Julian Paul Assange (1971– ), born in Townsville, began hacking in 1987 as ‘Mendax’ (Latin for ‘untruthful’), leading to a conviction in Victoria in 1995; he was released on a bond. Assange registered WikiLeaks.org on 4 October 2006 as ‘an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking’. It operated with 10 full-time staff, 1200 volunteers and an annual budget below €1 million.
An early post exposed corruption and murder in Kenya, earning it the Amnesty International Reporting Award. Mainstream outlets paid more attention from November 2007 to the Guantanamo manuals on how to lie to the Red Cross, and even more in April 2008 to the ‘Collateral Murder’ video of US helicopter attacks on civilians.
The 28 November 2010 release of information from 260,000 US State Department ‘Confidential’ cables made WikiLeaks as recognisable as Google; it also saw credit card corporates block donations, the Pentagon set up a war room and the Department of Justice initiate a secret grand jury. Australian Federal Police concluded that Assange had committed ‘no crime’ after Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s allegation on radio that he had broken the law. The US military sentenced WikiLeaks source Chelsea (Bradley) Manning to 35 years on 30 July 2013. While US voices called for Assange’s assassination as the ‘most dangerous man in the world’, he was readers’ choice for Time’s Person of the Year (2010).
WikiLeaks unsettled the profession of journalism as much as did the new media. Was Assange an editor, investigative journalist, a leaker or a ‘newsman’? This uncertainty surfaced in 2011 when WikiLeaks won the Walkley Award for Journalistic Leadership.
On 30 May 2012, Assange’s lawyers lost their fight against his extradition to Sweden on sexual molestation allegations, but he was granted diplomatic asylum in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy on 18 August 2012. His life turned into a television soap, with more media investigation into his private affairs than into the crimes documented by WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is the prime source of information about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty, with its implications for Australian content.
Hence WikiLeaks is as significant for what it indicates about the new and the old media as it is for the crimes and lies it reveals. ‘The internet’, Assange writes, ‘by itself does not give you freedom. The internet is simply a way to make publishing cheap’. He expected his leaks to ‘bubble up’ as if from a blog, but soon learnt that ‘publishing in the computer age therefore becomes about performing the task that the systems allow and facing down the ingrained, self-protecting habits of the old publishing way’. Seeking ‘the widest possible circulation’, WikiLeaks in 2010 dealt with five liberal press outlets, primarily the London Guardian, and in Australia through Fairfax Media.
WikiLeaks is emblematic of a ‘Sunshine Journalism’ that shines light on crimes. Attracting support across the political spectrum from those opposed to limits on the web, it broke into a social order shaken by the Global Financial Crisis to hit prominence in step with the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. A WikiLeaks Party, registered in July 2013, fielded impressive Senate candidates in three states before imploding over the allocation of preferences to right-wingers, leaving Assange with 1.24 per cent of the Victorian vote.
Although attention has shifted to Edward Snowden and his National Security Agency downloads, Assange is Rupert Murdoch’s only Australian-born rival for influence over the global mediascape.
REFs: S. Dreyfus and J. Assange, Underground (2011); A. Fowler, The Most Dangerous Man in the World (2011).