010. If Howard’s backdown on Hicks showed that the whole security issue has lost its political power, the Wikileaks episode certainly shows it. Indeed, we now know that however much the US State Department may bang on about the leaked documents “endangering people’s lives”, it takes security so seriously internally that it allows access of these “life-threatening” documents to a low ranking officer that downloaded them onto a Lady Gaga CD, cleverly fooling the authorities by pretending to sing along, presumably mouthing the words “Can’t read my, can’t read my, no he can’t read my poker face”.

Wikileaks exposes that the War on Terror has become a farce even inside the US government and that Gillard does not have anything to hang a pro-American stance on. But a farce is a farce. Just because there may be no basis to justify the US taking a stance against Assange, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is political movement the other way that would make this a disaster for Gillard either. Carney thinks Wikileaks will have a major political impact because it raises the whole question of what voters have the right to know. But in fact it doesn’t.

Paul Kelly in The Australian at least highlights the main point about Wikileaks, that above all this a blow to the credibility and authority of the US, and by targeting Assange, the US threatens to only expose this even more. But when it starts to get closer to home, Kelly misses the point.

On revelations that Arbib was briefing the US embassy about moves against Rudd nine months before they happened, Kelly says no-one should be surprised. Well, it would be surprising to those who thought instead of it being a culmination of an on-going internal power struggle, Rudd’s dumping was due to his poor popularity or because he upset the party by canvassing support in June. Kelly repeats The Australian’s current spin that the Arbib leak proves Rudd’s decline began when The Australian said it did, with the Oceanic Viking. But now when we hear they were plotting against Rudd even as early as June 2009, when there was not a cloud in the sky of Ming’s polling, even Shanahan has to call that news.

No matter how many times they display it, the Australian political class’s lack of sense of sovereignty, that they would brief a foreign power on even the most intimate manoeuvres of government, is always a constant source of revelation and amazement, at least to this blogger. The weakness of a political class in a mature democracy like Australia is truly a wonder, and so is its obliviousness to it, as evident by those senior Labor figures who rushed to defend Arbib by admitting that they are all at it – as though that somehow makes it better. How do they get away with it?

With Wikileaks we are seeing how. First we have a good dollop of anti-Americanism. Rudd may not be as good as Gillard at politics inside the ALP, but he has a better sense of how to act outside it. Initially under most pressure from Wikileaks, Rudd knew that the best way to manage it was to turn it into a criticism of the US. Journalists like Carney see anti-Americanism as a preserve of latte-sipping inner city types but it is in fact fairly widespread across Labor’s support base and, as seen with the Hicks hoo-hah, even some of the Coalition’s as well.

Latham is supposed to be proof that anti-Americanism doesn’t work. But it is politically convenient to forget that Latham spent most of his time as Australia’s most popular opposition leader (until Ming) when his views on Bush, and the “conga line of suckholes” that followed him, were already well known. Though as usual with Latham, he took it too far. By threatening the alliance at a time when it could become a security issue, he gave the Libs an opening that they could broaden out to other issues of trust in the 2004 campaign.

Latham at least showed that anti-Americanism can get tricky, especially since the Australian political class is so heavily reliant on the US for authority. But it is preferable to leaving the focus entirely on what Australian politicians actually do under their own steam. So Australian governments never have a problem sending troops to areas on their own, be it Timor, Bougainville Island or the sundry forays elsewhere in the Pacific. Even when they do join the US, such as in Iraq, anti-Americanism helps keep the terms of opposition suitably narrow.

Labor can support the idea that WMD exists, and even support the invasion of Iraq, but only provided those other enlightened countries of France, Germany, Russia and China on the UN security Council give their approval to act – because apparently it’s only when it is a US adventure that it’s a problem. So opposition to Iraq ends up coming down to something so narrow as worrying about the treatment of someone whose actions suggest the absence of any redeeming features, other than coming from Adelaide. Furthermore when it comes to Afghanistan, which the other powers did approve, there is barely a peep.

The Australian political class has long been adept at manipulating anti-Americanism to cover its weakness. However, Wikileaks is bringing out something else more recent that is also becoming useful in limiting opposition. We have already seen how the hollowing out of the political process has drawn the media into playing a more intimate role in politics. It was especially brought out under Rudd, when his attempts to circumvent the traditional political class and its media channels, raised the ire of the fourth estate.

It’s this intimate relationship between the media and the political system that, as Antony Lowenstein points out in The Drum, journalists like Kelly are trying to protect when they defend the practice of Australian politicians briefing the media and US diplomats on the imminent fall of an elected Prime Minister before they decide to inform the rest of us. But Lowenstein is looking at this relationship between media and politics in a too one-sided way. He points to an arrangement that was already in retreat. The increasing inability of the political class to control the agenda, and the way the media have become caught up in the mess, has only become more evident after the fall of Rudd.

The importance of the reaction to Wikileaks is the way it shows a new way this partnership between media and politics is developing. It comes out in the issue that everyone likes to stick their chest out on – especially on the internet – censorship.

The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic right and is seen at stake with attempts to suppress Wikileaks. Support has come not just from the media but also from political activists on the basis that irrespective of whether the right claims that the leaks are life threatening or just old news, it doesn’t matter because these supporters of Assange are only interested in upholding the basic democratic right of self expression.

No they’re not. If they were, then they would be up in arms about the current attempt to silence a high profile journalist on no worse grounds than offending a group of his readers. Of course, they’re not, because the journalist is Andrew Bolt and the people offended are indigenous. The Bolt defamation case is a pathetic political initiative at a time when there is so little challenge to the suspension of anti-discrimination laws to deny equal welfare treatment to indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. However, it is clearly causing no problem with anti-censorship activists because the politics behind it are not a problem, while the politics behind the attempt to constrain Assange’s anti-US government agenda clearly is for these activists. Having an underlying political agenda is fine, but let’s just call it for what it is, instead of trying to call it a high principled one of censorship and the right to know, which it is not. If we did, perhaps the reality of the political landscape that this chest-beating over censorship obscures, would become a bit clearer.

The media has a clear interest against censorship of any form as it limits their ability to conduct business. Even the editor of a newspaper not averse to threatening others with legal action can get that point. But that does not automatically mean everyone else does too. Yet with the response to Wikileaks there is a pretence that there are the same interests. But if the censorship angle is taken away, the politics we are left with is half-arsed anti-Americanism. Defending Wikileaks against censorship is fine, but it looks more like a substitute than part of anything that could be seen as an alternative.

We already know this because we have just had a non-debate over Australia’s main involvement in US foreign policy, Afghanistan. The main opposition came from a political group who were falling all over themselves to show respect for the job being done by the troops over there, as though such ‘respect’ has any meaning for troops fighting what is supposed to be a wrong war. This is why calls to support Wikileaks and uphold the public’s need to get access to information is a moot point, because there is little sign of anything that would know what to do with it.

Just as the media are becoming more involved in the political process, so are politicos getting caught up in the media. With Wikileaks, this is not just at the level of government and obsession over media spin, but even what is supposed to be its alternative. So we have radicals confusing blogging on the internet for political action and, not surprisingly, given the chummy community between journos and political bloggers that can be seen every day on Twitter, the concerns of such activists are increasingly those of the media.

Focus on censorship sounds noble but is hollow with no answer to the real question of interest to anyone who doesn’t want to be just a faux media player, but who actually wants to see things progress: what is out there actually worth censoring?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 20 December 2010.

Filed under Media analysis

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11 responses to “We’re all journalists now”

  1. Riccardo on 20th December 2010 8:39 pm

    what is out there actually worth censoring?

    I’ll extend your logic – what is there actually worth being sovereign for?

    Independence comes at a heavy price, and if we turn up to the same wars, defer to the same media barons and worship the same political idols as other nations, we might as well be a colony. Get a better trade and military deal if part of the USA.

    So TPS, when are we going to see a new politics? Are we repeating a Fisher style cycle, are we waiting for a 1912 moment with the Greens? Have they already had their Leninesque criticism of being running dogs, as the ALP was accused around this time? Would a new left party government trigger a right wing reaction?

    Or (as I hope) is democracy, Australian style, past its used by date. Was Rudd heralding a new future run by bureaucrats, but subverted as he was from a position of weakness by the existing political party base?

  2. The Piping Shrike on 20th December 2010 9:31 pm

    Looking back, I think Rudd was part of a technocrat agenda that has now gone. It never really solved the problem of authority but was more made use of the weakness of the old system than putting anything in its place. His problem was that the GFC and US decline undermined his agenda quicker than thought.

    I don’t believe things move in cycles. I do think the nature of politics itself is changing and we are seeing it more merge with media and joining in “the decomposition of the absolute spirit”.

  3. Dr_Tad on 20th December 2010 9:45 pm

    TPS, have you just outed yourself as a jaded Right Hegelian?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 20th December 2010 10:20 pm

    Not jaded.

  5. Terry on 21st December 2010 9:19 am

    Your argument is consistent with recent work by Manuel Castells, John Keane and Brian McNair, on the media/politics merger in network cultures, the rise of “monitory democracy”, and the shift from information control to “cultural chaos”.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 21st December 2010 10:01 am

    Thanks for the references, I’ll have a look.

  7. Sean on 21st December 2010 11:44 am

    Not to mention consistent with Zizek’s appraisal of Berlusconi and Putin as portents of future post-democratic leaders in “First as tragedy, then as farce”.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 21st December 2010 11:52 am

    I think that’s different, though.

    Here we’re not looking at a dysfunctional state, it runs very smoothly, but rather a weakening of an already weak political class. So what it tells us about the nature of politics (rather than the state) is more revealing.

  9. john willo on 22nd December 2010 12:53 pm

    60 billion of coal receipts makes us as vulnerable
    as some of the narco/nations.
    Our pollies had better start addressing this issue instead of pandering to big miners.
    Does any thinking person really take anything the mainstream political commentators say at face value.
    Read the recent Oz editorial on “clean coal” for a refresher
    and realise that if an ambulance or the police come to your
    house they are 50% bought to you by coal and gambling which have a lot in common.
    The recent invoking of “act of god” clauses by queensland
    coal exporters due to climate induced stoppages surely signals the death of satire.

  10. Cavitation on 23rd December 2010 7:59 am

    First, a correction – Arbib didn’t brief the Americans nine months early; the Fairfax reporter mixed up the dates (Americans use month then day order), and it all happened in June not the previous October. See Andrew Crook’s article in Crikey (http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/12/20/wikileaks-tug-of-war-news-ltd-v-fairfax/).

    Nevertheless, all the persecution of Wikileaks is a home goal. All of the cables will eventually become public, as Assange guaranteed by his “nuclear option”. While the complete file is encrypted, there are plenty of resourceful parties who can eventually crack it. So it’s inevitable that all the secrets will come out. So why is there such an effort to delay this happening?

    Well, delay will minimise the collateral damage arising from the naming of compromised people, giving them time to get away. Remember the majority of such people are “good guys”. It would have been better from a public relations view to get it all out there in one hit; the gradual drip of news is the major problem for the US government. The US government knows this, so at some point, not too far off, some third party will make the whole database available, ensuring a busy few weeks of news, followed by it all being eclipsed by new scandals. Chasing Assange has the effect of distracting the public from the material itself, too. The government has to been seen to be doing this to minimise their embarrassment, but it is doubtful they want to martyr Assange, so it probably wont go anywhere.

    But democratic governments are unlikely to suffer any longterm consequences from the leaking of their confidential material. If anything, it shows that governments are smarter than they publicly appear. The long term consequences will probably be to make government more transparent, not a bad thing. But pity American diplomats; their job just got a lot harder.

    And pity all the people who will be adversely affected by the revealing of their actions and opinions; many of these will not be deserving of the consequences they will experience as a result. But instead of the lives being destroyed of nonentities of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, it’s people whose name we will know. In reality, the pain will be the same, though we wont feel so.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 23rd December 2010 8:11 am

    Quite right, I’ll never believe a Fairfax freelance again. Murdoch hacks for me. But wait, this means Arbib was briefing at least as early as June 2009, around the same time as Farrell. So the Murdoch hacks’ theory that it was all because of the Oceanic Viking is wrong as well. Now I don’t know who to believe …

    I think you’re right on the other point, the damage is less what is being released but the way they are released in a way that the US can’t control. Ultimately the longer term damage is determined not by the info that Wikileaks is releasing but the political environment they are being dropped into.

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