Assange in Australia

What his homeland press is saying

As WikiLeaks founder and frontman Julian Assange waits in custody, the press in his home country is going into WikiLeaks overdrive. A look at the Australian media shows that WikiLeaks latest dump is playing out quite differently Down Under, where cables are just now starting to implicate leaders and where prominent voices are calling for the government to defend the country’s most (currently) infamous and imperiled citizen.

The week’s first big news came yesterday with the release of the first WikiCable focused on Australia, which reported on a lunch last March between then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was first published on The Guardian’s website, and all major outlets in Australia are running stories. The lede? Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking friend of China, told Clinton the world might need to “deploy force” against Australia’s northern ally and trade partner should it fail to integrate into the international community.

Secondly, a stirring debate has erupted about the government’s treatment of Assange, with many in the nation’s community of lawyers, activists, and academics calling for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to tone down her condemnatory rhetoric and speak out against the likes of Sarah Palin labeling the Australian citizen a terrorist and calling for his execution.

Thirdly, Assange himself has stepped into the fray, writing an op-ed published in the Murdoch-owned national daily, The Australian, in which he describes Gillard’s pandering to the U.S. as “disgraceful” and compares WikiLeaks’s revelations to Keith Murdoch’s (Rupert’s dad) exposé of British commanders needlessly sacrificing Australian troops at Gallipoli, Turkey, during WWI. The incident is the stuff of national legend and cause for an annual national holiday in Australia.

The Canberra Cables

The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that it “has secured access to hundreds of WikiLeaks documents that reveal US embassy assessments of Australia on a range of important issues. We begin publishing today.” It is murky on how it obtained the documents. This comes days after the first Australia-focused cable was released on The Guardian’s website and embarrassed former PM and current Foreign Minister Rudd, revealing he had warned of a potential need to “deploy force” against China “if anything goes wrong,” and described Beijing as “paranoid” about Taiwan and Tibet. Clinton had opened the conversation asking, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” Rudd responded by saying he was a “brutal realist on China.” Australia’s most prominent WikiCable cameo prior to this had been in a report about Zimbabwean president Mugabe: “Rock-solid partners like Australia don’t pack enough punch to step out front and the United Nations is a non-player.”

As more documents have become available, it’s more embarrassment for Rudd. And the style of the reporting on the new documents is remarkably similar to some of the more gossipy reports pulled from the cables in the U.S. and Europe over the last nine days. Take this lede from the Herald:

THE US regards the Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, as an abrasive, impulsive ”control freak” who presided over a series of foreign policy blunders during his time as prime minister, according to a series of secret diplomatic cables.

And there was this reference to an incident in which Rudd was suspected to have leaked what was essentially a Bush joke back in 2008, a leak which embarrassed the U.S.—to the extent that they care—and which the Australian press ate up at the time.

Mr McCallum also criticised Mr Rudd’s behaviour following a newspaper report detailing a private conversation with the president. The article made Mr Bush appear foolish, reporting Mr Rudd was ”stunned to hear Bush say, ‘What’s the G20?’,” in reference to a planned meeting of world leaders.

”Rudd’s refusal to deny that his office was the source of the leak has confirmed to most Canberra observers that he showed exceptionally poor judgment in trying to aggrandize himself at the expense of Australia’s most important relationship,” Mr McCallum said.

Oh, no he didn’t! Etc.

The focus so far in the Herald’s reporting, and in much of the Australian press, has been on Rudd and others’ comments on China, the nation’s life support during the recession—its lust for Australian resources has kept the economy in decent shape—but also the closest thing the island continent has to a threat. Reports have homed in on comments that could prove problematic for Rudd in his dealings with China—even if Rudd wasn’t the one making the comments.

AUSTRALIA’s ambassador to the US and former opposition leader, Kim Beazley, assured American officials that Australia would always side with the US in the event of a war with China, a confidential diplomatic cable reveals.

A Citizen Named Assange

So far, as with much of the reporting in the U.S. and Europe, the first “Canberra Cables” have not been earth-shattering. Rather, they have been revealing of how diplomacy is done and the frank language in which that happens.

What’s most interesting about the Australian media’s reaction to WikiLeaks is the difference a citizen makes. Assange is one of their own. Thus when those on the U.S. right call for his neutralization, Australians ask just what a government has to do to protect one of its citizens from such calls. And many have expressed displeasure at the government’s failure to condemn them. They have also questioned the government’s calling Assange’s actions illegal, threatening to cancel his passport, and generally toeing the U.S. line. (Assange is contemplating a defamation action against Gillard for having accused him of “illegal” conduct, a statement she has since walked back.)

Take this from author and blogger John Birmingham. (*“Vegemiters” is a colloquialism for Australians).

But in the end Assange remains an Australian citizen and he is due the protection we offer to all our citizens when they are threatened by rogue actors, even states, because their actions have upset somebody in power somewhere. It doesn’t mean he gets a free pass on the allegations against him in Sweden, but it should mean that at the very least those moronic politicians and media celebretards in the US who’ve been calling for his murder should be getting a visit from one of our consular officials, preferably an ex-SAS or Commando Regiment old boy, to have a quiet word in their shell—like about how seriously we take incitement to murder our fellow little Vegemiters.

Even Malcolm Turnbull, a former lawyer, opposition leader, and current shadow minister for the conservative Liberal Party, has come out on the point of Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen. In a blog post mostly critical of Assange (and designed to score political points against Gillard), Turnbull writes:

I cannot see how he could be said to have breached any Australian law and I understand that it is not alleged he has broken any American law.

Mr Assange is free to return to Australia and if he is charged with a crime overseas then he would be entitled to consular assistance.

So his claims of being “abandoned” by Australia seem rather melodramatic. On the other hand the Prime Minister’s clumsy accusations of criminal activity on the part of Mr Assange just reinforce the impression that in this, as in so many other areas, she is way out of her depth.

The debate came to a bit of a head yesterday when the Australian Broadcasting Network—the nation’s publicly-funded broadcaster—published an open letter to Prime Minister Gillard on its website signed by more than 200 notable citizens, including famed academic Noam Chomsky and author Helen Garner. Citing the violent rhetoric of U.S. commentators like Jonah Goldberg and Bill Kristol, who have called for Assange’s assassination, and others who have compared him and his organization to terrorists, the letter reads:

As is well known, Mr Assange is an Australian citizen.

We therefore call upon you to condemn, on behalf of the Australian Government, calls for physical harm to be inflicted upon Mr Assange, and to state publicly that you will ensure Mr Assange receives the rights and protections to which he is entitled, irrespective of whether the unlawful threats against him come from individuals or states.

We urge you to confirm publicly Australia’s commitment to freedom of political communication; to refrain from cancelling Mr Assange’s passport, in the absence of clear proof that such a step is warranted; to provide assistance and advocacy to Mr Assange; and do everything in your power to ensure that any legal proceedings taken against him comply fully with the principles of law and procedural fairness.

A statement by you to this effect should not be controversial - it is a simple commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law.

We believe this case represents something of a watershed, with implications that extend beyond Mr Assange and WikiLeaks. In many parts of the globe, death threats routinely silence those who would publish or disseminate controversial material. If these incitements to violence against Mr Assange, a recipient of Amnesty International’s Media Award, are allowed to stand, a disturbing new precedent will have been established in the English-speaking world.

Assange Chimes In

Assange himself weighed in on the debate yesterday, presumably penning the op-ed that ran in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian just hours or days before turning himself in to British police. He is fiercely critical of Gillard in the piece, seizing on the wave of support among Australian intellectuals. Assange writes:

And Australians should observe with no pride the disgraceful pandering to these sentiments by Julia Gillard and her government. The powers of the Australian government appear to be fully at the disposal of the US as to whether to cancel my Australian passport, or to spy on or harass WikiLeaks supporters. The Australian Attorney-General is doing everything he can to help a US investigation clearly directed at framing Australian citizens and shipping them to the US.

Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations. That is because The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.

We are the underdogs. The Gillard government is trying to shoot the messenger because it doesn’t want the truth revealed, including information about its own diplomatic and political dealings.

Has there been any response from the Australian government to the numerous public threats of violence against me and other WikiLeaks personnel? One might have thought an Australian prime minister would be defending her citizens against such things, but there have only been wholly unsubstantiated claims of illegality. The Prime Minister and especially the Attorney-General are meant to carry out their duties with dignity and above the fray. Rest assured, these two mean to save their own skins. They will not.

Note that Assange clearly posits himself as a member of the media, a claim that has been the subject of much debate since WikiLeaks first began leaking. Earlier in the op-ed, Assange elaborates on his idea of WikiLeaks as a vital part of a vital media—claims he was making less surely just months ago, but which now might prove advantageous in attracting support.

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?

Democratic societies need a strong media and WikiLeaks is part of that media. The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption.

He signs off as WikiLeaks’s editor-in-chief.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.