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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Australians in Washington

Well I'm here, but that's neither here nor there. So is Pat Farmer the ultra-marathon runner and former federal parliamentarian who has received a little coverage as he charges around Washington, acclimatising for his run from pole to pole.

But the big Australian name in town is Julian Assange who featured on CBS Sixty Minutes on Sunday, and the same day was the subject of a long article by Bill Keller, the paper's Executive Editor, in The New York Times Magazine. They provided sharp contrasts.

In his Sixty Minutes interview Assange presented a somewhat different image than hitherto delineating WikiLeaks as simply a publisher who relies on others for materials. Publishers are free to publish, or disseminate to others, but sources-for example anyone in the military- may have obligations of secrecy. Assange batted back questions with aplomb, as noted by Dan Gillmor in Salon. Generally the program and Assange played to mixed reviews (that link includes the video).

There was no repeat of words used in this interview two weeks ago
"WikiLeaks has 'terrorized' politicians from Kenya to Kansas over the last four years. Quite a few have lost office as a result," Assange said. "That doesn’t mean we are 'terrorists'—it means we doing our job. We intend to 'terrorize' Peter King (the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security committee calling for a ban on WikiLeaks from doing business in the U.S) Hillary Clinton, corrupt CEOs and all the rest for many years to come, because that is what the people of the world demand."
Along these lines, the Keller article, about  the NYT"s dealing with Assange reminded that he  has previously been happy to be portrayed as something much more, a man with an agenda. Keller describes how it was often difficult to work with Assange, calling him "arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous" as well as "elusive, manipulative and volatile."

Gillmor says Assange came across on Sixty Minutes as "much less threatening to the United States audience that has been so thoroughly propagandized by the government and other major media" and that he reinforced the value of journalism in general, and investigative journalism in particular.

In my conversations here no-one seems to think that Assange can or will be charged with anything in the US as there appears to be nothing that links him personally to obtaining materials from  the alleged leaker. And everyone here has the benefit of First Amendment rights. In that respect, nothing turns on whether he is or isn't a journalist, although as Newsweek reported recently US journalists are divided about whether he is one of them.

Anyone within reach of US authorities who holds copies of the purloined data can expect the sleuths to be hot on the trail.

There will also be plenty of pondering about what can or should be done regarding the phenomenon of "stateless publishers."

And the whole episode has extinguished hopes for now at least of Federal legislation on whistleblower protection and a shield law for journalists sources which were getting a good run late last year.

As to how this plays on the home front, I see the PM had another go, suggesting irresponsibility this time instead of illegality:
Ms Gillard sought to distinguish between the "moral force" of a whistleblower and the action of WikiLeaks in making public hundreds of thousands of classified US documents. Whistleblowing put Watergate into the public eye, she said. "That is conduct I can understand. WikiLeaks is something else. "It's not about making a moral case, it's really about all of this information and just putting it up there and whatever happens happens. "It's an irresponsible thing to do.
I've heard positive comment here about how in this batch at least WikiLeaks has acted reasonably and responsibly in working with its mainstream media partners although he has now fallen out with The Guardian, and Keller's article won't help relations with the NYT.

Most agree that the indiscriminate nature of the leaks suggests the leaker isn't a principled whistleblower. Good to see the PM understands the moral force of whistleblowing.

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