What makes a journalist?

Whatever you call him, mainstream media has a lot to learn from Julian Assange

The Scrum is a weekly deep-dive into the murky waters of Australian media, presented by The Politics. 

How did you feel about the sight of white-maned Julian Assange striding across the Canberra airport tarmac with fist held high last week, defiant as ever after more than a decade behind embassy and prison walls?  

You don’t have to like Assange or what he stands for to know that this was a high impact moment.

Assange’s return triggered the same old question about the Wikileaks founder: Is he really a journalist? If the answer is yes, he is deserving of the respect we extend to others in the media business who have suffered for their art. If the answer is no, he is more a criminal than a noble seeker of the truth.

You could get stuck in this question forever and somewhere along the line you would have to confront some ugly truths about what journalism is in Australia in 2024. If we’re going to play this game, we could start with The Australian’s columnist Janet Albrechtsen, who is called a journalist when her stock in trade is to prosecute one side of a culture war. More pointedly, why do we call it journalism when the media scrum fixates on meaningless gotcha questions? Or when a senior journalist is bought off with special access to, say, national security briefings. (These are topics The Scrum will return to again.)

In the great arc of history, Assange has arrived back on our doorsteps at a particularly propitious moment and at a time when its fair to ask if journalism, as it has become, is even relevant anymore.

Here’s a quick snapshot of how the world has turned in the short few days since Assange’s release last week. A crisis has developed around US President Joe Biden whose cognitive decline is such that he would have trouble remembering his dinner order, let alone act as commander-in-chief of the world’s superpower, with the nuclear codes at his fingertips. His halting and stumbling performance in the first presidential debate – still characterised as a blip by those close to him – has massively increased the odds of Donald Trump’s return to the Oval Office. And courtesy of the US Supreme Court there will be no checks to speak of on Trump’s criminality as he moves to systematically dismantle the pillars of democracy to create an effective dictatorship.

Where does Australia sit in all this?  As it turns out, we are joined at the hip to this unfolding disaster thanks to the forever partnership of the AUKUS defence pact, hatched and executed in secret by Scott Morrison. (The fact that Joe Biden couldn’t remember Morrison’s name, calling him “that fella Down Under” at the official unveiling of the nation’s historic defence deal in 2021 is looking less and less funny by the day.)

So how did we get here?

From beginning to end, the passage of the AUKUS deal is a striking example of the collapse of Australia’s mainstream media. Many questions have been raised, but few answered about how one of the most consequential and costly decisions in Australia’s history came to be made.

What of the evident conflict of interest in former PM Morrison moving into AUKUS-related business having initiated the near $400 billion deal in the first place?

What of the role of Morison’s close friend, Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State? Pompeo is credited in this Hudson Institute panel discussion as being one of the key individuals in the “conceptualisation, negotiation and final formation” of AUKUS, alongside Morrison and Boris Johnson. Morrison and Pompeo are both Pentecostal Christians and kept in regular contact with each other during Morrison’s time as prime minister, though virtually none of this contact appears to have been officially recorded. According to The Scrum’s inquiries, the former prime minister’s mobile phone records are not public information.

These questions might rightly attract the attention of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, given that its remit includes government processes.

The Australian media has remained resolutely incurious about this howitzer of a deal.  One symptom of the media’s sickness is that some senior media figures have seen fit to praise the Morrison government for its ability to keep the deal secret.  The SMH has wondered plaintively what might happen to “our nuclear submarines” in the event of a Trump return to office, in a rush of nationalist fervour.

The media has failed to act in the public interest on AUKUS.

So if it takes a bomb-thrower from outside the system to get hold of terabytes of secret files and to publish them for the world to see, then please … bring it on. It will do us all a favour.

If that bomb-thrower was one Julian Assange then it would constitute a sweet victory indeed. There is no record of PM Morrison lifting a finger to gain Assange’s release. And during his time as Trump’s CIA director in 2017, Mike Pompeo was hellbent on maximum revenge on Assange, to the point of reportedly canvassing kidnap and killing options.

So right now who cares if Assange is a “journalist” or not? 

When it comes to national security questions in particular Australia needs someone to serve the public interest, because it sure isn’t being done by the journalists who occupy media offices. 

David Hardaker is a dual Walkley award winner who has worked at flagship programs on the ABC and Channel Nine in addition to years as a newspaper and online journalist.  Please pass on your inside tips to David via dhardaker@protonmail.com. 

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