Wednesday, 14 December 2022 — Media Lens
Julian Assange once observed that, ‘Nearly every war has been the result of media lies.’For daring to publish evidence of US war crimes, Assange now sits in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London, at risk of being extradited to the US within the next few weeks. The prospects for a fair trial range from miniscule to zero.
In a recent interview, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson told US journalist Glenn Greenwald that legal avenues in London to challenge Assange’s unlawful extradition were being exhausted. What is needed now is, not recourse to a legal system that is subservient to power, but a political fight, as Hrafnsson explained:
‘In my perception, and I’ve been sitting in on all the proceedings in London, all the extradition proceedings in London have exposed only one thing, and that’s the fact that this is just not going to be won in a court. There’s no justice to be had in court rooms in London. That’s obvious and I don’t have to mention the United States, that’s one of the essences of the defence in fighting the extradition, that he will never be able to get a fair trial there. So, we’re running out of time. We need to push this on a different level and so I decided that we needed to go on a tour to shore up political support, because the only way to fight a political persecution is through political means.’
The Guardian recently joined with the New York Times, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel in publishing an open letter calling on US President Joe Biden to end Assange’s prosecution. It has been ten years since Assange sought refuge in London’s Ecuadorian embassy. After being dragged from the embassy by police in April 2019, Assange has been locked up in the harsh regime of Belmarsh prison, suffering from failing physical and mental health. Indeed, according to then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, Assange is literally a victim of torture. In 2020, the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, published a letter from Doctors for Assange, with 216 signatories from 33 countries, drawing urgent attention to ‘the ongoing torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange.’
US political writer Thomas Scripps noted that the open letter from the five newspapers:
‘makes clear that Assange has been the victim of a monstrous campaign of state persecution, costing him years of his life and good health, for revealing state criminality, designed to set a chilling example for others.’
But what took them so long to speak out? Scripps observed:
‘The conduct of these newspapers over the past decade has been thoroughly reprehensible. Their efforts to poison public opinion against Assange, to give credence to the false claims and accusations made against him, facilitated the American state’s persecution of this principled and courageous journalist.’
Australian journalist John Pilger, who has done so much to raise public awareness of Assange’s plight, was scathing:
‘The editors of the Guardian, NY Times etc. finally speak up for Julian #Assange — weasel words and 10 years late. Ten years after the Guardian made public WikiLeaks’ secret password and launched a campaign of vilification against a truthteller.’
‘The Guardian, which has played a major role in the persecution of Julian #Assange, is now scurrying for cover with a call for him to be freed. But even its weasel statement repeats malign fiction about his failure to redact files.’
Pilger was referring to the oft-repeated smear that the WikiLeaks co-founder recklessly endangered the lives of informants when publishing information that exposed US war crimes. In fact, Assange was extremely careful in redacting names, and he was effectively thrown to the wolves by both the Guardian and the New York Times.
How do we know this? Award-winning Australian journalist Mark Davis was an eyewitness to the preparation of the Afghan War Logs in 2010 for newspaper publication, documented in Davis’s film, ‘Inside Wikileaks’. Davis spoke at a public meeting in Sydney in 2019 and said that he was present alongside Assange in the Guardian’s ‘bunker’ where a team from the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel worked on the publication of articles based on, as the NYT put it:
‘A six-year archive of classified military documents [that] offers an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.’
Davis attested that, far from being ‘cavalier’ about releasing documents that might endanger lives, it was:
‘Guardian journalists [who] neglected and appeared to care little about redacting the documents.’
Moreover, they had a ‘graveyard humour’ about people being harmed. No one, he stated emphatically, expressed concern about civilian casualties except Assange.
As Oscar Grenfell explained in a piece for the World Socialist Web Site:
‘David Leigh and Nick Davies, senior Guardian journalists, who worked closely with Assange in the publication of the logs, have repeatedly claimed that Assange was indifferent to the consequences of the publication.’
These Guardian claims were pivotal in corporate media smears against Assange. They were also crucial in US government claims that publication ‘aided the enemy’.
However, noted Grenfell:
‘In reality, the US and Australian militaries have been compelled to admit that release of the Afghan war logs did not result in a single individual coming to physical harm.’ [our emphasis]
As Scripps pointed out, the open letter is evidence that the five newspapers, including the Guardian and NYT, were well aware from the start that Assange ‘was functioning as a journalist, innocent of any crime.’
Why speak out now in defence of Assange, ten years too late? The likely concern is that a US show trial would expose the newspapers’ own nefarious role in providing cover for US war crimes, as well as in enabling the persecution of Assange.
There is also another vital element in the timing. As Scripps wrote:
‘This exposure of US war crimes would come at a time when the United States is expanding its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, sold to the public on the grounds that US intervention is necessary to prevent Russian atrocities.’
‘The Public Despises The Corporate Media’
It is vital for state and corporate power that public trust in the news media – a key conduit for carrying and amplifying Western propaganda – does not collapse entirely. In the US, trust in the news has fallen to an historic low. The percentage of Americans who say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in newspapers has fallen to 16%. For television news, it is even lower at 11%.
In response to these findings, Glenn Greenwald was blunt:
‘The public despises the corporate media. There is almost nobody held in lower esteem or who is more distrusted and abhorred than the liberal employees of large media corporations. Nobody wants to hear from them, so in-group arrogance is all they have left’.
Here in the UK, in the past year alone, the public has seen reshuffling and defenestration of Tory Prime Ministers, governments and ministers in a kind of bizarre soap opera. This has been reported as serious political drama by mass media outlets, most especially BBC News, that permit no serious scrutiny of state-corporate power; no substantive challenge to the special interests that rule the country for themselves, while the population suffers and the climate emergency worsens.
As we noted in a media alert earlier this year, the rise of oligarchical politics has seen a great merger of politics and the media that dominates how the UK is run. Yet another example of this phenomenon was highlighted recently by Aaron Bastani of Novara Media:
‘Richard Sharp, BBC chairman, was Rishi Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs, donated £400k to the Conservatives, & was once an adviser to Boris Johnson.
‘My generation & those younger need to be realistic. Big parts of British public life aren’t democratic. And it’s getting worse.’
‘I’ve always found it amusing, bemusing, that so many people in the BBC see themselves as having entered into a Nirvana of objectivity, as if their objectivity and impartiality have been given to them intravenously.’
‘Andrew Marr was very good at waxing on lyrically about this. Andrew Marr, the political editor of the BBC, who made a victory speech virtually on behalf of Tony Blair outside Number 10 Downing Street in 2003. […] Tony Blair, he said, tonight as the troops have gone into Iraq, he has been “proved conclusively right”. Conclusively right! And Andrew Marr was absolutely eloquent in talking about the BBC as a national treasure of objectivity. Of course, Orwell called it “doubletalk”.’
Long-time readers will be aware that we have highlighted Marr’s valedictory words from Downing Street, a shameful performance that ought to have ended his career:
‘I don’t think anybody after this is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he’s somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion, or focus groups, or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.’ (BBC News At Ten, 9 April, 2003)
Pilger also pointed to the ongoing ‘tsunami of propaganda’ about Ukraine which is ‘something I’ve never seen before’, including even the lies told about Iraq in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. When it comes to ‘opposing views or informed views’ on Ukraine, ‘none of them have been allowed in’ by the media, he said.
As for the Guardian and its coverage of foreign affairs:
‘We have some people now who are an absolute disgrace, especially on the reporting of Ukraine [and] Russia.’
The Independent carried a rare dose of sanity last week when it permitted a piece by Mary Dejevsky, formerly the newspaper’s foreign correspondent in Moscow. Dejevksy observed that the informed view that ‘Western provocations’ had played a major role in precipitating the Ukraine war is virtually absent from news coverage. Specific factors that are routinely ignored by the BBC and the other major news media include:
‘post-Cold War triumphalism, the green light for former East bloc states to join Nato despite what Russia understood to have been promises to the contrary, the 2014 ousting of Ukraine’s democratically elected president – which Russia saw as a US-inspired coup – and the ways the West subsequently drew Ukraine into the Western bloc, with the EU association agreement and Nato military assistance, even as it abrogated Cold War arms control treaties one after one, or allowed them to lapse.’
Consideration of such facts matter, she noted, ‘because without understanding why Russia invaded, there can be no understanding of what will be needed for a lasting peace.’
Robin Andersen, who teaches media studies at Fordham University in the US, also pointed to the dangers of not permitting a proper understanding of how we got here; not least because it involves heavily nuclear-armed states:
‘Without context and accuracy, reasoned discourse and the ability to find solutions or engage in diplomacy are beyond our reach as we approach nuclear Armageddon. Corporate newsframes regularly exclude alternative voices of peace and those who call for an end to war, leaving out an entire discourse that has animated global discussions about conflict resolution for decades.’
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and foreign policy analyst, recently told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:
‘I think both sides see that there is no military way out. I’m speaking of NATO and Ukraine on one side and Russia on the other side. This war, like von Clausewitz told us two centuries ago, is politics by other means, or with other means, meaning that there are political issues at stake here, and those are what need to be negotiated.’
‘Much of this war has been about NATO enlargement, from the beginning. And, in fact, since NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia were put on the table by President George W. Bush Jr. and then carried forward by the U.S. neocons basically for the next 14 years, this issue has been central, and it’s been raised as central. But President Biden, at the end of 2021, refused to negotiate over the NATO issue.’
He pointed out that the urgent need for the war not to escalate, perhaps towards nuclear Armageddon, demands that the issue of NATO expansion be negotiated immediately, adding:
‘There are other issues, as well, but the point is, this war needs to end because it’s a disaster for everybody, a threat to the whole world. According to European Union President Ursula von der Leyen last week, 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died, 20,000 civilians. And the war continues. And so, this is an utter disaster, and we have not searched for the political solution.’
To return to Julian Assange, the need for independent media that serve the public and scrutinise power has thus never been greater. The pattern of the media calling for one war after another, as media analyst Alan MacLeod highlighted in a recent tweet, is persistent and abhorrent:
‘Bombing Iraq Isn’t Enough’
‘Bomb North Korea, Before It’s too Late’
‘Bomb Syria, Even If It Is Illegal’
‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’
On and on it goes. This media-promoted war fever, whose primary beneficiary is the Western military-intelligence-industrial complex, must end; for the sake of humanity.
Assange put it succinctly:
‘If we have a good media environment, then we will also have a peaceful environment.’