Wednesday 2 November 2011

WikiLeaks counters corrosive effects of routine media management

It's really funny. News emerges that Julian Assange's case before Britain's High Court has resulted in a refusal by that body to prevent his extradition to Sweden. There's the prospect of appeal, but little hope that such action will be successful. Meanwhile, I go apeshit on Twitter - in all-caps - trumpeting the undesirability of Assange's extradition to Sweden to face rape charges. And then ... Nothing. Not a peep from anyone. No retweets, no replies, no comments. I get one share on Facebook, and that's it. All my energy wasted, all of it washing up against the crushing apathy of the general population like a moth crushed against the radiator grille of an articulated truck thundering down the highway at 100km per hour. It's depressing.

But why is Assange important? Why should we care, even now after the bulk of the scandals have passed over our heads and disappeared into the aether like a flock of migrating bloody swifts? I feel special, is all I can say in defense of the attitude I adopted on learning of Assange's failure in Britain's High Court. As a freelance journalist I have had my share of experiences with government spin doctors and, let me tell you, the reality in that low-level arena reflects the reality of high-level government secrecy in its most ominous form. Media management is pervasive, even if not always extreme. It may not always warrant headlines, but it's always regrettable. If you work as a journalist - especially if you work as a journalist outside the mainstream press - you soon learn the rules.

The term "facelsss men" is a bit overused in Australia, but in the case of media operatives it's quite deserved. These people will always try to organise things so that their operating unit - say, a government department - appears in the best light. I'll provide a few examples to illustrate how this works, and what it means for published stories - the same type of stories that everyday people rely on to stay informed of major (and minor) events. Here's why I went apeshit.

Example one is a government department that I contact because I'm writing a story. My angle is likely to be critical of the government. At least that's the way it plays out when I talk to the media guy. Anyway, I email a few questions to him and within half a day there's a response in my inbox. The response is written. There's no hope of going back to the media guy to ask for an interview. I'm never going to get it. So I incorporate the comments from the "departmental spokesperson" into the story. I do more work and find I want to go back to the department for further comment. The media guy shoots back an email in which he says, basically: "look mate, I've spent enough time on this request and you've got your answers, so piss off." I piss off, finish the story and submit it to the editor. It gets published.

Example two is even more hilarious. I'm working on a long investigative piece and for the purposes of gathering information, one day, I visit a facility of a government health provider - not a department, just a minor operating unit. The woman I talk with tells me, to my face and without prompting, that there is a conflict of interest between her unit's service provision and the fact that the unit is funded through gambling revenues that are channelled through a government deparment. I contact the media person and send a list of questions - as requested. Six months later I manage to line up the interview. When the woman I initially talked to - who I am now interviewing on the record - starts to venture into proscribed territory, the media person says "we can't talk about that" and the interview soon ends. I do not write this story. It's too hard with my limited resources.

Example three is another government agency, related to the discpline of science. I do an interview with a reseracher, after which I send her the draft story for comment. She marks up the draft with change tracking turned "on" and sends that back to me. I unreservedly incorporate all her changes (even ones within quotes that she had given me, on the record) then she tells me I have to submit the result to the media guy. I send it off dutifully. I'm still working on this story.

I could go on. There are many, many more examples of a like nature in my experience. Such tales of routine control of information destined for the media and for publication are too normal for a journalist to even comment on. In extreme circumstances - say, access to asylum seekers being controlled ruthlessly by the federal Department of Immigration or, another example, access to field operations that are being undertaken by the Department of Defense - the media management takes on a Mephistophelian character. The aim of all this manipulation (it can be just as simple as a request to "see the story before it's published") is to make sure that the government is portrayed in as positive a light as possible. In the worst cases the same tendency aims to cover up malpractice on the part of government operatives. This is where WikiLeaks steps in.

WikiLeaks deserves our support in the same way that good journalists do: they're on the side of the angels. Large, well-funded organisations are constantly managing messages that will appear in the media in order to achieve aims that are driven by internal policies. The scope of control exercised by these organisations over information destined for the media is overwhelming and so routine as to be beyond question. What WikiLeaks does is to question the dynamic that rules relationships between governments and the media. As such, it performs a unique and invaluable service from which all of us ultimately benefit, and it deserves out support. Support Julian Assange. Stop him from being extradited to Virginia to face a US grand jury. You owe it to yourself.

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