09 January 2011

The proud man's contumely

Background: Alan Stokes from The Australian Financial Review wrote a column printed on page 31 of the 8-9 January edition about how Julian Assange doesn't get the media. What follows refers to this article, and forms the content of an email sent to Stokes (thus the second-person voice).

In your piece you assumed two things. First, that Assange's relationship with the media is important and that damaging that relationship is to Assange's detriment. Second, that a damaged relationship with the media means that it will be harder to change government policies. I think you're wrong on both counts, and that by being wrong you're showing the limits of the groupthink that dooms conventional journalism.

It's interesting that you only noticed Wikileaks last November: four months earlier, the site published video from a US attack helicopter in Afghanistan. This was rightly reported by the mainstream media as a breach of security but wrongly they ignored Wikileaks' warnings at the time that there was more to come.

What's genuinely sad is the start of your seventh paragraph:
"Here's a sample of the recent news issues flying around cyberspace but yet to splash down in anything like a major way across the global mainstream media ..."

All of them, and more besides, are substantive issues. If ADHD-afflicted scoophounds can't focus on one for more than 600 words, that's their problem. It doesn't mean the rest of us are similarly afflicted. All of those cables alert us to further developments and provide grounds for further research, by journalists and specialists in the various fields they cover, and this is the real value of these leaks.
"Are you sick of it yet?"

No. Am I hankering for a return to a situation where newshounds churn out trivia and bulldust until they are good and ready to do some investigative journalism? No, definitely not.

It reminds me of the period in 2001 after September 11: yeah, it was the same event in article after article, but what else are you going to write about?
"Most of these stories, if unearthed by solid investigative journalism at any other time by any other outlet than Wikileaks, and released one at a time, would hit the front page.

Truth is, though, we're probably sick to death of Wikileaks ... Assange is partly to blame"

This reflects badly on those who decide what goes onto the front pages of newspapers. It doesn't necessarily reflect badly on those of us who have to read more broadly than the mainstream media because said organisations have so little clue about what really matters. We need to know about this stuff. If you're sick of it, what else are you going to talk about: Julia Gillard's earlobes? Nick Riewoldt's penis?

I disagree that there is marginal utility about major issues. Cricket and ice cream is not like, say, the possibility of destabilisation and armed conflict in Korea, where more Australians have died than in Afghanistan and where further unrest would have a real impact on this country. There's more to these issues than "a global conspiracy", and it's the job of journalists to show us what that is. True, information on the 'net is not always kosher, but Wikileaks has built a presence that is more significant than others.

Wikileaks did its partner organisations a favour when it agreed to supply them with information. Without Wikileaks, all they would have been left with were the sort of trivia that is the bread-and-butter of journalism: splicing together press releases to form a "story" that doesn't offer either background nor assistance with there it might go.

It is patronising to assume that your fellow humans can't laugh one minute and think seriously the next. By that logic, try telling your editor that the Alex cartoon or Peter Ruehl imperils the credibility of everything in the AFR.

You also don't justify your strange leap that a problem for media is a problem for government: a media that is overwhelmed or jaded by Wikileaks is discredited as a news source. Every time the media get hold of a domestic news story in a way that government doesn't like, government can claim that it has been misrepresented by a jaded and overwhelmed media; you for one won't be able to refute such a claim.

There are few issues for the Australian government to deal with from what has so far been Wikileaked. The idea that they can fob off popular objections to those policies because the media has worked itself into a stupor is to misunderstand the role of the media in modern society. Julia Gillard doesn't owe her position to the media; she came to office despite the media. She held it in a campaign where she was constantly teased: "Do you find it hard to get your message out?", and beat a man who can best be described as a media darling. She needn't worry that the Australian media will focus on her government in any substantive way. There is obviously some sort of rift between your image of the media - a prophylactic between a government and its people - and the reality that people ignore the mainstream media and politicians search for ways to connect with people (and vice versa) that don't involved the jaded, overwhelmed media. Someone’s going to have to heal that rift, Alan, and it isn’t my job to prop up your journosphere fantasies.

Wikileaks doesn't need those media outlets any more: their days of enterprises of great pith and moment has passed and will not return despite Mr Assange's arrangement of convenience. Given that investigative journalism is more talked about than done, those outlets sure as hell need Wikileaks. A small fraction of cables have been released from the Manning supply, and if there are more leaks to come then everyone knows you go straight to Wikileaks: never mind journalists, and the politicians can smirk all they like. A politician who only reads the mainstream media has a far darker future than Julian Assange does. A journalist who believes that major policy issues are like food or entertainment doesn't have much of a future in his own 'profession', and can't help us make sense of major issues (thus reinforcing the lack of future).
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

- from Alan Stokes' favourite soliloquy

Update: Here's the text of Alan Stokes' reply to me on Tuesday:
Thanks Andrew.
Appreciate the feedback.
Let me attempt to address some of your thoughts.
- If you'd read my other columns you'd probably know my view is almost 100% counter to conventional and, certainly, afr widsom.
- in this case i am all for assange and very sad about how he's probably going to end up less important than he should be . that's the shaekspearean tragedy, with his personal fault either overkill and/or the interent.

- I noticed wikileaks way before november, the mainstream media didn;t until november and went mad about it then.
- i think it's sad that having a bad relationship with the media will hurt assange, and i stand by my view that it will.
- my point in the seventh par was meant to be that, sadly, it seems issues only matter when they appear in mainstream media.
- assange has contributed to editors not putting him on ther front page, and I believe this is a bad thing. surely the whole idea of my column is to say how tragic it is that he's been hoist with his own petard.
- i maintain that, sadly, there is diminishing marginal utility about major issues because the news cycle demands either bigger or better or newer, not more of the same, thus you have some media outlets reporting triva just to look new. again, assange is a tragic victim of this.
- i believe the internet's and TV's mix of quick news dressed as infotainment makes it hard for people to get a clerar signal when things are IMPORTANT. sadly, they are left thinking anything as overwhelmingly worrying as the wikileaks cables must be some nutcase copnspiracy.
- you misunderstand my government idea . i think the govt is happy at the prospect of wikileaks succumbing to citizen cynicism or apathy, when in fact, as i write, he is one of the most important pro-democracy forces we have.
- i hope you are right that mainstream media doesnt dictate how people react any more - but i fear you are incorrect.
- and as for this par:

A journalist who believes that major policy issues are like food or entertainment doesn't have much of a future in his own 'profession', and can't help us make sense of major issues (thus reinforcing the lack of future).

You can choose to play the man not the issue if you wish, but at least don't misrepresent my views.

i strongly believe, as the column clearly shows, that it is tragic that people have come to treat important issues as they woudl food or entertainment.
the true test of course will be whether assange's contribution forces policy or behavioural change among those who treat their voters with contempt.
i hope we get change and you are right.
may i suggest you have a look at some of my other columns/essays as proof of where im coming from.
alan stokes

And here's my response:

I've read your pieces for some time now. You haven't made the link that journalistic apathy = citizen apathy, in any piece I've read nor in your email. You need to make that link to sustain your idea about the government being pleased about journo apathy, otherwise you haven't made sense. You maintain "it seems issues only matter when they appear in mainstream media", but the opposite is in fact the case unless you're in the politico-media vortex. Constantly the media are surprised by slow-burning issues, issues that journalists don't understand or regard as passé until it's too late.

Stand by your opinion about Assange and the media if you will, but consider what proof you'd accept that your idea hasn't worked, and then assess reality against the proof. Assange doesn't need the media any more, they need him. Now that you've bucked AFR management you may wish to examine the grip of journalistic groupthink on how you see things, a much harder task and one that may lose you friends (and make it easier for AFR management to pick you off). You may have a leather jacket but it doesn't make you a rebel.


  1. ‘Lo Andrew,
    As a Queenslander myself I tend to be supportive of the Townsville lad and have reacted instinctively when he’s been put down on blogs I’ve read.
    The crapola he’s facing from Sweden and the (in)justice he’s met in London match something one might expect from Qld courts too.

    But (a big but) he can’t be contacted either through Robertson’s chambers, his solicitors or via Wikileaks contact email address.
    Bit of a worry that; in that most organizations that deal with people tend to leave some line of communication open.

    I wanted to contact Wikileaks a few weeks ago to discover whether they’d be interested in some Australian stories about the odd spot of malfeasance (sorry, no massacres yet).
    I opened the pages, had a scan, found an email address and cut a draft message.
    The very next day Julian was headlines, the pages had been changed and shortly thereafter so had the right to Habeas Corpus at British Law.

    As a bloke who has set up his own blog in the forlorn hope of raising some social justice matters here in Australia I am not only less than impressed with Julian’s treatment but sometimes have the odd twinge of apprehension about the outcome, not only for Julian but for us all.
    Those feelings are not helped by an increasingly skeptical attitude dawdling along to the forefront of my brain that the whole show could be a colossal sting to net those in the media and public life who remain foolish enough to exercise a social conscience.

    PS – Shall be listing your pages on my blog – okay by you?

  2. I'd be honoured, Calligula.

    I bet Assange is hard to contact. Too well organised to be any sort of sting though.